When Intimacy Founders: The Deconstruction of love

Br Michael Hill FMS

Australian Catholic University Public Forum -
Fear of Intimacy: The Problem and its Consequences
7 November 2003

Our topic is Fear of Intimacy - a curious concept when one reflects on the premise that human life devoid of intimacy is at best dull and, in all likelihood, meaningless.

Allow me to begin by recounting two recent personal encounters.

The first concerns a young man of 18 years of age.  I had been seeing him regularly in a professional capacity for six months and just seven weeks ago we had our final session together.  During those months we had travelled through some serious issues, including depression, family problems and relationships.  This was the last time we would meet before he attempted his HSC exams - something he had considered an impossibility merely months beforehand.  I guess it was a moment of celebration for both of us, recognising that he was about to attempt the formerly unattainable.  I offered some final words of advice and wished him good luck in the exams.  He thanked me for the time I had spent with him.  As we rose from our chairs for me to see him out of the office he spontaneously threw his arms around me in a bear hug.  Furthermore, he did not let go.  It was a genuine and natural reaction of a young man who is not very articulate but who wanted to express himself in that way at that moment.  My reaction, however, was to freeze.  I was very conscious that we would have been quite visible to anyone passing by the translucent glass door of the office.  Eventually I recovered to the point that I was able to receive his expression of thanks and gratitude, and I saw him out.

Later that day, I reflected on our brief encounter, trying to find reasons for my initial reaction.  Although I have been away from adolescent counselling for several years until now, such an expression of feeling would not have fazed me in the past.  I was annoyed with myself that I had not been able to attend to him during my several seconds of self-consciousness.

I will return to that encounter later.

The second occurred only a week or so after the first.  I was in Solomon Islands and was talking with a seminarian who had been referred to me.  He is in his late 20s, and had been manifesting some behavioural tendencies that were of concern to the seminary rector.  As you would be aware, ethnic violence has wreaked havoc in the Solomons for the past five years.  This person was showing clear signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (and there is very little by way of professional help available in that country) and for very understandable reasons.  His older brother had been killed by one of the junior warlords of his region and he had been assigned the task of “pay-back” to avenge that murder.  After months of searching, he tracked down his brother’s killer and confronted him.  As he described it to me, he raised his gun to shoot the other person but, as their eyes met, he heard a voice inside himself saying “the killing must stop”.  He lowered his rifle, sat down and talked with the other man, saying that he forgave him.  They then arranged for suitable compensation to be carried out according to tribal custom.  When this became known to his family, however, it resulted in his exclusion from the village for bringing further shame upon them, and he now fears for his own life.  He went on to tell me how the whole fabric of his culture has been shredded by the civil war.  Traditional laws have been abandoned and have been replaced by a regime of violence, especially murder and rape, which has not only been visited upon opposing clans and tribes, but has also entered into disputes among members of the same clan, and sometimes among members of the same extended family.

Sydney, Australia - Honiara, Solomon Islands .. only 4 hours flying time between them, but culturally quite dissimilar. Yet there is a common thread to the stories.  The two of us (the Solomon Islander and myself) were experiencing a similar dynamic of working out how to deal with radically changed cultural norms.  We were both adjusting to rapidly changing guidelines, expectations and values.  For both of us, many traditional anchors and signposts are now often somewhat shaky, if not absent altogether.  I took a step backwards in allowing anxiety to take over.  He took a giant leap forward in defying the current dictates of his culture.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these experiences.

Some Consequences of the Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church in Australia

In the mid-1980s, stories surfaced in North America, both in Canada and the United States, concerning the sexual abuse of minors by personnel of the Catholic Church, and particularly by priests and male religious.  Initial reactions to these accounts were often those of disbelief, suspicion, even denial.  As the number of cases grew, these early reactions were augmented by those of shame, confusion and anger.  Within a few years, and certainly by the early 1990s similar stories emerged in Australia, together with the same sequence of reactions.  Responses by bishops and leaders of religious congregations to victims of abuse varied from very good to very poor.  Both groups (bishops and leaders) agreed to develop a national set of protocols to respond to such complaints, and these were first promulgated in December 1996 (revised December 2000) under the title Towards Healing.  Additionally, it was decided to develop a document of principles and standards for clergy and religious of the Catholic Church in Australia.  These were published in June 1999 in the document Integrity in Ministry and are currently undergoing a comprehensive revision.

I was involved in the development of both documents, but it is the latter that I would like to highlight this evening.  The early reaction of many clergy and religious to the idea of adopting a code of practice, or a code of ethics, was one of incredulity, sometimes anger.  They asked why such a document was needed when we already have the Gospels.  Some felt offended and victimised, sensing that they were somehow being constrained in the free exercise of their ministry because of the crimes of a few of their colleagues.  These were, and are, understandable reactions.  The Catholic tradition in this country has allowed priests and religious wide latitude in the exercise of their ministry, albeit within well-defined boundaries and according to well-known expectations of the people they served.  Sadly, none of these (Gospels, defined boundaries and known expectations) was able to prevent the abuse of which we are now only too painfully aware.

A fundamental concern of bishops and leaders, indeed of all members of the Church, must be the prevention of future abuse.  The protection of children and vulnerable adults must be given top priority.  Therefore, a code of practice must be agreed on and implemented in a very public way.  The future protection of children and vulnerable adults, the credibility of the Church, and the expectations of the wider society demand nothing less.  Church personnel must be publicly accountable to the people they serve, and to the wider society.

Having said that, we also recognise that there is a two-edged sword in play as soon as behavioural expectations of clergy and religious are codified.  Reactions to the early drafts (there were several) of the first edition of Integrity in Ministry showed those of us on the writing committee just how complex a task this was.  To take a simple example … it was agreed that, in principle, a priest should not conduct any formal ministry in his living quarters.  That seemed at least a reasonable constraint until it was pointed out that many rural parishes do not have the luxury of being able to partition off business areas in a separate building from living quarters in a small single-story dwelling.

Beyond these practical difficulties, however, there emerged a more worrying spectre.  In attempting to write down a code of practice, were we unwittingly stifling good and legitimate ministry?  I believe that the answer to this question in some cases is a clear “yes”.  Just a few years ago I was talking with a headmaster (a religious Brother) of a boarding school who was quite distressed that he had felt unable to console a young boy when informing him that his mother had just died.  He said that a supportive arm around the boy’s shoulder would have been the obvious and appropriate thing to do, yet it was now “against the rules”, at least in private.  It seems to me that we are currently erring on the side of caution and, I have to say in the light of what we have been through over the past fifteen years, this may be a necessary stage in our evolution as we develop protocols to ensure best practice in the protection of children.  An unfortunate by-product of this particular stage, however, is the erosion of spontaneous expressions of intimacy among clergy and religious as they attend to the many and varied tasks of their ministries with people, young and not so young.  Many of my confreres are perplexed that certain behavioural aspects of their pastoral style in the past (for many years in some cases) are now at least suspect, if not totally proscribed.

Why was I so self-conscious when the 18 year-old student hugged me?  In truth, I have to admit that it was probably coming from an anxiety that arises from my share in the collective shame that we religious and clergy experience in the light of what we know of the tragic failures of some of our confreres and colleagues.  As a religious Brother with several decades of ministry behind me which has involved teaching and administration in high schools (including boarding schools), coaching sports teams, running camps and retreats for youth, training of future Brothers, practising as a clinical psychologist and consultant to religious congregations, and exercising leadership of my own Province of Brothers, a part of me resents that I have to learn a new set of rules about how I should relate to people.  Simultaneously, however, I recognise that this is a small price to pay if it contributes to a safer future for the people entrusted to our care, particularly the young.

I am sure that Professor Hayes will take this issue up further in his presentation.

The Big Picture - Fear of Intimacy in the Wider Context

Let me return to the story from Solomon Islands.  My experiences and observations there parallel those I witnessed in Bougainville in the mid to late 1990s and in Central Africa (particularly Rwanda) in the mid 1990s.  In all three countries civil war broke out after festering beneath the surface for several years beforehand.  In each place there was a rapid disintegration of societal and cultural norms, together with widespread abandonment of traditional law and order.  These were replaced with a degree of violence which can only be described as horrific.  (Might I add in passing that reconciliation in both Bougainville and Rwanda is currently being driven at the grass-roots level by local women.  I suspect the same will be true in Solomon Islands in the near future.)  The removal of traditional values, customs, norms and behavioural expectations was immediately replaced with a moral vacuum which, as already noted, was characterised by extreme violence.

Is this something that only happens in developing countries of the Third World?  I doubt it.  It seems to me that a similar dynamic has been operating in Western countries such as Australia and the United States for several decades.  Of course, we do things somewhat more subtly and with a veneer of sophistication.  Our ability to destroy ourselves and each other manifests itself in ways which might involve less bloodshed, but which are no less lethal to the human spirit. How can this be?

An recent article by Chris McGillion in the Sydney Morning Herald  (“A shaky life for young without belief”, 28 October 2003) caught my attention, and it may shed some light on the issue.  He describes two studies done in the United States, the first in 1967 and the second released just last month.  The first was conducted by a sociologist who, in attempting to explain the rebelliousness of youth at that time, suggested that the 1960s saw the first generation of young people in history to be reared “in an environment that lacked fixed points of reference to guide them through life”.

In 2003, 36 years later, a report from the US  Commission on Children at Risk has found that today “21% of American children aged nine to 17 now have a diagnosable mental disorder or addiction; 8% of high school students suffer from clinical depression, and 20% of students report having seriously considered suicide in the past year”.  McGillion quotes from the report which states that “childhood in the US has become at best anaemic, in the sense of weak and inadequate to foster full human flourishing, and at worst toxic, inadvertently depressing health and engendering emotional stress and mental illness”.  The obvious question  presents itself:  Is not the corresponding situation in Australia identical?

I mentioned earlier that I have begun working with older adolescents again after several years of doing other things.  Apart from learning a new language [adolescent idioms have a very short life span!] I am gradually being inducted into a world of many elements, some of which are familiar to me but others of which are disturbingly new.  I am learning that many of our young people are living lives “on the edge”.  For some of them it involves living on the edge of relationships, always trying to make them work but never quite succeeding.  For others, it involves embracing the hedonistic lifestyle which is presented relentlessly to them as the desirable norm, only to find that it leaves them feeling empty.  And for a few (and these are the ones that concern me most) it involves trying to survive in a world of meaninglessness.  They have not been subjected to the rigours of civil war, nor have they had to endure the hardships of material deprivation.  But these young people live in a world which is bereft of many of the values which I believe you and I take for granted.  It seems to me that the findings of the 1967 study mentioned a moment ago, namely that the youth of that era were raised in an environment of, at best, floating values and reference points, have been confirmed repeatedly throughout the intervening decades.  If it is true that you reap what you sow, then we are now seeing clearly the results of the gradual dismantling of many values in our culture over the past forty years.

I would suggest that we are now well into what might be called a new phase in the crisis of intimacy in our culture, and that it has been developing for several decades.  We are quite aware of the gradual deconstruction of many of our institutions, including the Church, the judiciary, the political system, the education system, and especially the family as the basic unit of our society.  I do not mean to infer that none of these institutions was in need of reform - quite the opposite - but the question has to be asked: what has replaced the values that were enshrined in them?  Is it not true that, paradoxically, contemporary society has made an “absolute” of “relativism”, including the corollary that the individual person has all the answers (or should have all the answers) to all questions within the self?  If we have somehow communicated to our young people that they alone are the arbiters of their lives, without any need for an external frame of reference to guide them, should we then be surprised that some of them have enormous difficulty in finding any objective meaning in their very existence?

The 2003 US study referred to is entitled Hardwired to Connect, by which is meant that there is strong evidence to suggest that children are hardwired (in terms of brain structure) to form close attachments to, first of all, family members, and then beyond to the wider community.  The first part of that statement is simply an amplification of the pioneering research of John Bowlby which led to the formulation of his Attachment Theory many years ago.  However, the report further postulates that the same neural circuitry of the brain involves a driven search for meaning in life, including moral meaning, and a search for transcendental reality.  I cannot quote their evidence for that assertion, but it makes sense to me anecdotally.

Put simply, all people are driven towards some form of meaningful connectedness - intimacy.  However, if I alone am the arbiter of my entire existence (including all my personal decisions), how can I afford to let go of my absolute self-possession and risk any sense of the mutuality and vulnerability which are the hallmarks of genuine intimacy?  The tension resulting from this can be quite destructive both for myself and for the other person(s).

I am occasionally intrigued by the language of some of the young people (adolescents and young adults) I am in contact with who freely use words such as “partner”, “relationship”, and  “love” as they describe a particular life-situation which, as I understand it, bears little resemblance to any of those.  What I do see with worrying frequency in these descriptions is a desperate attempt to connect meaningfully with another human being, but in ways that lead inexorably to personal hurt and destruction, generally of at least two people.  I do not refer here to the normal and often fumbling attempts of adolescents and young adults as they progress through developmental stages of identity formation and early relationships.  My concern is rather that many of them are caught in the web of confusion which results from the deconstruction of love (from the Christian perspective) that characterises contemporary western culture. 

I believe that young people have the ability to mirror to us the best and worst features of our society as a whole, and hence my intentional focus on them tonight.  Where and how did so many of them learn their need for total self-protection against the normal insecurities and uncertainties of committed interpersonal relationships; and this in such a way that they are unable to connect meaningfully with another; unable to experience genuine intimacy?  Could it be that we adults have modelled for them a fear of intimacy? 

The Balance

Up to this point I have painted a provocatively bleak picture. (It is a public forum after all!)  However, what I have said so far is not the whole picture.  For example, I am continually amazed at the resilience of many young people I meet, some of whom find themselves in very challenging situations.  Likewise I am constantly buoyed by their idealism in such areas as social justice.

The recent US study already referred to describes a sub-group of young people who appear to emerge from within that culture as relatively healthy in many ways, particularly as measured on indices of self-esteem and positive attitudes towards life.  A defining feature of this group is their sense of having “a direct personal relationship with the Divine”.  This brings us back to the whole area of values.  The report states that adolescents who profess some sort of religious sensibility are less likely to become prone to substance abuse, delinquency, self-harm, and criminality in later life.  The major recommendation of the report is that the future health of young people requires that they belong to “authoritative communities” which are described as groups of people who are committed to the welfare of each other, along the lines of that interdependence referred to by Professor Sheehan in his introductory remarks.  Such communities provide credible exemplars and positive role models for the young.  Ideally they should be found in families, schools, churches and community organisations.  Clearly, there remains a crucial and essential role for these institutions in our society.


The Christian imperative is to “love one another as I have loved you” as enunciated by Christ in John’s gospel (Jn 13:34).  Paul’s letter to the Corinthians describes such love as “patient, kind, never jealous …. always ready to make allowances, to trust, to hope, to endure whatever comes” (1 Cor 13:4-7).  It remains as much a revolutionary ideal today as it was when first presented to us so long ago.  It has been depicted endlessly throughout the centuries in poetry, drama, literature, art, sculpture, and music.  It sounds deceptively simple, but in recent years we have been made aware of the enormous degree of human suffering which occurs when that ideal is horribly debased, especially by those who profess to undertake it as a publicly vowed life-commitment.  I have suggested that these aberrations may have their roots (at least partially) in the cognitive, emotional and moral distortions that flow from a confused society which has absolutised the values of individualism and relativism.

At such a time it is perhaps important to recall that the ideal is attainable, even if imperfectly.  History is replete with countless examples of women and men for whom this ideal was the bedrock of their existence.  I am sure that each of us can nominate people in our lives who embody the same ideal for us, and who thereby nurture our own capacity for intimacy.  Do we adults, therefore, (and particularly parents and educators) not owe it to future generations to pass on to them, unequivocally and unapologetically, our conviction that the Christian concept of love, far from being an anachronistic oddity, is a genuine pathway leading to the attainment of personal happiness and fulfilment, not for their own sakes but as a result of a life given to and for the other? 

Our youth need parents, educators and other significant adults who can put before them a clear set of values which are counter-cultural in today’s world, who can present these values convincingly through the transparent witness of their own lives, and who can nurture those in their care without fear.  This presupposes that those same adults are prepared to grapple with their own issues of intimacy and love, to the extent that they can free themselves from the ambient confusion in our culture concerning these, and (re)claim the personal freedom that is their right.  If that is achieved then a person such as myself will once again be able to receive a hug from a grateful 18 year old (male or female) without flinching self-consciously.

- Brother Michael Hill FMS, Clinical psychologist and Co-Chair, National Committee for Professional Standards


- received by CathNews 11/11/03