Intimacy in the Person-Centered Way of Being


Ruth Sanford




It has become very important to me, particularly within the past year, and I think I would like to say how it began. It was during one of my visits to the west coast meeting with some groups out there and Carl and I were talking about an invitation he'd had to speak on the subject of intimacy in the person-centered approach. When he came back from the telephone he said, "I told them that I thought that one book which I had written dealt with the subject of intimacy and that was On Becoming a Partner but I hadn't really written much about intimacy and I couldn't believe it.

I said, "Well, Carl practically everything you've ever written has been about intimacy in relationships, whether it be between therapists and clients or whether it be between partners or really your Freedom to Learn is talking about intimacy in the classroom. If you think in terms of intimacy being deeply accepting and deeply understood and prized or valued, then it does, in my opinion, permeate your work.

On the way home on the plane, I began to write down my thoughts on the subject of intimacy. Oh yes, before that I sat in the patio for about an hour-and-a-half and began drawing up my resources here and documenting Carl's point of view on intimacy as I was interpreting it. And then I realized that this is not a traditional definition of intimacy.

Later, in talking with a colleague with whom I wrote this paper in preparation for the International Forum in the Person-Centered Approach in Mexico, we realized that for many people intimacy may exist in a close friendship and that quite often, especially in the legal sense, it involves a physical/sexual part of intimacy and that we were thinking of it in terms of a much broader intimacy being deeply accepted, deeply understood, deeply accepting and deeply understanding and I think Carl said in "Client-Centered Therapy" that in his opinion this probably is the best definition of love which he knows.

This paper came about through a very unusual evolution of relationships between colleagues, a young man with whom I began as therapist and he the client. It seemed to evolve in a kind of organismic way to his asking me if I would become his tutor and supervisor in two graduate courses so that our relationship shifted from that. And we find that within a second we might swing back and forth with those different relationships becoming more one and we became friends so that added another dimension. And there were some times when if something was troubling me very deeply, particularly if it had to do with some professional relationships, that we found that quite without knowing it we sometimes shifted and he became the therapist and I became the client.

At first we were a little shocked at that and said, "Well, what we have to keep in mind, you know, that this isn't the usual way it was done," but before too long we even left that behind.

Then we became colleagues and he is the person who has been co-facilitating with me in the graduate courses in which I'm involved at Post Center of Long Island University. And we felt that this was the basis for really practicing going through the process of establishing intimacy, the only limitation of which was that we were not sexually or physically involved in the form of intimacy which many people interpret as intimacy. And I don't want to say that it was leaving the sexual part out because it's my feeling that sexuality is very much a part of the whole person and it has many different expressions and that in some way, everything that one does is an expression of whatever the sexuality means to that person.

We're taking a very broad approach to intimacy. Perhaps it would be a good time to speak about some of my perhaps rather unorthodox attitude toward the romantic approach to intimacy. It's my feeling that the romantic approach to intimacy can get in the way of intimacy because it places expectations and roles on the persons involved and when one sets up expectations, those expectations get in the way of genuine closeness.

I make a statement in this paper that my husband and I probably could not experience real intimacy in the first ten years of our marriage because each was too busy taking care of the other person and so we never let ourselves be wholly ourselves. It seems to me that the romantic concept of intimacy between marriage partners or love partners and also what we hear in popular songs and a Hollywood kind of romantic movie "I can't be whole," or "I can't live without you. You're everything to me," are great destroyers of intimacy in an ongoing relationship. What that says is that I'm not a whole person. I'm a part of a person and you're part of a person and we have to be together in order to feel whole, which to me is the antithesis of true intimacy.

My feeling is that it is not possible to experience the utmost in intimacy unless each person in the relationship is first of all a whole person who could say to the other, "I love to be with you. I find it stimulating. I find it satisfying and fulfilling and if something happens that this relationship changes or for some reason we are permanently separated I would feel very sad. I would feel lonely I'm sure but I could stand. I could be who I am and know that there would be pain but also that I would go on being my person and growing in a different way. I leave you free to be a whole person as well".

I feel also that being intimate in this way involves each person sure enough in himself or herself to say to the other one, "I am committed to this relationship as a growing one and I want you to feel as free as I want to feel, to do my own growing in my own direction and that is the riskiest thing I know because we may grow in different directions which I would not like. That can be very painful, much more painful in a very close ongoing relationship like that than anything I can think of.

I think I'd like to share something very personal with you about that. I have been married to the same man for 41 years. In fact I was in Johannesburg on our 42nd wedding anniversary at the conference. We had dealt, during most of this past year, with his desire to go to Thailand as a Peace Corps volunteer for two years. He came home with the application forms one day and I say forms because he brought two sets. He said to me, "Would you be interested?" and I said, "No, I don't want to go to Thailand for two years. I have too many things going that are important to me. Much as I would be lonely and miss you and may wish that I had gone probably and I will come to visit but I can't give up two years of my life to going to Thailand. It's not my choice." He said, "I thought that's what you would say."

So he went ahead and was accepted as a Peace Corps volunteer, went to Thailand. We had agreed on that. My husband and I had agreed. He went through the training and unfortunately had to come back because of a medical problem. He needed some minor surgery. In the meantime, while he was planning to go to Thailand and was pretty well set, I had a request from Carl would I come with him to South Africa? I read Carl's letter to him and said, "How do you feel about that?" He said, "By all means, you have to go. It's something that you couldn't possibly miss." He said, "I would feel very guilty if you stayed at home because you felt that I would be lonely or upset."

I said, "You know it's going to be three, four, or five weeks." And he said, "Yes, I understand that." And then I realized that if I had stayed at home because for some reason he made me feel that he wanted me to do that, that that was his choice, I would have felt resentment at giving up some part of me. So, I feel that either way it would have done something to damage that relationship. I had all kinds of strange reactions. People said, "Oh! Really? I thought you and Niel were getting along just fine!" And then people would ask him, "How could you let Ruth go?" He said, "I can't let Ruth do anything." Nor did I let Niel go to Thailand.

I'm saying that because it wasn't always so. I want to make it very clear that it's not something that just happened. It takes a long commitment in a relationship, particularly when I think I'm more adventurous in many ways than Niel is. I think it is much easier for me to express my warm feelings, my anger, whatever it is, than it is for Niel. And so we had that kind of thing to work out and it's been a long time developing but one of the things I hold on to is that if it happens once, it's possible. No matter what it is. No matter how impossible it seems. If it has happened once, you know then that it's possible and it's just a matter of finding a way of making it come about or letting it come about.

I think here in the subject of intimacy in a marriage partnership or it can be in any other kind of love relationship or any other kind of partnership and I thought it true in my classes, in therapy as I said last night. For me the key is if there's going to be a real interchange between persons and real intimacy which means sharing the whole person and being open and real and having a deep kind of respect, one for the other, then it is necessary for me when a feeling comes up like anger or getting weary and feeling like saying to anybody who came around, "just buzz off. I want to be by myself for a while. I can't listen to that because I'm feeling something very strongly and I want to listen to you. I can't do it right now but I can be fully present with you later."

If feelings like that come up in me, I have found that the only way I can foster this intimacy is to say it right then and then I can forget it. It doesn't stay inside and turn around and hurt and fester. I find when I don't say it then I'm very likely to let that anger or that hurt or that frustration come out in some way which is not relevant. It may come out on somebody else or I may wait and let several pile up and then let go at once and it's all out of proportion to what has just happened. To me that is probably the most necessary and difficult of the little day-to-day things that come up in an ongoing intimate relationship.

Carl: Some of the things that Ruth has said reminded me of my experience. I was married for 53 years in a very satisfying marriage, the last years of which were somewhat marred by continuous intermittent illness on the part of my wife and her death taught both of us many lessons. She died a very peaceful death. What I want to talk about is the fact that since her death I have from time to time tried to explore new relationships with women and in a sense I've been like an adolescent because I haven't had any experience in doing that. I have learned in myself many of the things that Ruth has talked about.

With one relationship I realized that I had such expectations of this woman, such unrealistic expectations, that the relationship finally crumbled because of that. It maybe helped me a good deal to realize what harm expectations can do to a relation and the only thing that I've learned is that a critical value of being straight and direct in a relationship, of saying exactly how I feel at the time I feel it, whether it's positive or negative, and building a relationship on that basis, has been a great growing experience for me even at my age. It has been a very satisfying part of my life but I feel that there are times when a relationship begins to seem unsatisfying if when one or both of the partners in the relationship are not being open with the other. I feel I have learned a great deal about intimacy, about relationships, about the nature of good relationships even in the last few years.

We were all buzzing about men/women relationships earlier and maybe some of that buzz can come to the surface now.

Ruth (In response to a question from a woman in the audience): I think the scariest situation there is when one person is much more firmly grounded in this ability to let go and the other one is holding back and sort of clinging. That makes it very hard and a lot of pain comes in there. I don't know whether you asked me how I felt when I left home to come here for five weeks but I thought I heard it. I can realize that there would have been a lot of conflict some time ago but when this happened, I really didn't feel conflict. I feel very strongly that Niel can take care of himself and get along. He doesn't have to have me there to keep his house. I miss him but I also feel a real confidence in him that he's going to be okay and I know I'm okay so I think that's why there wasn't much conflict there.

I think in my own experience in the past the hardest part was getting over that feeling that somehow I was absolutely necessary and I feel that it's a form of respect and valuing to be able to say, "I know you can get along without me, and I trust that both of us will be okay."


Ruth (In response to another question from a woman in the audience): I find it very difficult to talk in generalities or abstractions and I realize that my response to that, my feeling about that, would be very different from yours and it probably won't really fit but one of the things I learned from Carl is that the more personal is also the more general. Has any of this answered your question?

I think that having faced sometime before the possibility that through my husband's illness, and he was quite ill for about three years, that the easiest thing for me to have done would be to start taking care of him and protecting him and the darkest day of my life was the day when it came through to me very strongly was that that was what I was doing, that I was feeling responsible for him. As I was waking from a nap one day I heard the word protective, protecting, protective. You're being protective of your husband and your daughter and a dear friend had said to me, "They have strengths of their own," which I hadn't heard very clearly. And then I said, "Protect. What do I protect? I protect what I posess." And, wow, that hit me. A possessive wife, a possessive mother.

I walked in the woods that night, in the pine woods near our home and I really wished that a bolt of lightening would hit because I hated so much what I had seen in myself. I faced the part of myself I could least accept and that was the beginning I think of being able to let go.

My daughter was very small then. She was about six. She's 33 now. I'm firmly convinced and I think this was such a hard lesson for me but I'm firmly convinced that today my husband could have been an invalid and my daughter could have been a dependent child of 33. She's not a dependent child. She's a militant feminist and she's a lesbian and one of my best friends and one of my most effective counselors.

One of the healthiest experiences I ever had was when my daughter said to me, "You know, if you weren't my mother, I would choose you for a friend." My feeling is that it all began when I suddenly was faced with that need to be absolutely necessary to someone I cared about. Once having faced that, I think that's one of my stronger points, that once I see, have an insight, I do something about it. I think that answers what happened for me in my relationships with my daughter. It's not a formula for something that I would instruct.

Carl: I had to face some of that same issue that occurred with my wife when she was ill. I began to realize the choice to commit myself to caring for her, which was definitely half of my professional life which included a good deal of travel, or choosing to carry on my professional life and caring for her as much as I could when I was there. I was greatly influenced in my decision by what happened in the family of a friend of mine - a very gifted man, a creative artist, almost a genius. His wife had cancer. The whole family knew that. She had talked about the fact quite openly with her family that if things got too bad for her they shouldn't be surprised if she took her own life. They had come to accept the fact that she might do that. I think the children and certainly I were deeply shocked when the husband committed suicide with his wife. They did it in a planned way. It was apparent that they had thought this through and that he had decided he couldn't live without her. In one sense it seemed like such a deep love that he could give up his own life, although he had many years to live and was a creative person, to live with his wife in death. But for me it seemed just the opposite. I thought, "What a waste of talent. He could have lived. He could have contributed a great deal to the world."

It helped me to make my decision that I would carry on my professional life. I loved my wife. I would see to it that she was cared for when I was gone. I would care for her a lot when I was there but I would not commit my life to caring for her, partly because I realized too that it would have built up a lot of resentment in me toward her illness, toward her. It would have made her more dependent on me so that was the way I faced that particular personal issue.

Ruth in response to a question from a woman in the audience: I would like to say that that was one of the hardest feelings to express directly to someone I care very much about. I think it took me longer to do that than to express other feelings and sometimes I would cover it up by hurt, say I was hurt. It was easier to say I was hurt than that I was angry.

Carl: When there's a question of anger that's always been a difficult thing for me to express freely. I usually sense my anger sometime after it happened and I'm trying to learn to shorten that gap so that I'm angry at the moment. But in these relationships that I've spoken of, some of the most valuable times have been when I have expressed anger or when a women has expressed anger with me and we've worked through what that's all about and have come out of the relationship much stronger, much more stronger bonded than we were before. I just feel that to listen to the other person's anger, to understand it and accept it and then to be willing to express one's own feeling, whether it's anger or whatever it is and have that understood and accepted. That's the basis of the best kind of relationship of all.