Fear of Intimacy: The Real Reason Johnny Cash Went to "Jackson"

03/24/2015 12:25 pm ET | Updated May 24, 2015

Love is hard to find. And intimacy, often a subconscious feeling of closeness, is scary. "We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout" Johnny Cash sang. Meanwhile, British singer and songwriter Adele personifies the art of intimacy and vulnerability singing, "I know it ain't easy giving up your heart" but "I dare you to let me be your one and only." Chris Isaac personifies our universal fear of intimacy stating, "No, I don't want to fall in love (This world is only gonna break your heart) with you." It seems the experience of real love can threaten our self-defenses and raise our anxiety as we become vulnerable and open ourselves up to another person.

Most of us say that we want to find a loving partner, but many of us have deep-seated fears of intimacy that make it difficult to be in a close relationship--which is maybe what Johnny Cash's song is really all about.

I wonder if he knew that his famous song "Jackson" was actually composed after Edward Albee's play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The original play tells the story of a couple's complete marital breakdown, and failure. The 1966 movie adaption with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton is so good, it's impossible to watch or sit through without a drink in hand. Most grotesque marriages with no intimacy usually are difficult to witness. The story here, as in so many other marriages, is simply Martha and George do not have the emotional capacity to recognize each others' discomfort, let alone be intimate with each other. Instead, George and Martha evade the ugliness of their marriage by taking refuge in perfect illusion. This would make sense since any fear of physical and/or emotional intimacy tends to surface in people's closest and most meaningful relationships. If we felt unloved or ignored as children, we may have a hard time believing that someone could really love and value us, thus as adults people often will do anything to escape this unconscious fear and intimacy -- even have numb, superficial or dysfunctional relationships.

A fear of intimacy knocked on my family's door three years ago. Three weeks before my husband walked out on two small babies and I, what I remember is not what he said, but what music he played, repeatedly in his car, in our home, on his iPod. In fact, over and over I heard, "The world was on fire, no one could save me but you /I never dreamed that I'd lose somebody like you/ No, I don't want to fall in love. With you." Ah, what a Wicked Game he played with me. Yes, it's safe to assume this song was not played with me in mind at that particular juncture in time; more especially since I was busy with a sick one-year-old. (That's okay, we are better friends now.) The lyrics I played in response in my head, after he left were, "You ever pray with all your heart and soul just to watch [him] walk away?/ Baby did a bad bad thing, baby did a bad bad thing." This triangular mini-love drama right here tells us much about intimacy, relationships, and the fear of such. No doubt it has been said before, marriage can be a lonely place.

And yet, all that said, we still pursue close relationships. As human beings we are built, programmed for intimacy and connection. We need to feel connected. Intimate relationships play a significant role in our overall human experience and encounters. In How to Achieve Intimacy, Cheryl McDonald informs us: "Everyone needs to feel connected with someone. The closer a person is to another person, both physically and emotionally, the more connected and intimate the relationship becomes." And that's a good thing. Not to be confused with sex, however. Margarita Tartakovsky in Nourishing the Different Types of Intimacy in Your Relationship, informs us that "When we refer to intimacy in a romantic sense, we often equate it to sexual intimacy, but sex is just one form of intimacy that exists." Indeed, she's correct. We often leave out or ignore the other four forms of intimacy.

In total, there are five different types of intimacy that exist between partners: Emotional Intimacy; Intellectual Intimacy; Physical Intimacy; Experiential Intimacy; and Spiritual Intimacy. Thus, a couple can have one, or more, or none of these they potentially share together. A couple even can be intimate and never be intimate with one another (physically, I mean). Intimacy is, no doubt, intricate.

Ever had great hot sex with someone you barely knew? Ever have great hot sex with someone you were already close with, admired, respected in advance? Can you define the difference? Casual sex, however sizzling between-the-sheets as it may be, is not intimacy in and of itself. It's hot sex with someone you do not know, yet! Perhaps you can get to know them better at some point but it usually works better when friendship and caring come in advance. In his book Soul Cravings, Erwin Raphael McManus writes:

"Sex can be the most intimate and beautiful expression of love, but we are only lying to ourselves when we act as if sex is proof of love. Too many men demand sex as proof of love; too many women have given sex in hopes of love. We live in a world of users where we abuse each other to dull the pain of aloneness. We all long for intimacy, and physical contact can appear as intimacy, at least for a moment."

All in the name of fake intimacy, all in the attempt to avoid being alone, to escape our existential fears of dying alone, we have sex to dull our pain. Real intimacy is never found just by merging our bodies together in sex. And from everything I have read, it would seem that if real emotional and spiritual intimacy does not exist before sex, it most certainly won't after (or again it's the exception, not the rule).

Erich Fromm, the famous psychologist and former student to Freud, in The Art of Loving discusses the opposite of real intimacy: fake intimacy. He also defines intimacy as something far more complex than the average lover among us might expect when we first fall fast and furious for someone. Fromm writes:

"If two people who have been strangers as all of us are, suddenly let the wall between them break down, and feel close, feel one, this moment of oneness is one of the most exhilarating, most exciting experiences in life. It is all the more wonderful and miraculous for persons who have been shut off, isolated, without love. This miracle of sudden intimacy is often facilitated if it is combined with, or initiated by, sexual attraction and consummation. However, this type of love is by its very nature not lasting. The two persons become well acquainted, their intimacy loses more and more of its miraculous character, until their antagonism, their disappointments, their mutual boredom kill whatever is left of the initial excitement."

Fromm does not mince words. There clearly exists immature and mature love. And, as per him, mature love takes its time and dances with intimacy a slow-waltz along the way. This is the best kind to culminate longevity and connection.

Jennifer Kogan, LICSW, informs us, "Intimacy is a process where[in] we feel truly seen, known by and connected to our partner," and that's quite an amazing experience for anyone to experience. Who doesn't want that type of connection, relationship? But, science also does play a major part in driving us toward intimacy with others -- as does chemicals of sorts. According to Dr. Cheryl McDonald, we humans have a strong desire to be intimate with each other for scientific reasons, namely endorphins:

"The brain releases endorphins which are neurotransmitters that reward people, the same way opiates or heroin induces people into a euphoric state. These natural opioid chemicals are released during sex, physical exercise and entertaining life events (watching a comedy, reading a comic book, laughing with friends). This release of the endorphins is physically and emotionally addictive, which is why people crave all attachment states, along with a basic desire to feel connected with other people in life."

Simply put, intimacy is difficult, but it's worth it all. True intimacy then is when we authentically connect with another human being in one of five specific areas or more; over-time this bond or connection grows deeper; the relationship can never stay stationary or the intimacy goes away; finally we must be vulnerable, transparent, communicative, and reciprocal at all times in order for intimacy to remain.

What do we do if we have a problem with intimacy? We act vulnerable. We acknowledge it. In fact, "talking to your partner about intimacy can actually build more intimacy," says Michael Giordano, a therapist in Washington, D.C. In other words, if you're able to be open and honest with each other, that's a good start since you are actively listening to your partner, you are attempting to hear where they are coming from, and that's part of building intimacy right there." Finally, we need to spend quality time with our partners since this builds intimacy. We should engage in active listening. We need to be sincere and tell the truth. We should engage in physical contact. We should never play games and we should accept our partners for who they are and forgive them their imperfections since none of us are perfect.

Maybe, just maybe, that will keep us out of Jackson town. Hmm. Wasn't Johnny Cash married twice? Didn't he have an affair? After reading this, now who's afraid of Virginia Woolf, John?

This article is dedicated to my former husband. We may not have made it as husband and wife (intimacy failed us), but I hope in terms of co-parenting and our children, we can share a strong intimacy in the future. I don't think there's anything more intimate than sharing children with someone.