Sunday, August 19, 2007

A Comfortable Distance

Taking the “I” Out of Intimacy

Yesterday, an acquaintance of mine told me about some serious difficulties she had been having. She clearly been through hell in the past month or so, but we’ve always talked frankly with each other, and I had known something was wrong, so it was no surprise that she finally opened up to me about her problems.

This is someone I like a great deal, although I don’t know if we’re “friends.” I do know that I have asked her in the past to feel free to call me if she felt she was having trouble – and I was sincere in my offer to be a shoulder to cry on, scream into or punch if needed. As she was telling me yesterday what had gone on in her life in recent weeks, I tried to summon whatever compassion is within me, but I know it wasn’t enough. My final gesture as I left her was to pat her on the hand, and she placed her other hand over mine, momentarily. I wondered, as I always do, how long to maintain the contact. I’m sure it wasn’t long enough. I am not good at connecting with people on an intimate level – in fact, I think I flee from intimacy.

I didn’t always want to avoid intimacy, but yesterday’s interlude reminded me of a time four or five years ago when a woman I previously worked with applied for a job at my then-current place of employment. I hadn’t seen her in a year or two, and despite the fact that we had worked very closely together, and that I considered her a friend, and had even gone to the movies with her one night (to see Man on the Moon, the Andy Kaufman story), when I ran into her in the reception area as she was coming in to interview for a job opening I had recommended her for, I felt extremely awkward and managed the encounter so badly that she must have wondered what the hell was wrong with me. She came toward me and hugged me in a manner that said “Of course I’m going to hug you!” The unspoken question that seemed to me to hang in the air was, “Why didn’t you hug me?!?”

I don’t seem to be a hugger. My default gesture of choice in expressing physical affection with my own children is one of those handshakes where you slam the flat of your fists into each other, you know, the “power me up!” handshake. Don’t get me wrong, I always hug my kids if they initiate the hug, but I guess my problem is that I only ever really know when someone wants or expects to be hugged after I have failed to do so in a timely manner.

The worst, for me, is the casual handshake with strangers. My job brings me into contact with people I don’t know on an almost-daily basis, and invariably they want to shake hands. I try to manage this unpleasantness by engaging in conversation from eight or ten feet away, and thereafter trying to maintain a distance of three or four feet in any case, but this is not always possible. As a result, I have been subjected to every type of handshake there is – limp, aggressive, painful, and worst of all, damp. All these varieties of handshake are remedied with one single solution – the moment the shaker is out of sight, I race to the bathroom to wash off their germs. It’s not meant as a personal criticism in any way; I’m sure many of the people I have sped to the washroom to remove all traces of are actually quite clean. I just can’t help myself.

There are times, then, when I want absolutely nothing at all of intimacy – shaking hands with strangers primary among them. Other times, I welcome it, as long as it is on the other person’s terms, such as hugs from my children. The most confusing times are times like when my acquaintance was telling me about her suicide attempt, or when my friend was applying for a job at my place of work – I know intimacy is expected, if not mandatory – but I just don’t know the rules. I feel like a stranger in a strange land in those moments, and the awkwardness, guilt and shame they bring up in me always linger on for some time; in some cases, years.

All this is made much more difficult by virtue of the fact that I seem to be someone that is seen by those around him as someone to be confided in. My office at work is, sometimes multiple times in one day, frequently turned into a venting zone. Some outraged or upset or offended co-worker will step into my narrow workspace, glance into the hall and then shut the door and begin telling me their secrets. How they’ve been wronged by management or a co-worker; how they must find a new job; how they hate everyone in the building but me. Often I wish I was not exempt from that list, because then I would not have to have those conversations – and their implied intimacy – that I do not want to have.

My most difficult issues with intimacy at the moment revolve around my relationship with my wife, someone who certainly would seem to be entitled to as much intimacy as I can muster. The problem is, I really can’t muster much these days. Our work schedules put us at vastly different sleep schedules, and often I see her for 20 minutes or less per day during the week. On weekends she usually wants to sleep to make up for her odd hours during the workweek, and in the hours she is wide awake, I usually either want to read, or am beginning to get ready for bed myself.

A few years ago our schedules were more simpatico than they are now, and we took weekly daytrips to this or that big city within a one- to three-hour drive of our town. We’d enjoy nice meals in restaurants, long strolls through museums, movies, shopping, whatever the day brought to us. Some changes to our jobs, income and schedules, and now, as I say, we’re together maybe a total of ten hours a week total. And frankly, those ten hours are not what one might call quality time by any stretch of the imagination.

I’m sure it’s my fault, as I am regularly reminded that it surely must be. After 15 years together I can understand why she would feel she should be getting more out of our marriage. On some level, I sympathize and even wish she were enjoying the level of intimacy I guess we once shared. But at some point, am I not entitled to any say at all in how our time together plays out? Must I perform some farce of closeness just to keep the peace? Can’t we just enjoy our naps in separate rooms and perhaps meet in the living room for a quick bite at lunchtime? No, clearly, this is not enough…for her.

My inability to feel close to anyone anymore is a problem; although I don’t necessarily wish to be as freely intimate and up-close as my wife might like, I do wish that I could better read and respond to intimacy overtures from people I care about. Because I do care, as hard as that might be to believe. I care, but I don’t seem to be able to manage that caring as well as I used to, not that I was ever any kind of compassion virtuoso. I feel deficient in my relationships with most of the people I care about, but distance seems to me to be safer and more comfortable for me than closeness. I want always to reserve the right to turn away, close down, or immerse myself in my own world, away from the pain, sadness or loneliness of those around me. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it is something I acknowledge, for whatever that is worth. Perhaps, as Bender once said on Futurama, “I hate the people who love me, and they hate me!” Or maybe, as Groucho Marx once observed, I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.