relationships and contact

Relationships and Contact

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The Red Thread: Contact and a Substitute
© 1990, Jasenn Zaejian (Rev. 2009 July)
{Originally published in Energy And Character, The J. of Biosynthesis, V.24, #3, Sept. 1993.; re-edited 5/94, 7/11.}



Most of us yearn for closeness and intimacy. Yet, unconscious intrapsychic conflicts often interfere and prevent the establishment of sustained intimacy.

The ability to sustain a pleasurable, close, and intimate relationship is a primary characteristic of healthy life functioning (Baker, 1967, Lowen, 1965, 1983, Pierrakos, 1987), and of the genital character, according to Reich (1933, 1945).

Many of us have the capacity to form a close relationship. Regardless of how strong the desire or capacity for intimacy is, we can look at the statistics on long term (greater than 2-3 years) heterosexual relationships and see that something is awry. The fluctuating divorce and marriage statistics sometimes finds the divorce rate exceeding that of marriage for particular demographic groups.

The number of individuals in their 30's and 40's who have never engaged in an intimate co-habitating relationship with a lover are increasing. We hear press reports of the increased incidence of sexually transmitted diseases (STD) like Hepatitis B, AID's, etc. as increasing individual fears of engaging in a love relationship. However, these relatively new fears represent only the tip of the iceberg and have been identified by some as an hysterical reaction to a relatively confined statistical problem. This reaction is, by and large, magnified by neurotic characters who have discovered a hook to promote a massive drive towards sexual repression, much like in previous historical eras. (Harmon, 1988)

People do utilize more caution when engaging in relationships. However the evolution and persistence of a love relationship requires the emergence of tenderness, not merely sexual feeling. Even considering the fact that the incidence of STDs increased since Harmon's article, the fear of STD, from a rational perspective, need not be a concern with relatively healthy individuals who permit the emergence of tenderness, not anxious sexuality, to determine the movement towards each other and the sexual embrace. For, as we know, one of the functions of the relatively healthy character is a natural desire for serial monogamy. Polygamy is a function of the neurotic structure, and is generally absent in relatively healthy individuals.

In the initial stages of a relationship the emergence of tenderness generally takes time. Testing for the absence of STDs during this time period, when one feels movement towards the other, can certainly allay any fears. The irrational basis of the argument for sexually repressive approaches to the problem of STD's is clear.

What occurs in relationships that accounts for the decreased incidence of relatively pleasurable long term involvement between two people? There are often characteristics and/or conflicts, functioning unconsciously to sabotage either the development or continuance of closeness and intimacy between individuals. These neurotic character conflicts function to block natural movement of one organism towards another.

Of course, extrinsic factors may prevent one from engaging in and establishing a close relationship. Perhaps one lives in a location where there are few available individuals seeking to engage in a mutual partnership. An individual with a degree of health might travel to an area where there are more possibilities.

More specific to the question at hand are those who begin tender relationships with the exuberant optimism of new lovers, only to discover a partner taking flight when the relationship appears to solidify and the couple begins to speculate on future options. The departing partner, most often, has had a lifelong difficulty with sustaining closeness. While they may have previously been involved in a marriage or long term relationship of many years duration, the relationship was marred by a peculiar emotional distance and substitute contact, devoid of true closeness. If actual flight is not effected, such individuals may foster unconscious actions that undermine the closeness.  Some of these actions include having affairs, becoming arrogant, critical, judgmental, violent, hostile, angry, verbally and/or physically abusive. The neurotic structure generates many creative and subtle strategies to protect us from or prevent contact and closeness.

A foundation for the process of avoiding closeness can be observed in individuals who have had a series of scarred intimate relationships, including toxic primary relationships with parents. The parents being too constricted in their own emotional development, as a consequence of their upbringing, to sustain a consistently close, nourishing, warm relationship with their children. In adolescence and later years, these individuals become frightened when true intimacy with another looks as if it is an emerging possibility. A number of toxic strategies can result. Intellectual arguments against continuing the relationship are advanced. Or, the individuals actively and unconsciously begin to act as saboteurs invoking constant criticisms and judgments of their partners and other strategies serving to diminish the quality of closeness within the relationship.

As time in a relationship evolves, neurotic characterology unfolds. If we are fortunate to meet a partner whose neurosis is compatible with ours, the relationship can develop and be successful. However, this is often not the case. For what lies beneath the surface of the neurotic character is a reservoir of repressed aggression, cruelty, and hatred. The secondary drives referenced by Reich (Reich, 1945, 1972. pp. 225-269, 278).

In most intimate relationships the secondary impulses, the unconscious aggression, sadism, and hatred surface under various guises, early on. The unconscious expression may masquerade under the pretense of authoritarian, controlling interactions, penuriousness (with feelings), coldness, exploitation, unreasonable demands or a host of other unconsciouisly driven behaviors. Most often these behaviors are motivated from an underlying fear.

There is only one unconscious fear: Fear of closeness. This is at the root of the neurotic character structure. One fear is that if we were to become closer with the intimate other, the other will relate by withdrawal, coldness, cruelty, anxiety, etc., as our original intimate others (parents) unconsciously did when we felt close to them. This was a consequence of their relationships with their own parents, and so on, along back through the generations of parents.

Just imagine how it is for a 3 year old or 4 year old whose whole existence depends on parents. As the parents begin to feel warmth, tenderness or other signs of closeness, an unpredictable and unexpected change occurs. They become anxious, withdraw, become tense or cold, do subtle cruel acts, or any of the myriad adult distortions of natural feeling concomitant with the neurotic structure (present in all human beings). This creates a terrible fear and anxiety in the child.

Notice a little person literally shrink when yelled at or harshly admonished, when a parent turns away when they are crying out for them, or when the mother withdraws her breast from the child because the sensuous arousal from breast feeding evokes anxiety in her. The choices for the child are limited. Repression of the fear and anguish, the intensity of which is intolerable to such a small organism, is the likely direction. The child accomplishes this repression by initially tightening their musculature. With time and repeated subjection to the fearful stimuli, the yelling, withdrawal of contact by the adult, or other forms of abuse, the tightening becomes chronic.

This tightening or hardening of the musculature becomes an individual's characteristic way of presenting themselves to the world. It accounts for the myriad differences of the physical or bodily expressions in each of us.

We see individuals with stooped shoulders, with thrust out chest and/or abdomen, an individual with a pulled back or retracted pelvis, an exaggeratedly swinging pelvis, or individuals with persistent down turned mouths, facial grimaces, vacant appearing eyes, beady eyes, barely opened or squinting eyes, eyes constantly darting from side to side, etc. These are some of the biophysical ways the repression is maintained in the unconscious. The unconscious fear and anxiety the individual represses by necessity in childhood will, in all probability, again emerge into consciousness in the initial stages of close adult relationships.

Hardening ourselves so we don't feel the fear, anxiety, rage, sadness, or other feelings is a learned response to a toxic environment. This is just about the only strategy, aside from becoming psychotic, children can avail themselves of. They tense their musculature to stop feeling. Over time, with repeated tightening, the feeling remains unconscious, only to rear it's head at each instance of closeness, beginning in adolescence and carrying through to adulthood.

Anger is a particularly excellent process to fend off closeness. Anger is a secondary emotion. We express anger, most often, because we feel hurt, vulnerable, too soft, or out of control.

One easy lesson to teach others, through description and modeling, is a peculiarity of our humanness. If we were to maintain our softness when attacked or hurt and communicate this to the other, rather than hardening and communicating our anger, the situation often reverses itself.

If the other is in any contact at all, they would clearly feel the shame, embarrassment, and/or compassion that comes with recognition that their actions evoked pain in the other, as unintentional as it may be. In such moments, if we respond with anger to the other; the other would often respond, in kind, with a hardness and anger. The relationship enters into a state of contactlessness.

Contact is an energetic process. One's energy must be soft to effectively engage in good contact. Good contact can result in instantaneously knowing, without words, what the other wants, is feeling, and on a few rare occasions, even thinking.

I knew a couple who, after a few months of a close and contactful relationship, have had a few of the same dreams, almost identical in content and occurring at different times. Neither party had discussed the content with the other until the other had the same dream, some time after the fact. Unfortunately, one of the partners became frightened at the depth of their closeness and took flight, ending the relationship.

In order for good contact to occur, we must have achieved a certain degree of characterological health. This level of health is achieved during the course of a characterological restructuring to the point where genitality or qualities of the genital character begin to surface. (Reich, 1945, 1972 pp. 170-193).

A concomitant of good contact is an energetic opening, including an opening and/or contact with all our senses. This opening must be relatively devoid of the unconscious conflicts that serve to harden and render us incapable of sustaining contact and tenderness. If we feel tenderness and softening, when either thinking of or when in the presence of another, it is a sign that our senses are open to engage in good contact.

Tenderness is a distinct organismic message. The warm glowing or melting sensation, when in the presence of a loved one, is the actual feeling of love.

To be able to engage in sustained tenderness one must be relatively free and unencumbered by childhood repressions or unfinished emotional business, thoughts or unconscious representations of lost love from others, from parents, and thoughts or unconscious representations of fears of being taken advantage of. To sustain a feeling of warm tenderness with another, almost necessitates that we trust that person without question.

To be intimate is to feel unblocked tenderness and be in good contact; to remain soft and vulnerable most of the time, even when attacked, admonished, or criticized.

If attacked, admonished, or criticized by the other one may transform the attack by an effective, yet simple strategy. The ability to remain soft and share the pain the attack or criticism engenders, in a non-threatening manner, similar to the following example.

"(Sigh) When you say that to me, I feel pain (hurt, sore, wounded, etc.)."
Certainly not: "When you said that, you hurt me"...which is an attack in and of itself.

Individuals attack or criticize, usually because they feel unacknowledged pain or feel minimized by something the other said or did. If one does not acknowledge the pain from another's attack and attacks back, the possibility of damaging and disengaging from the tenderness and contact sustaining the relationship, becomes real.

Recall the scenes in the Edward Albee play Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf. The major characters, George and Martha, model a symmetrical relationship. Each hardens against the other in symmetrically increasing degrees or levels. Is there tenderness, or craziness? The answer unfolds. The video of the play with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor is a classic illustration of closeness and it's contactless substitute, as well as other relationship issues.

In some situations that do not transform with maintaining a softness and repeated tenderness, bear in mind that one may love the other, but to compete with their craziness tends towards the impossible.

Closeness is the goal of all healthy relationships. It can only be achieved and sustained when positive intention, tenderness and softness are primary within the relationship.

The converse of closeness and contact is found in all people with neurotic structures, but particularly in those individuals who have sustained a particularly difficult childhood in which their natural vegetative motility had been frustrated and suppressed by introjects and admonishments. Especially admonishments when a child engages in the normal sexual play or self-exploration common in children learning about themselves. The negativity is predominately from parents but also from significant others (brothers, sisters, friends, relatives, neighborhood relationships. (Reich, 1945, 1972 p. 323).

Ellsworth Baker, in a chapter entitled Problems of Contact, discussed what Reich first defined as substitute contact. Baker defined substitute contact as: 'insincerity, "brash geniality" e.g., the forced smile of a hostess or sales person, an exhausted teacher's patience. Just about any behavior that can be defined as contactless.  Speech affectations or exxagerations of mood or dialect are also forms of substitute contact.'
(Baker, 1967, pp. 72-73)

The specter of substitute contact is depicted in common life situations.

Most individuals have unconscious rage and anger, trapped and unawares, beneath the surface. This "trapping" is a result of the demands of the socialization process where children are taught, in an authoritarian fashion, to be "kind" or not express negative feelings to others. In many instances the emotional "trapping" is a result of swallowing whole, new age and/or religious spiritual practices directing one to 'always be accepting and kind to one's neighbor.' These trapped feelings, may actually result from events occurring as early as infancy..

On the first few meetings with a new partner, people with trapped feelings may display the persona of a warm, syrupy, 'loving' person. This persona persists, even when feeling anger, dissatisfaction or grief. The substitute contact is the likely result of a reaction formation or the expression of the opposite feeling in consciousness from what is unconscious or trapped. The reaction formation may be related to repressed rage felt towards those significant people who had either physically or emotionally abandoned or abused the person during development (childhood to adulthood). The abandonment takes the form of discontinuing contact, relating in cold, authoritarian, subtly sadistic ways, pretending illness or 'not having the time,' or similar behaviors. These folks may overtly,'lovingly' accept the past losses and tragedies, assuring the new partner that the negative emotions, one might normally feel, were effectively dealt with.

However, as time in the relationship proceeds, the inability to make vegetative contact becomes more discernable, the more emotionally closer the partners become. It takes a significant amount of emotional and physical resources, as well as high psychic energy to maintain such repressed rage or emotions under the cover of a pleasant, syrupy demeanor. Freeing resources to focus on more productive and pleasurable activities requires an awareness that the syrupy self is a persona or mask, a coverup for its opposite as the organismic source.  Journaling is a form of self-therapy that can explore the opposites of conscious expression. In journaling one can create a dialogue between two opposite feelings and come to a greater understanding.  Dream jounals are an excellent documentary of the unconscious.  I have dream journals going back 30 years.  Keeping a notebook and pen, cellphone where you can write a text to yourself or take a note, a notebook or recording device by your bed can facilitate the recording of dreams

The signifier of the substitute nature of the contact may be missed, misunderstood, or reframed by the individual exhibiting it. The individual without the energy to sustain closeness may accuse their partner of disturbing them, rather then take responsibility for their own anger or the emotional disturbance they are keeping at bay or repressed. What was actually being disturbed was the substitute contact.

As tenderness and closeness develop in the relationship, the repressed rage can break through in angry eruptions.. The partner whose energy balance is disturbed may manage this by totally withdrawing from emotional contact. The "understanding," on each occasion, was that the partner had created the disturbance by doing or saying something, or holding a belief that evoked a feeling that was inconsistent with the (substitute contact) partner's introjected mystical or new age learnings. Anger would surface. To continue an intimate relationship with a person who elicits such a reaction is totally incompatible with the nature of consciously held beliefs about oneself.

In a similar illustration of substitute contact from a different perspective, a man ran an ad in a local newspaper personal column seeking a "committed relationship leading towards cohabitation and possibly having a child". A woman who held a responsible position with a book publisher, responded. She was intrigued by the directness and forthrightness seemingly contained in the words. She was approaching 39 and felt a desire to have and raise a child.

They met at a local restaurant. The man was quite gracious and inviting. The woman was impressed by his apparent sincerity. They spent increasingly more time with each other. The relationship eventually evolved to a more intimate place in which they alternately slept at each other's houses. The man, at this point, began to cancel occasional meetings saying that he had work to do. He was a psychiatrist working at a local hospital. The frequency of cancellations increased. The woman had made some significant changes in her schedule to accommodate their plans, only to receive his cancellation phone calls at the last minute. She confronted the man with this. He persisted in claiming that he was held up at work, and that he loved her and sincerely missed their time together.

Following one of his spontaneous cancellations she walked by a local restaurant on the way home from work. She glanced in the window and spotted the man amorously relating to a woman while having dinner. She confronted him the next day in a phone conversation. His attempt at dissembling, by claiming the woman in the restaurant was a patient, failed to convince the woman. She made some inquiries and found the man would continually have sexual liaisons with numerous women, assuring each of them that they were his only interest.

His ostensible sincerity and expressed desire for commitment was designed to engage in a sexual relationship where he could relate to her as an object of conquest, not, as she was led to believe, a person with whom he felt love. Once the conquest was made, he turned his eye elsewhere. Never once did he consider the feelings of the women he manipulated into his complex. The act of conquest was an expression of hatred and fear of the opposite sex rather than a tender feeling. It was accomplished from a substitute contact.

The organism, when in genuine contact and relatively free of neurotic character blocks, is generally not capable of an exploitation of another's feelings. For the very nature of good contact brings with it a compassion and empathy for others.

We must keep in mind that hatred and fear provides a foundation for the neurotic character structure. Unfortunately, for some who endeavor to work through their neurotic structure, there are people who are quite skilled at disguising the untapped hatred within and relating in an ostensibly healthy fashion, in the early stages of a relationship. If the individual is at a stage in their own restructuring where they are not yet able to make good contact, they will often not see through the pretense. Given time, the unconscious hatred emerges under various guises, including displays of spiritual zealotry, gracious humanitarianism, and the like.

In the city of New York, as in all large cities, contactlessness and substitute contact are endemic and often function as either imagined or necessary survival defenses. The crime rate involving assaults and other violent crimes against the person fluctuates each year. Residents who read the exaggerated and not so exaggerated claims in the media react by developing a fear for survival. When walking in the street, this fear creates the environmental push against the organism to withdraw energy from the senses, and in turn, from contact.

It is a frequently heard counsel to out-of-towners and newly arrived residents, to never look at another person on the subway if one can help it. This withdrawal from contact can become chronic and invade ones personal life.

Some years ago the New York Times reported on the subway murder of a young man from Utah who was protecting his mother against muggers  One man interviewed said he no longer reads the Wall St. Journal, just the tabloids while on the train. He cited fear of being marked by the violent youth who patrol the stations as someone with money and valuables, if he were to be observed reading the Journal.

Withdrawal in the eyes to avoid a potential violent encounter can create a condition of contactlessness. One dulls the eyes to avoid recognition of another on the street. The environmental push creates a contraction. When this outer pressure is equivalent to the push from within, according to Baker, a stoppage of energy occurs (Baker, 1967, p. 69).

Feelings of loneliness, alienation, lack of life--"deadening"--, an annoying feeling of a gap or void in one's existence and in relationships emerge as symptoms.

We all desire close contact. However, in addition to the so-called "normal" childhood repressions, the increasingly aberrant conditions in society evoke substitutes and a negative contact. Parents who raise children in urban areas, continually caution them to be wary of strangers. To be suspicious of everyone.

I recall in the 1940's and 50's having a fear of leaving the apartment instilled in me by my mother, as she was frightened of the increase in crime in the neighborhood. I consequently led a lonely childhood with few, if any friends. The most significant difficulty I subsequently encountered, as an adult, was in establishing meaningful friendships and relationships.

Substitute contact can be the origin of a hardened impasse, a serious dilemma in the the therapeutic process. This is especially true if the therapist has not yet developed an awareness of the feeling of the difference between what Reich defines as "the manifestations of free-flowing direct vegetative contact and of spurious, secondary, circuitous substitute relationships." He cites various manifestations of the substitute including expressions of empty surprise, exaggerated modesty, and exaggerated tone on speaking, "childish wooing of people's favor," sexual boasting or promiscuous flirting and promiscuous, "rowdy" behavior, suggestively looking into anothers eyes, etc. (Reich, 1945, 1972 p. 525)

Unawares therapists may see many of these substitutes as indicative of health, humility, intelligence or goal directedness.

The phenomenon of substitute contact is at the root of the so-called "good patient": the person in therapy who agrees with the therapist, expresses whatever feeling is expected, develops intricate insights into childhood dynamics, reports changes in feeling to a more pleasurable life, yet continues essentially unchanged in character structure. These individuals, in private moments, are given to a secret misery underlying a basic inferiority. They are acting out the role of "good girl" or "good boy", forced on them in childhood by authoritarian parenting. If the therapist is not sensitive to the energetic dynamics of such a patient, the lack of movement is missed and therapeutic progress stagnates.

The substitute nature of the contact can be felt in therapy only by the therapist who maintains good energetic contact with the patient. Many therapists, who have not arrived at the place in their own growth where they exhibit good energetic contact, work with their clients for years, accepting thousands of dollars from the client, with very little or no organic change in the client's character structure.

Many therapists, who function primarily on an cognitive or intellectual level, report frequent burnout and desires to change careers or engage in non-therapeutic aspects of their profession. Some rationalize this as the effects of working with a difficult clientele for many years. Yet it is their energy problem, not the cause of working with their clientele that is usually at the bottom of burn out complaints. 

The issues in life and in therapy are complicated by the varied manifestations of human functioning and the neurotic character structure. Since the latter part of the 19th Century, volumes have been devoted towards an understanding of human neurosis. This paper has attempted to illustrate the intertwined aspects of closeness, contact, and substitute contact, viewed as the red thread running through the fabric of modern life and some of the problems that emerge in psychotherapy.


1. Baker, Elsworth (1967), Man In The Trap, Macmillan Publishing Co., New York.

2. Harman, Robert A.(1988) The Emotional Plague as Manifested in the AIDS Hysteria.
J. of Orgonomy, V. 22 (2) pp. 173-195.

3. Lowen, Alexander (1965), Love And Orgasm, Macmillan Publishing Co., New York.

4. ----------------(1983), Narcissism, Denial Of The True Self, Macmillan Publishing Co. New York.

5. Pierrakos, John C. (1987) Core Energetics, Developing The Capacity to Love and Heal.
Life Rhythm, Mendocino, Ca.

6.  Reich, Wilhelm (1972) Character Analysis, 3rd Enlarged English Edition. Touchstone Books, Simon and Schuster, New York. (First published in Gr. as Charakteranalyse: Technik und Grundlagen fur studierende und praktizierende Analytiker (1933) (Vienna: Zelbstverlag) {Reich self-published this after Freud notified him that his contract with the International Psychoanalytic Publishers, of which Freud was editorial director, was cancelled.}

7. --------------(1971), The Invasion Of Compulsory Sex-Morality, Farrar, Strauss And Giroux, New York.

8. --------------(1975), Early Writings, Volume I, Farrar, Strauss And Giroux, New York.

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Jasenn Zaejian, Ph.D. 949-371-3997