Polly Young-Eisendrath uses this term to describe what happens in intimate relationships when the two partners come to a place of intimate stalemate. When blame and frustration take over and people who once loved each other engage in habitual finger pointing which leads to a demilitarized zone instead of a loving relationship...ok, these are my words not hers.
I love this concept of intimate enemies...it is so descriptive of what I see happening in marriages. Given what I do for a living, I see the carnage of love gone wrong every single day. I see people who once loved each other enough to make a lifetime commitment to each other, end up in divorce court spending a small, and sometimes not so small fortune, to eject out of a relationship that once upon a time was seen as good enough to pledge a lifetime to...
Studies have been done and with an alarmingly high percentage, like 97%, contempt was identified as the number one predictor of divorce. When one or both partners comes to view their mate with contempt for any reason, that is the best indicator that the marriage and union is over long before it is over.
Contempt seems like the perfect precedent to forming an intimate enemy. In fact, I would argue that contempt is required to get yourself squarely lodged in a marriage with someone with whom you are intimate and engaged in a silent, and sometimes, not so silent war. Sad but true.
And what underlies all of the above, a need to blame. How does blame show up? Projective Identification. We project all this crap all over this person we are supposed to love and we allow them to do the same. How could we really end up anywhere else?
Do you know how many times I have heard the following:
“He doesn’t listen to me, our marriage would be perfect if he showed me he cared and listened to me. I listen to him and his concerns but he doesn’t care about my thoughts and feelings at all!”
“She always wants more, no matter what I give, she is never satisfied and always wants more...I give and she takes!”
“He drinks too much and spends money all the time. He doesn’t discuss things with me and always leaves me feeling insecure and scared about our future. I can’t feel secure when he behaves like this!”
“She doesn’t touch me anymore, she has just left the marriage. Checked out. She is so busy with the kids that she doesn’t even care about me anymore. Of course, I had an affair, we haven’t had sex in forever!”
If I had a nickel...I would be a gazillionaire!
So what is absent in any one of the above statements?
Care. Loving care AND accountability. Let me explain...
In all of the above scenarios, the person talking is describing what is wrong with the marriage due to the other person’s behavior...with no accounting for their own. We live in a world where self centeredness abounds as does a real commitment to look outward, not inward for solutions. We are reinforced to inventory all the things that are wrong with THEM and focus little to no attention to what we are bringing, or not, to the relationship. So we lack accountability for our actions and a sincere desire to see what we are doing to contribute to the problem...
Also, we blame. In all of the above examples, there is this overlaying of blame. The problems with the marriage are the other person’s fault creating a lovely space where we can exist and create a story that we can sell to anyone who will listen about how victimized we are and how horrible our partner is...the level and depth of storytelling is almost unbelievable! Yet I see it every single day...
What happens with blame and storytelling is that it becomes the fertile and productive grounds for contempt to grow...and once it takes root it is easy and acceptable to dismiss the other person’s thoughts, feelings, ideas and needs as being beneath our own. Once this happens, the relationship is really over and instead of a loving union, we have squarely landed in intimate enemy territory. And unfortunately, once there, it is almost impossible to get out.
So how do we avoid it? The blame game...
I think it starts with acknowledging that all relationships and people are flawed but this is not grounds for blame but acceptance...we see our beloved as flawed and human and give them some grace for their shortcomings, even when those same shortcomings injure us. If we set up a place for us to believe and allow imperfection and flaws to exist in ourselves and our partner, we have done a lot to create an environment that prizes connectivity over disconnection. I would argue that disconnection breeds blame which proliferates contempt which is the demise of all loving relationships.
Either we are selecting good, loving and flawed people to pair with or we are picking horrible, awful people to bond with...I think we have decide which story we are going to tell and then see how our selection of the dialog really predicts the course for the marriage or relationship. Can we allow our partner to be flawed and wrong? Can we hold them accountable for their actions and words that injure us without demanding that they become wholly other beings that are not at all aligned or connected to the person standing before us?
A fundamental and important question that I have begun asking myself in all of my relationships is this:
Am I creating an environment that encourages connection or disconnection?
If I find that I am behaving in a manner that creates fertile ground for disconnection, am I ok with that? Is that likely to get me where I want to go? If not, then I, not the other person, has some work to do...
Because if I don’t do the work, I will end up in a relationship with a very intimate enemy every single time. If I want something else, I have to come at it differently. I have to be willing to be accountable and stop the blame game and see what my partner does through a lens of loving kindness and concern...even if my partner is not capable of doing the same. After a little while, and long before I make a life time commitment to this person, I can see that what I am doing is not compatible with what they are capable of doing and I will leave this relationship long before I have literally married myself off to them.
I may continue to select partners that cannot meet me where I am, but I have the choice and tools to now avoid making an intimate enemy to share my life with...it is really and totally up to me. Intimate enemies do not parachute into loving relationships and take them hostage, intimate enemies are created over time by blaming the other person for being flawed and then reinforcing that by storytelling. In the end, accountability and care, are the ideas and concepts that can set me and the other person free. But I can't do that when I am more married to the dialogue I have created than the person standing before me. It is easy to hate that which I despise and really hard to give two fucks about the other person's thoughts and feelings. In fact, contempt gives me a total pass to now characterize everything that person does, doesn't do, says and doesn't say as further evidence of their incompetence and provides a rich justification for my contemptuous rage. It is a vicious, heart breaking cycle.
However, I believe that being able to identify an intimate enemy paradigm can and will go along way to unraveling the knot that has a stranglehold on love and loving relationships. Are we creating an environment with this other person that sows the seeds of connection or disconnection? Are we awake enough to see what we are doing? Are we willing to do it differently?