QUESTION: I am in a vulnerable place in my open relationship right now. The more I feel my partner’s avoidance of intimacy with me, the more needy I feel. And the more I express my neediness, the more it drives him away. And into the downward spiral we go. What a tricky pattern! I am trying hard to own my anxiety and feelings behind it all without projecting onto him. But it is so damn hard, and my mind/ego is going nuts due to my perceived lack of attention and approval.

What is your take on moving through it in a conscious and clearing way?

ANSWER: Let’s start with addressing the type of relationship that you are in. I take it that by open relationship you mean just that: you and your partner are both permitted to be involved with other people. Intimacy is hard business for all of us. The feeling of insecurity brought on by being in an open relationship can complicate things further. 

Attempting to work on intimacy issues in an open relationship, instead of a closed one, is like learning to swim in the ocean instead of a swimming pool. One can drown in both, but the chance of doing so in the ocean is greater. This is not a moral issue, rather both psychological as well as biological. On a psychological level, keeping the door open to several partners at one time has consequences. It does not allow us to feel safe nor drop deep enough. There is always the distraction of another partner when things get too intimate (read: real). Then there is the biological issue of sexual coupling. Look into Helen Fisher’s work on the biological and neurochemical consequences of sex. Regardless of our intent, sexual coupling has emotional effects that are beyond our willpower to control. 

A closed relationship by itself is no promise of an intimate relationship. We can use our job, child, pet, hobby, or drug of choice as a way of checking out of direct intimacy with a partner. Intimacy is one of those overused words where it is thrown around with abundance, but it takes deep hard work to bring into fruition. We are all escape artists, that much I can assure you. Whether you have been in a relationship for decades or are single, we all do a pretty fine job of wiggling out of being seen. 

This might not only be your “mind/ego going nuts due to a perceived lack of attention”. You do have to examine your motives for choosing an open relationship that carries with it an inherent feeling of unsafety. Was this a conscious or unconscious decision on your part? Remember that our unconscious mostly runs the show in these situations. Regardless of our intent, it is our wounding that chooses specific relationships so that we can heal. Unfortunately, our conscious minds are not aware of this. This is where the suffering occurs. We think we are driving when, in fact, we are passengers. It is only through healing the pain that we can actually be a co-driver with another.

Intimacy is the act of standing emotionally naked in front of another. This is something that we tend to avoid at all costs, since it scares the hell out of us. All of our life is based on hiding. We are master mask makers and wearers. We do it so regularly that most of us are not even consciously aware of the distinction between our mask and our true self. The advent of social media has taken the sophistication and thickness of the masks to a whole different level. It takes effort and time to slowly pull that mask off and reveal our core to ourselves as well as another. 

The fact that you are “in a vulnerable place” is wonderful. It means that your wounding is up and visible due to your “partner’s avoidance of intimacy”. Your unconscious has picked the perfect place for your healing. You can now grapple with it in the daylight of your consciousness. The yo-yo that you describe is quite common: the push-pull dance around intimacy. There is no magic trick but to learn to tolerate your anxiety, to be able to sit with it on a regular basis. It is not something that gets healed by your partner. Working with a therapist to investigate where this wounding originated for you can help keep you in a centered space. This will allow you to “move through it in a conscious and clearing way”. Your clarity about your wounding is the guiding light that will help you heal.