Born to love ILLUSTRATION: Tim Furey

Born to love

Re-evaluate the internal defense mechanisms that inhibit passion and intimacy

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 11/03/2011

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­­Dear Patti,
I’m 42, married to a beautiful woman, have two wonderful children, and I’m very successful both financially and career-wise. I had a difficult childhood, but, for the most part, have moved past it. 
My wife approached me yesterday and talked to me in a way she never had before. She said I’m a “perfect” husband and father, but that if she’s truly honest, she oftentimes doesn’t feel passion or strong love from me. This makes her very sad and heartbroken, because she truly loves me. 
She related that I’m very mechanical in my responses and actions toward her and the children. Although I became indignant and hotly denied it, the truth is that she’s right. For much of my adult life, I’ve gone through the motions at home and at work but have actually felt very little. 
Part of me hates this and wants more than anything to be alive again, like I was as a child. The other part of me likes the way I am — free of the attachments that make life messy and unpredictable. I can’t imagine changing my personality so drastically after all these years, even though I truly want to. I’d appreciate your thoughts on the subject. ~Robert

Dear Robert,
Reread what you just wrote to me; “… wants more than anything to be alive again, like I was as a child.” To be able to feel passionate emotions is your birthright. You weren’t born this way. When people experience emotionally traumatic experiences — whether a large, traumatic injury or a succession of negative experiences — their personalities can unconsciously create various defenses as a way to cope with the emotional distress.
While these defenses will limit the quality of life in the long run, they provide a way to cope in the short run. This is especially common when children feel helpless to defend themselves against overwhelming pain. Problems occur when they no longer need the defense and have long outgrown it but still operate from that reality.
What you’re describing is the defense of emotional detachment or emotional numbness.  It’s one thing if you’re voluntarily choosing to detach yourself from a person or situation. Doing this involuntarily or chronically, however, reflects an inability to emotionally connect and is often a component in anxiety and stress disorders. A person with this problem is often viewed as preoccupied or distracted, even when he or she is physically present or intellectually engaged. An extreme fear of emotional intimacy causes this individual to avoid expressing feelings toward others or being affected by any emotions that are directed toward him or her.
If you’ve gone through a traumatic experience or suffered repeated trauma, you may be disconnected and unable to trust.
Avoidance behavior gives you a false sense of safety and being in control, where nobody can emotionally devastate you again. It also creates an internal war in which the healthy side of you really wants to give and receive love but the unhealthy side wants to stay detached.
Look at your situation as two walls you must knock down. The first is the wall between you and your buried feelings. Knock down this wall, and you’ll feel your emotions again. The second wall is between your feelings and others. Knock down this wall and you’ll express these feelings toward others, including your loved ones. In the process, it’s likely you’ll relive old childhood pain as well as intense feelings of longing, loneliness, fear, rage and grief. A trusting therapist can guide you through these experiences and encourage you to lovingly listen to yourself and understand what you’ve been through historically. In turn, these buried feelings will disappear and you will no longer have to have defenses against them, such as emotional detachment. You can feel alive again, more connected and intimate with others and yourself, just as you were born to do.

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email Visit her Web site:


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