Intimacy: A Heterosexual Male Perspective

hand1The first of a series on dependency culture. Because the personal is political. By Darren McGarvey

“Intimacy begins with oneself. It does no good to try to find intimacy with friends, lovers and family if you are starting out from alienation and division within yourself.” Thomas Moore

Somewhere along the way I bought into the idea of my own victimhood. Life became easier to understand when I viewed it from the perspective of a wrongfully injured party. There was no actual living to be done, only the lamenting of what I lacked – even if those things were not important or, indeed, real. I started to believe the stories my head was telling me about why I found myself in such precarious emotional circumstances, completely unaware I had lost what was left of my meandering mind.

The thing about seeing yourself as a victim, however justified it may seem (or even be), is that you relinquish the opportunity to take responsibility. Worse still, and all the more dangerous, you begin to lose sight of your own propensity for brutal acts of emotional tyranny. It becomes much harder to perceive the harm you are doing to others when you truly believe you’re the harshly vilified underdog in the curious tale of your fantasy life. Nowhere does this play out more dramatically than in the theatre of personal relationships, usually modeled to us by parents.

My Mother was a very sick woman. My childhood, when she was still around, was often frightening and unpredictable. At a very young age I became trapped in a state of hyper-vigilance, with all of my instincts fine-tuned to the task of keeping one person as happy or subdued as possible, at all times. If ever I stepped out of line I could expect a tirade of one form or another and this made me a very anxious child. But the tirades were preferable to the long periods of tension preceding and following them. I became accustomed to coping with bizarre outbursts but grew to find the day to day grind unbearable as I waited for something to kick off.

The anxiety manifest in many ways. One habit I picked up was this odd thing where I would repeat everything I said under my breath in order to check it for errors. Being able to talk well seemed important to me from a very young age but strangely this ability was something my Mother – 18-years my senior – felt increasingly threatened by. She would brag about my precocious abilities to others while taking very little interest in them herself. “My son this, my son that”.

She also had a warped maternal instinct which involved dragging you to a bully’s house after school to make you fight on the street – proving you weren’t afraid. The reason I rarely lost – or fought until I couldn’t stand – wasn’t because I wasn’t scared of bullies. It was because I was terrified of her.

These experiences instilled a distorted sense of adulation and fear of potential ‘care-givers’ and unsurprisingly the romantic relationships I would later enter, fell prey to a dysfunctional marriage of false beliefs and unrealistic expectations that constituted, what I naively believed to be, my personality. My love-life became riddled with the same themes that stilted my childhood only this time, unbeknownst to me, I was slowly becoming the tyrant.

Once secure in a new relationship it would only take one argument to truly engulf me in paralysing vulnerability. This became a chief activator of my addictions and the ugly character flaws that drive them.

Wearing the veil of a victim of women, I ended up victimising them through various forms of neglect, disrespect, selfishness and emotional abuse. But it didn’t feel like that at the time. It felt like I was taking very carefully measured, preventative action to protect myself from harm.

This is the basis of all tyranny.

Not to be too down on myself, obviously. I have my uses as a partner and in my experience women give as good as they get in most normal areas of relationships. Emotional dysfunction is oddly attracted to itself. Women initially admire those traits you parade in front of them like so many shiny peacock feathers despite knowing each of them are masks to conceal vulnerabilities. Both sexes engage in a certain level of denial about themselves and would-be partners whenever love comes calling. This cycle repeats until we truly confront ourselves.

As I move further forward on this journey I’m finally learning the struggle for me is authentic human intimacy as opposed to comforting – and largely vacuous – romantic ideals of ‘love’.

Intimacy is something I’ve always struggled with. “Typical man,” some of you may be thinking. The sheer gravity of life’s most basic instinct, sex, always seems to bring me back to the same uncomfortable place: sitting in front of a screen wondering what to do with my column.

By the way if I said ‘sex’ I meant intimacy. The two are notoriously difficult to separate for a man of my typical type.

My sex-life – or lives if you count the ones I killed – is characterised by a series of misunderstandings around the areas of relationships that cannot be referred to anatomically. When it’s time to disrobe I’m not so slow off the mark, but simple eye contact, in a moment of passion, is something I find extremely difficult; eye contact in general isn’t much easier – even when I’m telling the truth.

Turns out intimacy is about more than being naked – as is life apparently.

Sex, for me, has often been about gratification of one sort or another. Not to be too hard-on one self. I have tried, and sometimes succeeded, being courteous with regard to the needs of my partner, albeit without ever really asking them what their needs were. Most of my assumptions were based on increasingly harder forms of pornography. Maybe this is why I possess the emotional maturity of an ill-tempered teenager and the libido of a slightly startled rabbit.

Through a deeply held fear about trusting other people, I’ve developed a worrying tendency to minimise the importance of a deep emotional connection where intimacy is concerned. Going as far to say I’ve lived most of my adult life in denial about the fact there can be no real intimacy without that emotional connection. It’s the difference between diet-pills and honest exercise, tanning salons or swimming in the ocean, voting on X-Factor and playing the piano.

Intimacy, it would seem, means total vulnerability in the truest sense. In fact it’s the risk you take in completely offering your entire self to another human being that makes the bond you share so significant. Everything from the sweet nothings you whisper afterwards to the obscenities thrown around like frilly knickers beforehand. Intimacy is everything that happens between the lines of the physical acts and romantic gestures we associate with Love; the intention, the desire and the trust.

But where does this anxiety around closeness come from and why is it easier for some than others?

I suppose the answers lie in our past. Love, for me, has only ever been discernible through negative feelings of fear. The flawed logic of assuming if you care enough to get jealous when your partner talks about a cool guy they met (or live in fear they will imminently leave you for said guy) this must mean you love them. That approach might work when you are five and virtually defenseless if someone walks out, but it grates a bit when people assume you are an adult.

Then there’s those really strange periods when you find yourself single; time to bring the mask and feathers out of storage.

One night stands never interested me although I vaguely remember some taking place. With the one night stand it was, on the surface, more about the lady’s needs being taken care of; fulfilling my own where vanity and ego are concerned. Therefore, in truth, it was always about me – like everything else. The relief of such an encounter was the girl, intuitively sensing your nag of discomfort, would politely invite herself to leave. The ones that didn’t leave so soon either got hurt or became long-term girlfriends; or both.

You make arrangements to see her on an unspecified date, offer to pay her taxi and gently lead her out the door before she grows resentful at those gregarious traits of yours she initially found so compelling.

When it comes down to the nitty-gritty business of sex I am a complex fellow. The echoes of my childhood boom around the halls of my psyche finding new, contorted expressions in my sexuality. My state of arousal only ever moves beyond base instinct when I actually have feelings for a person. I do, on occasion, suffer from lust but it’s not something that has ever been strong enough to dictate my behaviour – at least not yet. The longer a relationship goes on the more attracted to her I become. The sexual narratives at play in my subconscious get richer and more complex as our shared history unfolds; adding new layers of psychological terrain to punish myself with.

While this may sound appealing to a single woman (or otherwise) of a certain type, I’d imagine it wearing a little thin after a while. In my experience women seem to require it as a pre-requisite to sex. In fact, if they like you they may dazzle you with their own masks from time to time, playing whichever role they feel gives them a better chance of lasting intimacy.

Intimacy is looking beyond insecurity into someone’s eyes in those moments when you’re both pulling the sort of faces that would frighten unborn children. It’s about laughing when strange noises – chased by still stranger odours – distract you from the emotional torture chamber in which you find yourselves so keenly adjoined.

It’s also about cultivating a safe-haven where expressing those private aspects of our nature – that lurk behind the public mask –  becomes normality as trust develops and we start taking ownership of our hang-ups by letting go; eroticising our deepest fears through role-play.

Or at least I hope it is.

That elaborate scenario, punctuated by those very specific details that gently coalesce forming the hidden map of your secret self:

The promising smell of a hot summer night. The sky purple and green. Deep bass furiously pulsates in the walls as wet bodies pour onto the hot sand, mingling, like the tepid waters of a coming tide. While high above, naked heathen howl at the silver moon from an ashy mountainside, bathed in cool black-light
Then, the race to pull what’s left of one another’s clothes up or down enough to justify the bruised knees. The waterfall cascades your trembling frame, washing away all lingering inhibition, as you collapse onto a bed of warm rocks, beneath an endless blanket of fading stars.


See I know what intimacy looks like on paper. But in light of my shortcomings as a partner I have to get real with myself about what intimacy means in real-life. As a man I have to come clean and admit that I can and must do better. As well as learning to accept myself I want to be more accepting of others and see them as they are and not just how I’d like them to be. Self-esteem isn’t something you can extract from another human being and this is a lesson I have learned painfully.
By aspiring to this I also become more accepting of myself – glaring flaws and all. And I instead of trying to be what I think someone else wants I, instead, gain the fortitude to assert my own boundaries without fear of emotional reprisals. The relationship becomes an extension of my life; not a pre-requisite to it.

Only then could I ever hope to truly offer myself to another person in every way possible and in turn have them reveal themselves to me.

It’s about someone holding your hand while you explore the dark wood of your own subconscious where the normal rules of life do not – and cannot – so easily apply.

If, like me, you find intimacy an on-going struggle, the likelihood is: it’s not your partner’s mind and body you should be so focused on exploring, but your own. And you needn’t do it alone either – at least, not all the time.





Comments (21)

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  1. Paul Cochrane says:

    A very brave essay.
    I am drawn to paraphrase Monty Roberts definition of ‘Trust’ when talking about intimacy. “You can only be sure of trust (intimacy) when someone could hurt you and get away with it without anyone knowing and they don’t!’

  2. Shehanne Moore says:

    Startlingly brave. I hope, given everything you’ve been through you can find what you aspire to.

  3. Rosalind Gray says:

    A surprising and very moving Sunday read…

  4. Mary MacCallum Sullivan says:

    I really applaud Darren’s honesty in this post. I know that it’s all too easy to fall into the identification as a ‘victim’, when our family environment in our early years has been such that we develop the hyper vigilance that he describes, which is the consequence of having an unreliable, inconsistent parent or caregiver. Such inconsistent behaviour is not always recognised as negligent, if not downright exploitative or cruel. And victimhood often, as Darren points out, may seem to absolve us of responsibility for our own bad behaviour; it takes the difficult learning that Darren describes to gradually change.

    I believe it’s important for us not to fall into the binary trap of either victim or transgressor, but for us all to recognise the roots of our own distress, and the ways in which we act out of that distress, in denial of, and in self-punishment for, the earlier emotional trauma that continues to affect us and shape our behaviour. We act in accordance with the patterns that were set up in early life – useful then as a means to survive, but not useful for us as adults.

    All of this Darren illustrates in his post. He also writes in support of a need for better understanding of the kind of hidden damage that goes on in what may often look like a relatively ‘normal’ childhood, where many forms of ‘bad’ parental behaviour go unnoticed.

    Let’s look out for the child: both kids out there doing what they can to survive, and the ‘inner child’, still working to overcome that early trauma.

  5. baronesssamedi says:

    Very helpful, thankyou. As ‘a girl’, I wish I’d read this years ago. Best wishes

  6. Lorna Sutton says:

    A beautifully insightful and reflective piece, and delighted Bella open to publishing such diverse material. Keep it coming.

  7. Valerie says:

    Have to agree, this is a brave essay, but also incredibly insightful.
    I also had an incredibly abusive childhood, and it is only with searing honesty about your own behaviour, that you can see it comes from a damaged place, and I’ve always had a deep desire to leave the damage out, and not repeat my parents behaviour on anyone near me.
    It’s made me an introvert, as well as avoiding anyone given to hysteria, but peace and calm are important to me.
    I wish you well on your journey, because intimacy in all its forms is worth the effort in your relationships and friends.

  8. john young says:

    For me it is all about your spirit/soul the intangible and hidden,if you are strong in this area nothing but nothing can get to you,my faith has been for me my rock,I know others many others do not go along with these emotions but they are for me my “rock”,sticks and stones e.t.c.

  9. kate says:

    as a middle aged woman seems pretty much what i thought men commonly thought

    there are no hot summer nights in scotland, surely?
    even your mills & boon parodies are secretly infiltrated by colonialism

  10. Jones says:

    Good thought provoking article, that makes you stop and reflect.

    I’ve noticed something interesting about the comments after (which may or may not have any relevance) but the majority of comments so far have been from women. This is in contrast to the posts on other pieces, the majority of which are penned by men and commented on by men in a much more combative, ‘I have to be right even when I’m wrong way’ (myself included).

    I know this is an utter generalisation, that a certain type of emotional/ cooperative intelligence is much more a female trait than male? But perhaps why it is so important to have women central to decision making. Why Politics is better with more than less female input?

  11. Frank says:

    Interesting point Jones. It’s hard to discuss this subject without making sweeping generalisations and lapsing into ideal types, but I think on the whole that men tend to suppress, even repress their feelings. For some people, particularly those schooled by psychoanalysis, this is problematic, although I think sometimes it’s good to keep things inside. I went through a period of depression a while back and one of the things which made it worse was counselling, because I became self-obsessed and this only encouraged my depression. One of the things which helped was going back to work because I stopped being self-obsessive. Again, I’m speaking only in relation to myself here and no way do I wish to generalise. Also, in regards to the point you make about the comments section, I don’t come on Bella to discuss my childhood and I would be wary of posting deeply personalised issues on the Internet.

    As for the point about women in decision making, I support most feminist demands, but we need to avoid having an ‘ideal type’ for women. Sorry to use ‘ideal type’ again. Women can make informed decisions and be co-operative and caring, perhaps even more so than men. Yet, as with men, power corrupts. I have known female bosses (and men!) who can be overbearing, micro-managers and just as ruthless as the men. I have also known women who are right wing neo-liberals, and women who are radical feminists and women who couldn’t care less.

    1. Jones says:

      Good points Frank, as I posted Mrs T sprang to mind. Then I googled ‘ruthless women leaders in history’ lol. The list is more than long enough, from Cleopatra/ Boudicca to Elizabeth 1st, Catherine the Great, the Dowager Qing Empress…

  12. Jd says:

    anyone who has had a difficult childhood will recognise themselves in this piece, it transcends its title

  13. Darien says:

    What’s this got to do, got to do, with independence? I was expecting a conclusion somehow related to the unionism-independence debate. Maybe its in there, somewhere. Is the British state the male in this drama? Taking what it wants, then phoning a taxi for bonnie Scotia to head back tae the scheme? Sincerity and trust is lacking in our relationship with perfidious, as we Scots know only too well.

  14. June Stewart says:

    Insightful and interesting blog. My conclusion having read it is once you learn to respect yourself then respect of others becomes mutual. Not a bad starting point……

  15. John McLean says:

    Well written, but seems more like the sort of angst-ridden, navel gazing piece that would be more at home in Cosmopolitan.

    1. Darren McGarvey says:

      Is that a women’s magazine?

  16. Elaine Fraser says:

    A gutsy original writer , always worth reading no matter the subject. Bella please continue to nurture ,support and promote all good writing. In my humble opinion, Mr McGarvey is a much needed brave and honest voice .

  17. Davy says:

    “Turns out intimacy is about more than being naked ….”

    I think intimacy can be about emotional “nakedness” , which can take a lot more courage than mere physical nakedness – and displayed here by the writer of this article.

    As it says in introduction….Because the personal is political.
    Excerpt from interview and audio below from a discussion I attended with Joshua Stephens –
    “Self and Determination: An Inward Look at Collective Liberation”

    Really, we’re coming face to face with the fact that we’re fragile. We break. We’ve happily deployed these effects of capitalism as a discursive indictment of the status quo, but I think we’ve largely avoided thinking about it as our status.

    Therein, impulses and inclinations that might strike us as utterly apolitical are often of profound political consequence, and can even be the levers by which powerful institutions derail resistance.

    I wanted to encourage people to reconsider practices of the self as more than some shitty, individualizing navel-gazing. I wanted to suggest that they are an act of refusal……

    …When we look at ourselves, the complexity we allow for and observe is such that it can overwhelm and intimidate us, really.

    So, we kick that monster back under the bed, and resume smashing the state or whatever.
    We distinguish these spheres with such intensity that they appear subject to two entirely different regimes of logic.

    It shouldn’t shock us, at all, that people whose lives are policed by institutionalized oppression and violence individualize and internalize that.

    Thanks to things like feminist consciousness-raising groups and other illustrations of the collective experience of these things, we can now recognize and see our way through the stories we’re taught to tell ourselves about oppression.
    But the internal/external distinction generally is no less a story.
    Joshua Stephens

  18. Frank says:

    Davy, just out of interest, but what is it you are you smoking? I didn’t understand a word of what you just wrote, in fact I am convinced that the text possessed no innate meaning or structure, although I found myself relate to your narrative in some sort of Dylanesque, post-modern way.

  19. Peter Clive says:

    I have had thoughts along similar lines:

    Repairing our intimacy engines (part 2):

    Are beards a feminist issue:

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