Landing in Love: How to Fall into Intimacy Without Resistance

1414578_36595743Psychologists tell us we’re born afraid of just two things. The first is loud noises. Do you recall the second? Most people guess “abandonment” or “starvation,” but neonatal dread was simpler than that: It was the fear of falling. Today we all have a much richer array of consternations, but I’ll bet falling is still on your list. Why give up the prudent concern that brought your whole genetic line into the world clutching anything your tiny fists could grab? Fear of falling is your birthright!

Perhaps that’s why most of us, at least some of the time (and some of us most of the time), are frightened by another deeply primal experience: intimacy. Allowing yourself to become emotionally close is the psychological equivalent of skidding off a cliff; hence the expression “falling in love.” This gauzy phrase usually describes a sexual connection. But love has infinite variations that can swallow the floor from under your feet at any moment. You’re securely installed in a relationship, marching through life, keeping your nasal hairs decently trimmed. Then boom! You hear a song and know that the composer has seen into your soul. Or you wake up, bleary with jet lag, in a city you’ve never seen before and feel you’ve come home. Or the wretched little mess of a kitten you just saved from drowning begins to purr in your arms. Suddenly—too late—you realize that your heart has opened like a trapdoor, and you’re tumbling into a deep, sweet abyss, thinking, ‘God, this is wonderful! God, this is terrible!’

The next time this happens, here’s a nice, dry, scientific fact to dig your toes into: The sensation you’re feeling is probably associated with decreased activity in the brain region that senses our bodies’ location in the physical world. When this zone goes quiet, the boundary between “self” and “not self” disappears. It isn’t just that we feel close to the object of our affection; perceiving ourselves as separate isn’t an option. Some being that was Other now matters to us as much as we matter to ourselves. Yet we have no control over either the love or the beloved.

The horror! The horror!

We focus attention on stories about people, from Othello and Huckleberry Finn to the lusty physicians on Grey’s Anatomy, who trip into versions of intimacy (passion, friendship, parental protectiveness) they can neither escape nor manage. These stories teach us why we both fear and long for intimacy, and why our ways of dealing with it are usually misguided. Two of these methods are so common, they’re worth a warning here.

Bad Idea #1: Guard Your Heart

There’s an old folktale about a giant who removes his own heart, locks it in a series of metal boxes, and buries the whole conglomeration. Thereafter, his enemies can stab or shoot him, but never fatally. Of course, he also loses the benefits of having a heart, such as happiness. The giant sits around like Mrs. Lincoln grimly trying to enjoy the play, until he’s so miserable he digs up his heart and stabs it himself.

This grisly parable reminds us that refusing to love is emotional suicide. Yet many of us fight like giants to guard ourselves from intimacy, boxing up our hearts in steel-hard false beliefs. “I’m unlovable” is one such lockbox. “Everyone wants to exploit me” is another. Then there’s “I shouldn’t feel that” and “I have to follow the rules,” etc. Whatever your own heart-coffins may be, notice that they’re ruining your happiness, not preserving it. As poet Mary Oliver puts it,

Listen, are you breathing just a little,
and calling it a life?…
For how long will you continue to listen to those dark shouters,
caution and prudence?
Fall in! Fall in!

If you’ve buried your heart to keep it from hurting, you’re hurting. You’re also in dire danger of using Bad Idea #2.

Bad Idea #2: Control Your Beloved

“If you don’t love me, I’ll kill myself. If you stop loving me, I’ll kill you.” Some people believe such statements are expressions of true intimacy. Actually, they’re weapons of control, which destroy real connection faster than you can say “restraining order.” Though few of us are this radically controlling, we often use myriad forms of manipulation and coercion. We can say, “Sure, whatever makes you happy,” in a tone that turns this innocuous phrase into a vicious blow. To the extent that we try to make anyone do, feel, or think anything—whether our weapon is people-pleasing, sarcasm, or a machete—we trade intimacy for microterrorism. So, if neither control nor avoidance works, what does?

Good Idea #1: Be Willing

In The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams reveals the secret of flying. Just launch yourself toward the ground, and miss.

“All it requires is simply the ability to throw yourself forward with all your weight, and the willingness not to mind that it’s going to hurt…if you fail to miss the ground. Most people fail to miss the ground, and if they are really trying properly, the likelihood is that they will fail to miss it fairly hard.”

This is the best advice I know for coping with fear of intimacy. Avoidance and control can’t keep our hearts from falling, or cushion the landing. Why not try throwing yourself forward, being willing not to mind that it’s going to hurt? Please note: “Being willing not to mind” isn’t the same as genuinely not minding. You’ll mind the risks of intimacy—count on it. Be willing anyway.

How? Simply allow your feelings—all of them—into full consciousness. Articulate your emotions. Write about them in a journal, tell them to a friend, confess them to your priest, therapist, cab driver. Feel the full extent of your love, your thirst, your passion, without holding back or grasping at anything or anyone (especially not the object of your affection). The next suggestion will show you how.

Good Idea #2: Go “Woo-hoo”

Author Melody Beattie took up skydiving and was scared senseless. Another diver told her, “When you get to the door and jump, say ‘Woo-hoo!’ You can’t have a bad time if you do.”

This phrase works as well when you’re falling emotionally as when you’re falling physically. When fear hits, when you want to grasp or hide, shout “Woo-hoo!” instead. While there is never—not ever—a sure foundation beneath our feet, the willingness to celebrate what we really feel can turn falling into flying. You don’t need an airplane to practice woo-hoo skills. For instance: I’m writing these words at 2:15 in the morning because writing, like other intimate pursuits, often occurs at night. As I type each word, I come to care about how it will be read—about you, there, reading it. Caring is scaring. It makes me want to stop right now, or spend years composing something flawlessly literate. Unfortunately, my deadline was yesterday, and Shakespeare I ain’t, so…woo-hoo!

Now it’s 2:20 a.m. Across the hall, my son, Adam, is dreaming dreams I’ll never quite understand, because his brain is different from mine. Shortly before his birth, I learned that he has Down syndrome, which put mothering him well above skydiving in my Book of Fears. I yelled a lot during Adam’s birth. Twenty-five years later, I’m still yelling “Woo-hoo!” And so far, the only consequence of that particular plunge is love.

Which takes me to my final point.

What I really panic about nowadays isn’t falling; it’s landing. But even that concern is fading because I’ve realized there are only two possible landings for someone who embraces intimacy, and both are beautiful.

The first possibility is that your beloved will love you back. Then you won’t land; you’ll just fall deeper into intimacy, together. This is how bald eagles prepare to mate—by locking talons and free-falling like rocks—which is deeply insane and makes me proud to call the eagle my country’s national bird.

The other possibility is that you’ll throw yourself forward, yell “Woo-hoo!,” and smash into rejection. Will it hurt? Indescribably. But if you still refuse to bury your broken heart, or force someone to “fix” it—if you just experience the crash landing in all its gory glory, you’ll create a miracle.

A Jewish friend told me this story: A man asks his rabbi, “Why does God write the law on our hearts? Why not in our hearts? It’s the inside of my heart that needs God.” The rabbi answered, “God never forces anything into a human heart. He writes the word on our hearts so that when our hearts break, God falls in.” Whatever you hold sacred, you’ll find that an unguarded broken heart is the ideal instrument for absorbing it.

If you fall into intimacy without resistance, despite your alarm, either you will fall into love, which is exquisite, or love will fall into you, which is more exquisite still. Do it enough, and you may just lose your fear of falling. You’ll get better at missing the ground, at keeping a crushed heart open so that love can find all the broken pieces. And the next time you feel that vertiginous sensation of the floor disappearing, even as your reflexes tell you to duck and grab, you’ll hear an even deeper instinct saying, “Fall in! Fall in!” 

Top Dog: How to Deal with a Know-it-All

776462_41885922Recently, due to several misguided decisions, I found myself having a sleepover with five friendly but ambitious dogs. The entire night was one long dominance display. No sooner had I settled each pooch onto a separate cushion than the biggest one got up, grabbed a chew toy, and stood over the others, proclaiming (in dog language): “I am Bjorn! And I am Pack Leader! For this toy is mine! And I own this toy! And the toy is my property!” and so on.

It reminded me so much of Harvard, I got a little misty.

We humans use many “toys” to claim dominant status in our own packs—cars, clothes, houses, job titles—but one of our favorites is knowledge. In our school system’s educational meritocracy, having answers means winning praise and attention. This has given rise to a certain breed of human, commonly called the know-it-all, which tends to frequent university settings. Know-it-alls can be good companions, but the breed also has many annoying behavioral problems that must be dealt with decisively if you’re going to have any peace. Before we discuss training techniques, here’s a short list of ways in which know-it-all behavior problems are often manifested.

The “Right as Might” Assault

In dog packs, being big and strong is the quickest way to dominance. In humans, sheer physical power, though useful, is often trumped by being right. Many know-it-alls have high IQs, but such low EQs (levels of emotional intelligence) that they actually think people admire them for saying things like “It’s a common misperception that, as you so quaintly phrased it, ‘You never know what’s going to happen,’ but that rationale applies mainly at a subatomic level of analysis, while in a macro setting, Laplace’s model of a mechanistically determinate universe remains a remarkably robust predictive cosmology.”

In a few paragraphs, we’ll discuss appropriate responses to such comments. But your initial response to a know-it-all assault like this one should be to remain calm and resist the urge to bite.

The “God Is in the Details” Display

Detail-oriented know-it-alls don’t sit around memorizing textbooks. Instead they correct others’ versions of events, often missing the whole point of a conversation in their obsessive focus on minutia. Their conversations frequently go something like this:

Ordinary person: So there we are at Breakfast Buffet, having waffles, and this guy comes in with a gun! A semiautomatic! And he’s waving it around—

Know-it-all: No, that’s wrong. You weren’t having waffles. I had waffles. You had the French toast.

Ordinary person: All right, whatever. Anyway, this gunman is yelling, “Where’s my wife? Where is that two-timing slut?” And then—

Know-it-all: I’m sure you didn’t have waffles, because when we got our order, you said to me, “Darlene, now I wish I’d ordered the waffles, because those are some good-looking waffles you got there.” Remember?

Ordinary person: Okay, okay. So anyway, then he starts shooting at the pie counter, and there’s pie flying everywhere, and—

Know-it-all: You’ve never had waffles since that time in Hoboken when you had the hiccup problem.

Detail-oriented know-it-alls have been known to sustain a conversation like this, with periodic interruptions, for up to 50 years. Most of their friends simply talk over them, though if you have a detail-oriented know-it-all in your immediate circle, it helps to have a choke chain available for emergencies.

The “Answer for Everything” Reflex

Some know-it-alls may be so rabidly committed to displaying fact-based dominance that they claim expertise about things they have no possibility of knowing, like this:

Ordinary person: I have this friend, Raoul, and he’s been driving me nuts, because—

Know-it-all: I know. Totally into the machismo thing.

Ordinary person: But…you’ve never met Raoul.

Know-it-all: Oh, honey, I know all about Latin men.

Ordinary person: Raoul is Swedish.

Know-it-all: I knew that.

This strain of know-it-all has answers for every question except: “How the hell do you presume to know that?”…

The “I Can Fix You” Frenzy

Another typical know-it-all behavior is to insist on solving your problems for you, even if you don’t want them solved or, in fact, see them as problems. Fixer know-it-alls will persist in making recommendations the way a Chihuahua might persist in making amorous advances to your leg. Here’s how they operate:

Know-it-all: Hey, you look a little down in the dumps. What’s wrong?

Ordinary person: I’m really all right. It’s just that I’ve been visiting my parents, and they’re getting old and sick, and it got me thinking about age and mortality and the impermanence of everything.

Know-it-all: You know, I used to worry about those things, too, until I started getting colonics. Have you tried that?

Ordinary person: Oh, I don’t think I need—

Know-it-all: You’ve got to. Hey, tell you what—I’ll call my favorite hose attendant right now. We’ll get you hooked up later this afternoon. Ha ha! Hooked up! Get it?

Ordinary person: Really, thanks but no thanks. I—

Know-it-all: And if that doesn’t work, we’ll go line dancing!

Be forewarned that courtesy will not work on a fixer know-it-all. If you plan to have a conversation with one, you should carry a spray can of mace. Which brings us to the instructional part of this article…

You can see this nerdy yearning in books like Jurassic Park or The Da Vinci Code, which are about know-it-alls who wind up in ridiculously contrived circumstances where their knowledge of dinosaur behavior or Catholic symbology actually comes in handy. Such opportunities are rare in the real world. For instance, my family cherishes the know-it-all euphoria we felt when I discovered a small but terrifying creature in our basement and my daughter correctly identified it as a Costa Rican tailless whip scorpion. (Of course, we had no clue what to do with it. We named it Vivian and placed it under 24-hour surveillance until someone thought of sucking it into the vacuum cleaner.)

How to Deal with a Know-It-All

You can begin training the person to be a calm, loyal companion by employing one or more of the following responses:

1. Fight to win.

If you’re in a feisty mood and you’re confident you can beat the know-it-all at the intellectual dominance game, you may decide to argue your rival into submission. This is what we’re trained to do in school, but I use it only as a last resort, since it tends to leave both contestants growling, angry, and bleeding from wounds to the ego. Choose another method for know-it-alls you want to remain part of your immediate pack. If you do decide to exert dominance, say something like: “Laplace? Mechanist determinism? Oh, please. Unless you plan to ignore all of postmodernism, as well as both Heisenberg and Kant, it’s incontestable that uncertainty and subjectivity are experiential absolutes. Ergo, I stand by my position: You never know what’s going to happen.”

2. Change the stakes.

If you want a know-it-all to stay in your pack, there’s a better way to deal with a dominance challenge than wading into the IQ challenge. Approach your know-it-all at the level of EQ. Know-it-alls are weak as puppies in this area, so be gentle. In a soft, nonaggressive tone, say: “Pat, I think you’re showing off your brain to get social acceptance. The thing is, that really doesn’t work. Think how you’d feel about a rich person who wouldn’t stop harping about their net worth.”

The know-it-all will respond, “Don’t you mean ‘a rich person who wouldn’t stop harping about his or her net worth’?” Say, “Pat, you’re doing it again.”

If a few such prompts have no effect on the know-it-all’s behavior, you may have to consider an appropriate shelter, such as a research institute or a Tolkien convention, where the organization helps place know-it-alls in better homes. But don’t do this without trying the next technique.

3. Put your know-it-all to work.

I’ve seen this gentle social training succeed on others and, more to the point, on me. That’s right: By breed I am a know-it-all. But ever since a kindly teacher took me aside and explained that my behavior was the social equivalent of leprosy, I’ve tried hard to overcome my genes. Sadly, I passed on many know-it-all traits to my children—even my son with Down syndrome, who, when I corrected him for skipping numbers on a kindergarten counting assignment, gave me a withering look and said, “Hello, I was counting by fives.” My kids and I are “useless factoid” know-it-alls. We rarely dress ourselves correctly, but we know all about, say, the mating rituals of penguins. It’s not that we mean harm; it’s just that we’re a working breed, like German shepherds or bulldogs. What we want most is to be of service.

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