How to Cultivate Closeness: Introduction

This section began several years ago when I read a book of research on the differences between the sexes, called Brain Sex: The Real Difference Between Men and Women. The authors go into detail about the differences between male and female brains — differences in the structure and function of many different areas of the brain, in all mammals, including humans. I had read this book before but I was reminded once again that men aren't usually as interested in relationships as women. This didn't cause a revelation. Ho hum. Yes, I've heard it all before. Two-day-old girls gaze at a human face twice as long as boys of the same age. Infant boys seem just as interested in things as in faces.

If you haven't read this kind of research, it is very interesting. Something about the different structures of the brain and how they are impacted by the different levels and kinds of hormones makes women more interested in relationships than men. And the stronger interest in relationships then influences the girls' development. They like different kinds of games. Much of girls' play helps them learn more about relationships and get better at it.

And because of their lack of interest in relationships, boys learn very little about relationships as they grow up. Boys just aren't as interested in the kinds of games that would teach them about intimacy or love or domestic life. So this original brain difference, extended over time, continues to widen the gulf between the sexes — the gap in ability, the difference in relationship competence and emotional intelligence. (Read more about sex differences.)

As soon as I was finished with Brain Sex, the very next book I picked up was Love and Survival: 8 Pathways to Intimacy and Health by Dean Ornish. Ornish has a program for people who have already had a heart attack. Ornish's program is the first one to document the reversal of heart disease. Up until Ornish proved it with good scientific research, it was taken for granted by the medical establishment that although you may be able to slow the progression of heart disease, you could never reverse it. Ornish proved you could, in fact, reverse heart disease. One of the key elements in Ornish's program is teaching these men (most of them are men) how to become closer to people.

One of the chapters in Love and Survival gives brief descriptions of studies of all kinds, in different countries, using different methods, indicating clearly that being close to people is really good for your health. Especially your heart. Love is great for the heart.

The patients who go through Ornish's program are often successful men who have spent their lives working and succeeding and not paying much attention to their relationships. They have never been very interested. The men have come to the clinic because their future looks pretty bleak. They've had one heart attack. Statistically, they are likely to have another. Statistically, their heart disease is going to continue to get progressively worse. This is what their doctors have told these men. And statistically, they will probably die of another heart attack.

So when they come to Ornish, they are serious. And they are very open to suggestion. Ornish basically tells these guys, "Look, you need to learn to be close to your wife or you're going to become a statistic." Besides changing their diet and exercise, Ornish has a very clear and arresting message: "Learn about intimacy or die!" And only then, for the first time in their lives, do these men become interested in relationships. The threat of death finally overcame the natural lack of interest they were born with.

Of course, as they learn how to share themselves more openly and listen more attentively, their lives become far more satisfying. This is also good for their spouses. These men come back to Ornish a few years later and say they are happier than they have ever been in their lives. Of course. Many of them consider themselves lucky to have been forced into a new way of life.

Studies have been coming down the pike in huge abundance for many years that one of the most important causes of happiness is good relationships. Closeness. Happy people are close to others. The more isolated or alienated a person is — no matter how wealthy he is or how much exercise he does or how great his diet is — the more likely he is to be miserable. Happiness and closeness go together. Unhappiness and isolation go together.

Something about reading these two books in this particular order at this stage in my life struck a nerve. It was like a one-two punch. The effect on me was literally transformational. I read Brain Sex in a detached way. "Interesting research," I was thinking, "Yeah, yeah, men aren't as interested in relationships. I knew that already."

But then Love and Survival made it clear that if I accept the default setting of my brain, I'm doomed.

I felt like Ebenezer Scrooge after the three ghosts had their say. All of a sudden I realized I could change and that I wanted to change. I could be interested in closeness — for the first time in my life. I wasn't doomed to squirm for the rest of my life in the trap testosterone had put me in.

Now you might be thinking, "What an idiot! How can he not have known relationships are important?" But the problem goes deeper than that. I had already recognized that relationships and good relationship skills are useful. Treat people well and your life will be more enjoyable. But that barely scratches the surface.

Even though the most wonderful times I've ever had were when I was really in love with my wife, Klassy, and the most miserable times in my life have been when we were angry with each other, and even though I've read plenty of true adventure stories and accounts of war, and I've read that when a man is dying, he usually has only one thing to say to his comrades: "Tell my wife I love her," I still didn't have a strong interest in learning about love or relationships. I figured that stuff would just work out.

So it wasn't as simple as me being stupid. I knew love makes the world go round but it didn't penetrate my skull. I didn't really get it. Even as I read those two books, it wasn't sinking in. It was still just so much interesting research. But then something happened. A critical mass of understanding occurred and suddenly closeness took on enormous significance. I had been only blinded to it by testosterone.


I had never tried to cultivate closeness before. I knew a lot about human nature and people skills and psychology, but I'd never tried to be closer to others. I had tried (and succeeded) to get along well with people, I had learned to deal with conflict effectively, I knew how to make people feel good about themselves, but I had never wanted to cultivate closeness. I'd never even thought about it. Generally, I have spent my energies trying to control what people feel rather than finding out what they feel, so this was a new field for me.

The only one I was really close to was Klassy — not because I did anything — but because she was able to get me to reveal myself (even against my will) and she was able to make me listen, even when I didn't want to. I enjoyed this strong bond only because she was strong enough to make it happen against my will. I could keep all the rest of my relationships tapered down to the minimum, and I did. Why? Because I was too busy with my work. Relationships were too time consuming. And because our modern culture works against closeness in many ways.

I can imagine a small village a few hundred years ago. What would it be like? I would imagine that a man would be close to many people because a) he knows everybody in the small village and everybody knows him, and b) his wife would help him cultivate his connections with others.

I'm not too different from many modern Westerners: My parents divorced. During my school years we moved several times to new towns. Think about it: Ties were continually being broken. I have always lived in fairly large towns or cities. The kinds of bonds that would naturally form when everyone stayed put cannot naturally form any more. Our mobility, our way of life — going to work, being away from each other all day, working on computers, constant isolation — works against cultivating closeness. Especially among men, whose hormones predispose him to independence. So in addition to my own personal reasons to keep my relationships distant, the culture worked against me too.

But all that has changed. I have awakened to a new way of life. And as soon as I got it, I explored and discovered and tried out ideas with my usual gusto. In this book, you'll read what I've learned about getting closer to others.

Before we get to the meat of this subject, I have a few points I'd like to make. First of all, cultivating closeness is only one aspect of relationships. An important one, to be sure. But only one. There are other important aspects: commitment, trust, keeping your word, shared purpose, handling conflict, looking out for each other, etc. I don't say much about those here. They all benefit from increased closeness and cultivating closeness will probably benefit them. But this section is only about closeness.

Second, I know some people will drive you crazy when you get closer to them. For some people, it'll cost too much in pain to try to be close to them. So you must choose your people wisely.

One last point before we get to it. You should keep this in mind throughout this section: Closeness is not all-or-nothing. You can be a little close to someone or you can be very close, or you can be anywhere in between. As you work to become closer to someone, do not be discouraged. It takes time. You will gradually enjoy greater closeness with people if you keep trying.

I have done my best here to include everything that makes a difference and to leave out whatever is unessential to closeness. What we have left are five fundamental principles. Let's get to them.

No comments:

Post a Comment