The Approach-Avoidance Dance, Excerpt from Intimate Strangers: Men and Women Together by Lillian B. Rubin

Intimacy. We hunger for it, but we also fear it. We come close to a loved one, then we back off. A teacher I had once described this as the “go away a little closer” message. I call it the approach-avoidance dance.

The conventional wisdom says that women want intimacy, men resist it. And I have plenty of material that would seem to support that view. Whether in my research interviews, in my clinical hours, or in the ordinary course of my life, I hear the same story told repeatedly. “He doesn’t talk to me,” says a woman. “I don’t know what she wants me to talk about,” says a man. “I want to know what he’s feeling,” she tells me. “I’m not feeling anything,” he insists. “Who can feel nothing?” she cries. “I can,” he shouts. As the heat rises, so does the wall between them. Defensive and angry, they retreat–stalemated by their inability to understand each other.

Women complain to each other all the time about not being able to talk to their men about the things that matter most to them–about what they themselves are thinking and feeling, about what goes on in the hearts and minds of the men they’re relating to. And men, less able to expose themselves and their conflicts–those within themselves or those with the women in their lives–either turn silent or take cover by holding women up to derision. It’s one of the norms of male camaraderie to poke fun at women, to complain laughingly about the mystery of their minds, wonderingly about their ways. Even Freud did it when, in exasperation, he asking mockingly, “What do women want? Dear God, what do they want?”

But it’s not a joke–not for the women, not for the men who like to pretend

The whole goddamn business of what you’re calling intimacy bugs the hell out of me. I never know what you women mean when you talk about it. Karen complains that I don’t talk to her, but it’s not talk she wants, it’s some other damn thing, only I don’t know what the hell it is. Feelings, she keeps asking for. So what am I supposed to do if I don’t have any to give her or to talk about just because she decides it’s time to talk about feelings? Tell me, will you; maybe we can get some peace around here.

The expression of such conflicts would seem to validate the common understandings that suggest that women want and need intimacy more than men do–that the issue belongs to women alone; that, if let to themselves, men would not suffer from it. But things are not always what they seem. And I wonder: “If men would renounce intimacy, what is their stake in relationships with women?”

Some would say that men need women to tend to their daily needs–to prepare their meals, clean their houses, wash their clothes, rear their children–so that they can be free to attend to life’s larger problems. And, given the traditional structure of roles in the family, it has certainly worked that way most of the time. But, if that were all men seek, why is it that, even when they’re not relating to women, so much of their lives is spent in search of a relationship with another, so much agony experience when it’s not available?

These are difficult issues to talk about–even to think about–because the subject of intimacy isn’t just complicated, it’s slippery as well. Ask yourself: What is intimacy? What words come to mind, what thoughts?

It’s an idea that excites our imagination, a word that seems larger than life to most of us. It lures us, beckoning us with a power we’re unable to resist. And, just because it’s so seductive, it frightens us as well–seeming sometimes to be some mysterious force from outside ourselves that, if we let is, could sweep us away. But what is it we fear?

Asking what intimacy is, most of us–men and women–struggle to say something sensible, something that we can connect with the real experience of our lives. “Intimacy is knowing there’s someone who cares about the children as much as you do.” “Intimacy is a history of shared experience.” “It’s sitting there having a cup of coffee together and watching the eleven-o’clock news.” “It’s knowing you care about the same things.” “It’s knowing she’ll always understand.” “It’s him sitting in the hospital for hours at a time when I was sick. “It’s knowing he cares when I’m hurting.” “It’s standing by me when I was out of work.” “It’s seeing each other at our worst.” “It’s sitting across the breakfast table.” “It’s talking when you’re in the bathroom.” “It’s knowing we’ll begin and end each day together.”

These seem the obvious things–the things we expect when we commit our lives to one another in a marriage, when we decide to have children together. And they’re not to be dismissed as inconsequential. They make up the daily experience of our lives together, setting the tone for a relationship in important and powerful ways. It’s sharing such commonplace, everyday events that determines the temper and the texture of life, that keeps us living together even when other aspects of the relationship seem less than perfect. Knowing someone is there, is constant, and can be counted on in just the ways these thoughts express provides the background of emotional security and stability we look for when we enter a marriage. Certainly a marriage and the people in it will be tested and judged quite differently in an unusual situation or in a crisis. But how often does life present us with circumstances and events that are so out of the range of ordinary experience?

These ways in which a relationship feels intimate on a daily basis are only one part of what we mean by intimacy, however–the part that’s most obvious, the part that doesn’t awaken our fears. At a lecture where I spoke of these issues recently, one man commented also, “Intimacy is putting aside the masks we wear in the rest of our lives.” A murmur of assent ran through the audience of a hundred or so. Intuitively we say “yes.” Yet this is the very issue that also complicates our intimate relationships.

On the one hand, it’s reassuring to be able to put away the public persona–to believe we can be loved for who we really are, that we can show our shadow side without fear, that our vulnerabilities will not be counted against us. “The most important thing is to feel I’m accepted just the way I am,” people will say.

But there’s another side. For, when we show ourselves thus without the masks, we also become anxious and fearful. “Is it possible that someone could love the real me?” we’re likely to ask. Not the most promising question for the further development of intimacy, since it suggests that, whatever else another might do or feel, it’s we who have trouble loving ourselves. Unfortunately, such misgivings are not usually experienced consciously. We’re aware only that our discomfort has risen, that we feel a need to get away. For the person who has seen the “real me” is also the one who reflects back to us an image that usually not wholly up to our liking. We get angry at that, first at ourselves for not living up to our own expectations, then at the other, who becomes for us the mirror of our self-doubts–a displacement of hostility that serves intimacy poorly.

There’s yet another level–one that’s further below the surface of consciousness, therefore, one that’s much more difficult for us to grasp, let alone to talk about. I’m referring to the differences in the ways in which women and men deal with their inner emotional lives–differences that create barriers between us that can be high indeed. It’s here that we see how those early childhood experiences of separation and individuation–the psychological tasks that were required of us in order to separate from mother, to distinguish ourselves as autonomous persons, to internalize a firm sense of gender identity–take their toll on our intimate relationships.

Stop a woman in mid-sentence with the question, “What are you feeling right now?” and you might have to wait a bit while she reruns the mental tape to capture the moment just passed. But, more than likely, she’ll be able to do it successfully. More than likely, she’ll think for a while and come up with an answer. The same is not true of a man. For him, a similar question usually will bring a sense of wonderment that one would even ask it, followed quickly by an uncomprehending and puzzled response. “What do you mean?” he’ll ask. “I was just talking,” he’ll say.

I’ve seen it most clearly in the clinical setting where the task is to get to the feeling level–or, as one of my male patients said when he came into therapy, to “hook up the head and the gut.” Repeatedly when therapy begins, I find myself having to teach a man how to monitor his internal states–how to attend to his thoughts and feelings, how to bring them into consciousness. In the early stages of our work, it’s a common experience to say to a man, “How does that feel?” and to see a blank look come over his face. Over and over, I find myself listening as a man speaks with calm reason about a situation which I know must be fraught with pain. “How do you feel about that?” I’ll ask. “I’ve just been telling you,” he’s likely to reply. “No,” I’ll say, “you’ve told me what happened, not how you feel about it.” Frustrated, he might well respond, “You sound just like my wife.”

It would be easy to write off such dialogues as the problems of men in therapy, of those who happen to be having some particular emotional difficulties. But it’s not so, as any woman who has lived with a man will attest. Time and again women complain: “I can’t get him to verbalize his feelings.” “He talks, but it’s always intellectualizing.” “He’s so closed off from what he’s feeling, I don’t know how he lives that way.” “If there’s one thing that will eventually ruin this marriage, it’s the fact that he can’t talk about what’s going on inside him” “I have to work like hell to get anything out of him that resembles a feeling that’s something besides anger. That I get plenty of–me and the kids, we all get his anger. Anything else is damn hard to come by with him.” One woman talked eloquently about her husband’s anguish over his inability to get problems in his work life resolved. When I asked how she knew about his pain, she answered:

I pull for it, I pull hard, and sometimes I can get something from him. But it’ll be late at night in the dark–you know, when we’re in bed and I can’t look at him while he’s talking and he doesn’t have to look at me. Otherwise he’s just defensive and puts on what I call his bear act, where he makes his warning, go-away faces, and he can’t be reached or penetrated at all.

To a woman, the world men live in seems a lonely one–a world in which their fear of exposing their sadness and pain, their anxiety about allowing their vulnerability to show, even to a woman they love, is so deeply rooted inside them that, most often, they can only allow it to happen “late at night in the dark.”

Yet, if we listen to what men say, we will hear their insistence that they do speak of what’s inside them, do share their thoughts and feelings with the women they love. “I tell her, but she’s never satisfied,” they complain. “No matter how much I say, it’s never enough,” they grumble.

From both sides, the complaints have merit. The problem lies not in what men don’t say, however, but in what’s not there–in what, quite simply, happens so far out of consciousness that it’s not within their reach. For men have integrated all too well the lessons of their childhood–the experiences that taught them to repress and deny their inner thoughts, wishes, needs, and fears; indeed, not even to notice them. It’s real, therefore, that the kind of inner thoughts and feelings that are readily accessible to a woman generally are unavailable to a man. When he says, “I don’t know what I’m feeling,” he isn’t necessarily being intransigent and withholding. More than likely, he speaks the truth.

Partly that’s a result of the ways in which boys are trained to camouflage their feelings under cover of an exterior of calm, strength, and rationality. Fears are not manly. Fantasies are not rational. Emotions, above all, are not for the strong, the sane, the adult. Women suffer them, not men–women, who are more like children with what seems like their never-ending preoccupation with their emotional life. But the training takes so well because of their early childhood experience when, as very young boys, they had to shift their identification from mother to father and sever themselves from their earliest emotional connection. Put the two together and it does seem like suffering to men to have to experience that emotional side of themselves, to have to give it voice.

This is the single most dispiriting dilemma of relations between women and men. He complains, “She’s so emotional, there’s no point in talking to her.” She protests, “It’s him you can’t talk to, he’s always so darned rational.” He says, “Even when I tell her nothing’s the matter, she won’t quit.” She says, “How can I believe him when I can see with my own eyes that something’s wrong?” He says, “Okay, so something’s wrong! What good will it do to tell her?” She cries, “What are we married for? What do you need me for, just to wash your socks?”

These differences in the psychology of women and men are born of a complex interaction between society and the individual. At the broadest social level is the rendering of thought and feeling that is such a fundamental part of Western thought. Thought, defined as the ultimate good, has been assigned to men; feeling, considered at best a problem, has fallen to women.

So firmly fixed have these ideas been that, until recently, few thought to question them. For they were built into the structure of psychological thought as if they spoke to an eternal, natural, and scientific truth. Thus, even such a great and innovative thinker as Carl Jung wrote, “The woman is increasingly aware that love alone can give her full stature, just as the man begins to discern that spirit alone can endow his life with its highest meaning. Fundamentally, therefore, both seek a psychic relation one to the other, because love needs the spirit, and the spirit love, for their fulfillment.”(Carl Gustav Jung, Contributions to Analytic Psychology (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1928), p. 185.)

For a woman, “love”; for a man, “spirit”–each expected to complete the other by bringing to the relationship the missing half. In German, the word that is translated here as spirit is Geist. But The New Cassell’s German Dictionary shows that another primary meaning of Geist is “mind, intellect, intelligence, wit, imagination, sense of reason.” And, given the context of these words, it seems reasonable that Geist for Jung referred to a man’s highest essence–his mind. There’s no ambiguity about a woman’s calling, however. It’s love.

Intuitively, women try to heal the split that these definitions of male and female have foisted upon us.

I can’t stand that he’s so damned unemotional and expects me to be the same. He lives in his head all the time, and he acts like anything that’s emotional isn’t worth dealing with.

Cognitively, even women often share the belief that the rational side, which seems to come so naturally to men, is the more mature, the more desirable.

I know I’m too emotional, and it causes problems between us. He can’t stand it when I get emotional like that. It turns him right off.

Her husband agrees that she’s “too emotional” and complains:

Sometimes she’s like a child who’s out to test her parents. I have to be careful when she’s like that not to let her rile me up because otherwise all hell would break loose. You just can’t reason with her when she gets like that.

It’s the rational-man-hysterical-woman script, played out again and again by two people whose emotional repertoire is so limited that they have few real options. As the interaction between them continues, she reaches for the strongest tools she has, the mode she’s most comfortable and familiar with: She becomes progressively more emotional and expressive. He falls back on his best weapons: He becomes more rational, more determinedly reasonable. She cries for him to attend to her feelings, whatever they may be. He tells her coolly, with a kind of clenched-teeth reasonableness, that it’s silly for her to feel that way, that she’s just being emotional. And of course she is. But that dismissive word “just” is the last straw. She gets so upset that she does, in fact, seem hysterical. He gets so bewildered by the whole interaction that his only recourse is to build the wall of reason even higher. All of which makes things measurably worse for both of them.

The more I try to be cool and calm her the worse it gets. I swear, I can’t figure her out. I’ll keep trying to tell her not to get so excited, but there’s nothing I can do. Anything I say just makes it worse. So then I try to keep quiet, but … wow, the explosion is like crazy, just nuts.

And by then it is a wild exchange that any outsider would agree was “just nuts.” But it’s not just her response that’s off, it’s his as well–their conflict resting on the fact that we equate the emotional with the nonrational.

This notion, shared by both women and men, is a product of the fact that they were born and reared in this culture. But there’s also a difference between them in their capacity to apprehend the logic of emotions–a difference born in their early childhood experiences in the family, when boys had to express so much of their emotional side and girls could permit theirs to flower.

For men, generally the idea of the “logic of emotions” seems a contradiction in terms. For women, it’s not. The complexity of their inner life–their relatively easy shifts between the intuitive and the cognitive, the emotional and the rational–provides some internal evidence with which to stand in opposition to the ideology the culture propounds so assiduously. So they both believe and disbelieve it all at once. They believe because it’s so difficult to credit their own experience in the face of such a cultural assault. And they disbelieve because it’s also so difficult to completely discredit the same experience. Thus, a woman will say:

When he gets into that oh-so-reasonable place, there are times when I feel like I’m going crazy. Well, I don’t know if I’m really nuts, but I’m plenty hysterical. When I can get a hold of myself, I can tell myself it’s not me, it’s him, that he’s driving me crazy because he refuses to listen to what I’m saying and behaves as if I’m talking in Turkish or something.

All this, however, tells us only about the  differences between men and women in how accessible their inner thoughts are to them. There remains the question: When they’re available, how willing are they to speak those thoughts to one another? . . .”

Rubin, Lillian B. 1983. Intimate Strangers: Men and Women Together. New York: Harper & Row. [Pp. 65-75. From Chapter 4, The Approach-Avoidance Dance: Men, Women, and Intimacy, Pp. 65-97.]


2 thoughts on “The Approach-Avoidance Dance, Excerpt from Intimate Strangers: Men and Women Together by Lillian B. Rubin

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  1. This is a long passage & there’s a lot of meat at the beginning that I feel gets watered down into a message of only four words: “woman: heart; man: head.” For me, this is very frustrating, especially when she brings Jung & fears into the conversation. This is where I feel the true crux of the matter lies (but I am a Jungian, so take that for what it’s worth). Hopefully, she circles back to this idea and revisits it later in the book.

    It has been my experience, however, that the problem lies in the fact that our greatest respective fears are drastically different. The innermost kernel of fear is the same: that we are worthless. In men, that most commonly looks like: we are powerless; and in women it is: we are unlovable. A man can respect his wife & the wife can love her husband and each feels they are giving the other what they need because that is what they need, themselves. If a man feels his wife does not respect him, she is bringing out his deepest fear. Even then, he can just pour himself deeper into his job and earn the respect he needs that way.

    Contrarily, if the wife feels that her husband does not love her, she has few places to turn which will remove her from her darkest fear. She can turn to her children or extended family, but there is generally some hierarchical structure within those relationships that complicates or even obfuscates true love feelings. She could take a lover, but that tends to have very obvious detrimental effects on a marriage. The only place left then would be to turn to her girlfriends. Unfortunately, relationships between women are far more complicated than those between men and not all women have a good girlfriend to lean on.

    The wife is left, then, mired in the darkness of her deepest fear and no matter how she tries to explain it to her husband, he can’t understand. A man has much more power over removing himself from fear of his own accord. A woman can do the same for herself to a certain extent, but it is really far more difficult because her fear is largely relationship-oriented. In this way, women are designed to be more codependent by nature & therefore more likely to find themselves bound to unhealthy relationships.

    That’s just my thoughts in this moment after a quick read-through.


    1. The woman=femininity=heart=emotion=irrational and then man as a construction of the opposite of that is a binary that Rubin is trying to show is wrong, and is also just that: a construction. A social construction, dare I say. And she brings up Jung as one who got caught up this binary but who, in her reading, I think, also realized that the culture, or rather, society constructs this binary that people perpetuate and reperpetuate which plays out in relationships as well. I’m on my phone right now, but she mentions that people regardless of gender/sex do express emotion at the same level, but during childhood we teach men to repress it and women to express it, and then it manifests in adulthood and within marriage accordingly.

      And I would argue that power and autonomy is something men are socialized to want, more so than women, so I totally agree with you there.

      Man might “pour himself into his job”, as you mention, but this a coping mechanism that would do little to address the real underlying causes of the behavior. It doesn’t resolve wanting intimacy (unless he cheats and breaks his monogamy or something, because men practically only express intimacy through sex).

      Regarding power-relations that you mention, I sincerely wish that that was something Rubin addressed in this book, and I have yet to see it. The focus on power relations within relationships is a fairly new focus in sociology, and this book is 1983. As for a man having the “power over removing himself from fear of his own accord,” as you wrote, I would argue there can hardly be a thing of personal choice, because much of this stuff is dictated by external and mostly macro-social processes that are subsequently socialized through media, family, peers, etc. And what man fears in this context (I’m not sure of its in this passage by Rubin, it might be in another) is intimacy, which is why Rubin gives the example of a man only opening up in complete darkness, late at night, where there is almost a veil of anonymity, invisibility, and confidentiality.

      Still, I would argue, these are not biological designs (I am not a biological determinist, by any account) but social constructions.

      I think The Second Sex by de Beauvoir really addresses the experience of the married woman (and the woman more generally) and also addressing the concept of power better than Rubin does. Rubin is interesting because she interviewed men and women, and also, I like the title “Intimate Strangers,” because the real problem in this book (as within patriarchy) is men, and while this book is written by a woman, much of the time spent in this book is trying to understand why men act like total (“intimate”) strangers through interviews with both (I think she was a clinical psychologist or family therapist but much of her writings are required readings in PhD sociology of the family programs). I think what you said about women is totally spot on, but unfortunately, so far, totally missing from this book.

      And again, I do think feelings of worthlessness are important because we can look at how society deems what’s “worthy”, and in particular it’s a devaluation of women, more so than men. And within this context we devalue emotion, so, of course, women respond with regret for feeling “emotional” and thus feeling “worthless.” But if you want something on emotion or the devaluing of women, you will not find it in Rubin’s works. Hochschild wrote and still writes about this devaluing of emotion and emotional work (hey that was a question on the test today!) which particularly falls on the shoulders of women. She is certainly worth reading in understanding feelings of worthlessness and emotional labor, especially from the standpoint of women.


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