To Fight or Flight on the Intimacy Battlefield

by leona on July 11, 2010

This is a great read unpacking the complexity of relationships…and giving insight into personal and relational change…


To Fight or Flight on the Intimacy Battlefield

by Mark Gorkin, LICSW Updated: Dec 1st 2000 (from

The Stress Doc examines the "Mars-Venus" battles of an intimate couple, including the psychic knots each are bound by and strategies for breaking away and possibly weaving together a vital and harmonious tapestry.

j0227797To Fight or Flight:

Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. The implication of John Gray’s title is that gender is bio-psychosocial, if not celestial, destiny. Still, as a therapist and organizational consultant, a key goal is helping folks acknowledge and express their gender essence while also transcending conventional brain-body-society expectations. For example, is the autonomy predisposition mostly limited to the male while the female manifests a predisposition for affiliation? Recent research does support the notion that when problem-solving under stress men often do their own thing with skills at hand. Women, however, more frequently "tend or befriend," reaching out to give or receive nurturance and, thereby, draw strength with or from others. At the same time, of course, the Rambo archetype is not confined to the male psyche. There are plenty of Rambettes out there, not to mention the sensitive men who’ve unmasked and forsaken the Lone Ranger gig.

Recalling therapy work with a mid-30s, never married female client in the midst of a serious five-month relationship with an early-50s, once divorced male has focused my attention on gender differences, including contrasting defenses and dependency issues. But first let me note some similarities: Both are very bright, high-energy successful career professionals. They share many common interests, plan activities together and enjoy each other’s friends. At the same time, constantly being busy and surrounded by people is a way of diverting themselves from their own murky and vulnerable emotional depths. And naturally they are facing the intimacy paradox: the more time spent together sexually and passionately, the more we truly open up, the harder it is to contain one’s psychic wellsprings. The person’s deep-seated sources of emotional memories, anxieties, hurts, rage, abandonments, control issues, vulnerable sense of self, etc., start emerging from out of the psychic shadows. And as these emotional depth charges surface the two, when together without friends, too frequently move away from each other or disguise their genuine feelings fearing some cataclysmic confrontation. And both their historical depths include some codependency dynamics. (For identification purposes, the couple is Ann and Bob.)

The Main Characters

Ann has had two significant previous romantic relationships; the first was in her 20s, lasting about seven years. This relationship was with a verbally abusive, if not cruel, cold and manipulative partner. The second of the romances, an 18-month scenario, started like a meteor. The couple shared many intellectual and cultural interests. Yet, her mate’s drinking problems and cyclical bouts of depression (for which treatment was refused) foretold the burnout and painful breakup.

Bob, as reported by Ann, was divorced about ten years ago. Since then a series of relationships have mostly revolved around sexuality and living for the moment rather than forging a partnership of genuine emotional sharing and mutual conflict resolution. (Bob, who I have not met, claims this pattern is in response to his unhappy experience with his ex-wife and that he still has not met "the right one.") Even more than Ann, he is reluctant to express deeper, uncomfortable feelings, emotions that often are screened out of his consciousness. Bob has only been in therapy for brief periods to regain emotional equilibrium during times of relationship crisis.

As for Ann, she is committed to exploring her emotional issues in depth and, certainly with some trepidation, is cautiously risking expressing her anxieties and frustrations directly with Bob. Ann acknowledges this is her most realistic and healthy romantic relationship. At the same time, she is rightly concerned about Bob’s tendency to quickly disconnect from uncomfortable emotions, his difficulty verbalizing his emotions and a need to distract through excessive joking around. (Joking off, if you will.) Which leads to the next communicational crown and cross: Bob likely expresses deeper affections and passions mostly through sexual communication as opposed to words. For Ann, a woman whose needs for reassurance and recognition ebb and flow, the lack of verbal affirmation can leave Ann (a highly verbal person) feeling deprived and also wondering if Bob is mostly absorbed in his own self-pleasure.

Also, Ann still fears that Bob is not capable of making a lasting commitment to an ongoing intimate and sexual relationship, despite his current monogamy and obvious involvement with Ann. His desire for occasionally watching pornographic videos with Ann and intermitent fantasizing about attending swinger’s clubs is understandably worrisome. So too is Bob’s patter about casual sex, such as his speculation that if either one had a brief fling on a business trip it would have no real bearing on their feelings for each other. So all of the above has made Ann wary of Bob’s intentions and commitment potential.

Case Studyj0386364

Let’s see how some of the couple’s dynamics play out in a specific battle. Here’s a conflict situation that highlights a classic Mars and Venus interchange that leaves both parties frustrated. Ann is sharing with Bob a difficult recent encounter with a woman friend (whom I’ll call Sue). At a party, Ann was updating a second girl friend about her relationship with Bob. According to Ann, Sue felt like a bystander and in a subsequent phone call Sue expressed her upset at being excluded. While some reconciliation was made, Ann still felt criticized and negatively judged. Ann also related that this was not the first time she felt chastised by Sue.

Ann was able to recognize that Sue has her own emotional albatross. She appears to be trapped by emotional and sexual cravings for an aloof, cold and unreliable guy. Sensitive to abandonment and rejection in light of her self-defeating, codependent partnership, Sue is likely taking out on Ann some of this hurt and anger along with her self-loathing and feelings of humiliation.

In recounting the above with Bob, Ann acknowledges feeling anxious about having to confront Sue about her judgmental attack. Ann, notwithstanding some feelings of guilt and anxiety, is contemplating telling her fairly long-time friend that, "the friendship is not working for me." (Of course, it would be better if Ann would not sever her friendship before having a real heart to heart with Sue. Then Ann could determine if there is or isn’t a basis for continuing the relationship.)

Upon hearing her conflicted feelings, Bob fairly decisively states that Ann should, "let Sue go."

Ann immediately says it’s not such a simple decision; many complex emotions are involved. Bob repeats his declaration believing the issue and requisite action is cut and dried. After another round of disagreement Bob declares, "I’m getting bored with this discussion." Not surprisingly, the two withdraw from each other in a tense, stony silence.

After a couple of hours, Ann returns and begins to channel her hurt and anger into some risk-taking actions. With angry conviction, Ann informs Bob that she was insulted when he labeled her emotional venting as "boring." Initially, Bob limits his acknowledgment, if not an apology, to, "A poor choice of word." As the couple further debates the issues and their interchange, Bob admits that some of his frustration stems from Ann "dismissing his advice." And, of course, completing the Venus-Mars loop, Ann affirms that she was looking less for advice and more for Bob to show some understanding of her emotional conflict with Sue.

And for both parties, one suspects that messages sent are not messages received. Nor do the couple seem to get a fundamental Stress Doc relationship aphorism: Difference and Disagreement =/= Disapproval and Disloyalty.

Should You Have "Time for the Pain?"

Also not surprising, Ann is in my office wondering why she’s investing so much time and energy in a relationship that may not have a foundation for long-term compatibility and commitment. Actually, this is a good question. Is there value in slugging through the big relationship muddy with an Alpha Martian who may be commitment-phobe? (Am I being redundant here?) I believe there iseven beyond the fact that folks like Ann help me meet my fairly outrageous monthly rent payment. ;-) So here are "The Stress Doc’s Seven Strategic Motivations for Working Through Relationship Trials, Tensions and Tears":

1. Short-circuit Impulsive Escape. Ann’s concerns about Bob’s potential for infidelity "down the road" are understandable. Still, her contemplating a preemptive strike, i.e., ending the relationship before Bob enacts his "open relationship" policy is a also defensive ploy. She wants to remove herself from the natural uncertainty and anxiety, conflict and vulnerability of the post-early stage or post-honeymoon phase of romantic relationship building. Protecting her self-esteem, Ann will withdraw before being abandoned and will reject before being humiliated. Even if Ann’s motives are more self-preservation than retaliation, to bail out now will deprive her of a unique psychological wellness health room for developing emotional and communicational muscle.

2. Recognize the Dark Side of Anger. Early on in her therapy work, Ann realized her anger pattern in significant non-work relationships: to swallow her charged emotions and/or physically retreat and stew. On occasion, before withdrawal, she might shoot off a verbal stinger loaded with condescending tone. The challenge is to acknowledge her frustration and to risk expressing her desire for more emotional sharing and less sexual fantasy despite the concomitant fear that to do so will "push Bob away" and lead to their breakup.

Of course, there are two main issues: First, is Bob that fragile in the intimacy realm that Ann’s anger or need for more mutual emotional disclosure will invariably lead to his bailing out? But the more critical issue, in my opinion, involves Ann’s shame or anxiety for being angry in the first place, let alone expressing such feelings. Her self-talk includes such classic condemnations as: a) her anger is irrational, b) she’s making a big deal over some trivial issues or c) she’s being "too needy" and "controlling." Whether it is Bob impugning Ann’s wishes for more genuine sharing or Ann giving up on herself, giving up on saying what’s in her heart and gut, both onslaughts will, over time, weaken her integrity and enhance a sense of helplessness. And her right to be angry is further undermined.

One of the most significant challenges, perhaps the biggest in an intimate relationship, is whether there is time and space and psychological maturity for healthy anger. Couples often confuse hostile and blaming "acc-you-sations" – "You made me," "It’s your fault," "You only think of yourself," and "You always drop the ball" – along with the "silent treatment" with healthy or justified anger. Of course, righteous rationalizations can even excuse verbal rages or physical explosions. Blaming often is a projection of one’s own feelings of inadequacy onto the perceived antagonist. Rage is usually triggered less by amplified righteous anger and more by a sense of humiliation and helplessness, self-percepts the enraged individual doesn’t want to feel. Actually, the volatile "victim" wants to deny that he or she likely has been harboring this unstable psychic volcano for months, if not years or decades. And the best way to shut down these smoldering, latently explosive hurts is to intimidate a partner, to push him or her outside one’s own zone of acceptable interpersonal intimacy. So the rageful individual must attack first, to "self protect." And if successful, eventually, intimidation becomes its own rewarduntil the belligerent behavior is challenged. Or until one can walk away stating, "I no longer will be party to this dysfunctional or abusive drama." And we may need professional help sometimes to take a self-affirming stand.

3. Grieve Previous Abuse. Ann recognized that her past two most significant romantic relationships were fraught with emotional and communicational problems. The seven-year relationship in her 20s was awash in her partner’s hostility that periodically crossed the border into cruelty. He was a classical batterer: he would tear Ann down for being immature, for being so "needy," then manage a brief respite of remorse and conciliation. This brief diversion (even if at times sincere, it’s the pattern that makes the remorse suspect) was quickly followed by tirades when Ann became justifiably suspicious of his extra-relationship pursuits. (Clearly, hot button memories will be flamed by some of Bob’s "open partnership" predilections and fantasies.)

A half-decade was lost before Ann finally and fully realized she was not the primary cause of her first partner’s chronic discontent and aggression.

In her mid-30s, with her second significant "long term" partner, the problem was less Ann feeling so immature and inadequate and more that she got entangled in rescue fantasies, that is, Ann trying to salvage her relationship with Roger motivated, at least partly, by her own loneliness and issues of separation anxiety. The honeymoon period was filled with sharing common cultural pursuits; they had a whirlwind social calendar. But a dysfunctional demon was beginning to raise its headand Ann was still putting her head in the sand — Roger’s drinking problem. Also not allowed full access on Ann’s psychic radar screen was Roger’s apparent clinical depression. And with both medical and psychological pathologies Ann slipped into the classic codependent role: she would enable her mate to overcome his demons, even if he wasn’t ready to truly acknowledge his dual diagnosis. Then Ann’s self-defeating thinking regressed into, "Well if he loved me enough he would get help." Next Ann, herself, attended some Al-Anon meetings (for the partners of the alcoholic). But nothing changed Roger’s self-destructive path. Alas, the more intimate Ann’s desires and communication the more Roger withdrew from his "Intimate FOE: Fear of Exposure."

Now it was less intimidation (though Roger’s pattern of withdrawal after six months was becoming more confusing and hurtful) and more Ann’s own fantasies of recapturing their magical bliss that kept her fighting for and holding on to Roger. And, as often happens, coexisting with obsessive fantasy is a near paralyzing fear of abandonment; an existential emptiness that had Ann clinging to this shell of a relationship.

Also, when there is some family history of depression and, perhaps, some biochemical sensitivity for Ann, as well, then defining healthy boundaries and asserting vital needs in a relationship is still a very scary proposition. Of course, it’s harder to be objective when the current dysfunctional relationship is better than its predecessor.

4. Recognize Historical Repetition. Ann quickly noted how her anxious mother could be excessively critical and impatient with her more laid back father. The couple fought frequently, much to Ann’s chagrin. Ann’s response was to keep out of the line of conflict by staying out of the house as much as possible. Parallels are evident in Ann’s current avoidance response when dealing with emotional conflict and anger.

When examining her parents’ conflict dynamics, Ann gradually discerned that her mother saw her husband as passive and lacking ambition. Ann’s mother was perturbed that he allowed himself to be trapped in a less than fulfilling and financially successful career. (And it’s possible that Ann’s mother was also displacing some of her own frustrations at not pursuing a career onto her husband. Not benefiting from the options opened by The Women’s’ Movement, one suspects her mother had some self-regrets in the career arena.)

Not surprisingly, Ann internalized much of her mother’s intensity and ambition. What needed to be acknowledged, was that Ann labored under and endured dysfunctional relationships analogous to her father’s career stasis. He put up with depressing and demeaning work situations; Ann’s history involves clinging to dysfunctional "intimate" relations.

And the final turn of the stress screw was Ann’s conscious and unconscious attempt not to be an overbearing nagger and complainer like her mother. As discussed earlier, a predictable consequence is Ann stifling the natural and self-affirming expression of healthy anger with a romantic partner. In turn, this leaves Ann with a diminished capacity for: a) recognizing emotionally charged needs, b) asking for her desires while articulating her dislikes and c) managing the acute anxiety around letting go — from unrealistic expectations to dead end situations. Ann’s sense of competence and power is being compromised!

Let me highlight a profound maturational axiom: Not only are we influenced by the quality of communication between ourselves and our parents and the emotional integrity within the parental interchange but, as children, we also internalize the overt and subterranean psychological conflicts, genetic mood dispositions and self-perceptions that, like viruses and antibodies live in the shadows of the psyches of our influential significant others. (Antibodies are the human organisms health/defense system productions for neutralizing bodily toxins, bacteria, etc.) And not surprisingly, the battle between symbolic antibodies and viruses is a psychic war that is waged within the mind-body system of each and every one of us.

5. Assess Current Mate’s Strengths and Vulnerabilities. When a person has not worked out the painful, self-defeating self-talk and behavior patterns internalized from childhood and early adult relationships intimacy is daunting. One major obstacle is viewing objectively the motives and actions of a partner, not to mention assessing one’s own psychological dynamics. For example, to what extent does Bob’s view regarding "open relationships" reflect: a) unconventional values, b) dissatisfaction with the sexual relationship with his ex-wife, c) ego gratification upon discovering that a number of women find him a desirable sexual partner, if not a mate, d) immature fear around making a commitment, that is a narcissistic dread of loss of freedom, e) or the narcissistic fear of forsaking meeting an even more desirable, more perfect, the quintessential Miss Right and even f) a fantasy or sex addiction that can be subtle enough so that its dysfunctional modus operandi – to numb emptiness and feelings of inadequacy or to keep one pumped with adrenaline and testosterone – is readily denied or rationalized away? j0227381

And to the degree that Ann doesn’t understand clearly Bob’s dysfunctions along with her own codependency fears around setting boundaries and her separation anxieties, then Bob’s desire for "openness" is too often perceived and judged through a "badness-goodness" lens. Ann’s not good enough for Bob and is left feeling bad about herself. Or, in an angry moment, he is just a rake and a user of women. For example, when Bob labeled her venting as "boring," Ann initially withdrew in shock and hurt; she felt judged. The retreat revealed one source of her anger: is her role always to keep Bob stimulated, physically or otherwise?

What Ann seemed to minimize was that Bob’s comment about being "bored" likely had to do with his lack of development in the area of "emotional intelligence." It may well reflect a general dis-ease in matters emotional. It’s important not to confuse impatience or attention deficiency for a lack of empathy. The latter seems more pertinent here. Bob has difficulty feeling for Ann, for putting himself in her shoes around her conflicted dilemma with her female friend. In addition, Ann’s not agreeing with his strategic suggestions. This not only is a blow to Bob’s sensitive ego in this arena but, on some level, Ann is indicating a lack of trust in his problem-solving judgment and social sophistication. Clearly, she’s beginning to place autonomy over accommodation.

And this questioning of Bob is progress for Ann. Resisting reflexive self-blame is a slowly growing sign of self-awareness and interpersonal integrity.

6. Wander and Battle in the Intimacy Mindscape. A willingness to grapple with all the emotions stirred by the process of intimacy — past and present, conscious and unconscious — is, first and foremost, a commitment to living on the courageous edge. As childhood vulnerabilities surface in adult love nests and battlefields, hostile fight or humiliated flight is a common outcome. A key therapy goal becomes helping Ann realize that continuing her self-exploration through the intimacy dance with Bob is not a sign of dysfunctional dependency, at least for now; it’s not the same as her past clinging to unhealthy and immature relationships. The challenges and benefits are clear:

a. Self-Emersion and Healthy Discrimination. Discovering that one can momentarily be flooded with emotion without drowning or without having to escape or erupt is a sign of maturational evolution. Ann’s choosing to withdraw from Bob’s "boring" stab was functional because she used the time to clarify her smoldering jumble of feelings. She didn’t just feel sorry for herself and lick her wounds or obsessively plan a retaliatory counterattack (though it may have crossed her mind). She was able to clarify her needs and dislikes and courageously express anger.

b. Transformation of Hurt and Humiliation into Constructive Anger. Ann let Bob know she felt "judged" and "dismissed" by asserting herself: she wanted an ear, not expertise. Ann refrained from blaming "You" messages: "You were hostile," "You have no capacity for empathy," "You have no real feelings for me," etc. Perhaps feeling like a wounded child initially, Ann eventually returned to the intimacy arena taking anxious yet definite steps toward adult intimacy and problem-solving.

c. Development of Integrity and New Identity. The capacity to withstand and transform the heat of the intimacy crucible, to express healthy anger with a partner and to discover that neither you nor the partner dissolve or resort to hostile or volatile retaliationthis is the formula for building real trust in a relationship. Through this process Ann is beginning to develop self-trust. Her anger is appropriate to the provocation and her expression is clear and clean. She is also discovering that the expression of anger doesn’t automatically lead to abandonment or abuse. Ann likely will risk again genuine assertion during times of conflict, though, sometimes she will move forward, sometimes she will back away. Ann is beginning to glean the true meaning of Jonas Salk’s words as it applies to building personal integrity and identity. The pioneer of the polio vaccine declared: "Evolution is about getting up one more time than we fall down; about being courageous one more time than we are fearful; about being trusting just one more time than we are anxious." Ann is definitely on an evolutionary path.

d. Therapy as Safety Net. What happens if Ann keeps growing, being able to express her needs for emotional sharing along with having reasonable expectations regarding Bob’s intimate involvement with her? That is, Ann may need to accept that Bob may never become truly fluent in verbalizing his emotions. Yet, if he can accept some coaching, he has the potential to be "good enough" in this interpersonal arena. Or, Bob may never fully let go of some of his unconventional ideas or wistful fantasies, but he can still commit to intimate fidelity if he’s willing to do the head work, heart work and homework.

Ann will need to establish her bottom line if she believes Bob is resisting growth critical to a healthy and intimate give and take: a) asking Bob to join her in a therapy session or b) asking him to go for individual counseling. If Bob agrees, and really commits to the therapy process, with their individual strengths forging a vital intimate relationship is a realizable goal.

And if Bob refuses counseling or prematurely drops out then Ann has a clear signal regarding the long term potential of the relationship. Ann also knows she gave her all to make it work. And while seeing her partnership dissolve would be acutely painful, as Donna Summer said, "I will survive!" And as the Stress Doc affirmed: "Whether the loss is a key person, a desired position or a powerful illusion each deserves the respect of a mourning. The pit in the stomach, the clenched fists and quivering jaw, the anguished sobs prove catalytic in time. In mystical fashion, like Spring upon Winter, the seeds of dissolution bear fruitful renewal."

7. The Unexpected Value of Conflict. When rational or, even, irrational conflict is engaged with heartfelt anger, not contaminated with sarcastic or passive hostility and rage, then passionate expression becomes the catalyst for self-affirmation. It also provides the communicational building blocks for forging intimate bridges between disconnected or fractious parties. As Ann overcomes her dread, as she lets go of a need to displace her own fears and feelings of inadequacy and/or shame, as she courageously stays with the interpersonal conflict she will discover two pearls of wisdom, one poetic the other acronymic:

For the Phoenix to rise from the ashes
One must know the pain
To transform the fire to burning desire.

And the second pearl is the unexpected payoff from tolerating the tension and friction that builds when partners clash over feelings and facts, short-term goals and enduring values; when the parties can engage in a healthy battle over autonomy or control without chronic win-lose competition. Clearly there’s a fight both for intimacy and for one’s individual sense of identity within the relationship crucible. So consider the oft-unrecognized potential of vital conflict and a good fight:

"S" stands for status quo. With genuine conflict you cannot do business as usual.
"U" is for the underlying feelings that finally come out with a good fight.
"C" means clarification. Constructive conflict compels people to be clear and to take a stand.
"C" stimulates creative synthesis. Opposition may not equal obstruction; it can turn on an expanded and integrated solution.
"E" allows for empathy. You finally understand and feel where your partner in conflict is coming from.
"S" is spontaneity. Healthy conflict propels people to risk a range of emotions, especially anger. And finally,
"S" signifies the strengthened relationship that blossoms in the soil of conflict and through this challenging and potentially growth-producing process.

S-U-C-C-E-S-S. By harnessing the energy in conflict, you’ve discovered the intimate secret for success!

And an acronym for reminding us toPractice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc," is the Internet’s and America Online’s "Online Psychohumorist". An experienced psychotherapist, "The Doc" is a nationally recognized speaker, and training and OD consultant specializing in Stress, Anger Management, Reorganizational Change, Team Building and HUMOR! An expert advisor for and iVillage/allHealth, his writings are syndicated by and appear in a wide variety of online and offline forums and publications, including AOL/Online Psych and Business Know How, Mental Help Net,, WorkforceOnline,,, Financial Services Journal Online, CONVENE (The Journal of the Professional Convention Management Assn.), OpportunityWorld and Counseling Today. Recently, he has been quoted and/or featured in such publications as Cosmopolitan Magazine, Bloomberg Report/News, Forbes Magazine,, Dallas Morning News and The Washington Flyer. The Doc also leads his national "Shrink Rap and Group Chat" for AOL/Digital City and Check out his USA Today Online "Hotsite" Website — . For info on his workshops or for his free newsletter, email or call 202-232-8662. Fall 2000, look for Practice Safe Stress with the Stress Doc, published by

(c) Mark Gorkin 2000 Shrink Rap Productions

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