“Intimacy? What is that?”

“It’s when two people share everything, when there are no secrets between them.”
I had to laugh. “No secrets?” I asked him. “It’s not possible. We spend weeks extracting entire biographies from subjects and always when we hook them up to the autopilot, they blurt out some crucial detail we’d missed. So getting every secret out of someone, sorry, it’s just not possible.”
“No… She gives you her secrets. And you give her yours.”


This is an extract from Adam Johnson‘s Orphan Master’s Son. Set in North Korea, it’s a very human story about an inhuman part of the world. The two people speaking are an interrogator and his subject. It’s a piece of fiction, but having read more than my fair share of accounts from North Korean defectors, I know the sentiment, at least, to be accurate. This is the thing you always take away from every piece of such testimony – the absence of intimate space. The absence of intimacy itself.

Without intimacy, we are nothing. We have functional relationships with our spouses and children. We live in fear of being denounced by those closest to us, and so collect information, ready to denounce those closest to us. We are starving – physically, emotionally.

It’s an extreme human situation in an extreme state.

Something a little like this happens in the context of the alcoholic marriage, only the individual fearful of intimacy is the alcoholic. Until that alcoholic is genuinely in recovery, untruth is the place where he resides (I say he, because the alcoholic I know best is my estranged husband, Ben). The alcoholic will resort to lies and obfuscation even when the truth is undeniable. Not unlike the madness extolled by the North Korean state.

Even once the alcoholic has stopped drinking, he may continue to deal in duplicity. I’m reasonably certain that Ben lied to my face when I confronted him some weeks back (not about drinking). Since then, I’ve realised he has always kept himself sealed off, always retained something that has prevented real intimacy between us. That something has changed over the years, but whatever it is, it’s probably unappealing.

This realisation hit me a few days ago, during a long and winding conversation in which Ben told me that being with me would almost certainly cause a relapse. In other words, our marriage is definitely over. This, after I offered him an opportunity to be truthful with me about something else. He deflected by effectively blaming me for his condition. He refuses to speak about the other thing. And the fact that he lied to me breached a boundary I hadn’t realised I’d set.

I have not looked at him since, although he continues to come around. I refuse to seek out his company. I refuse to be alone with him in the same space. I tolerate him because he’s Rosie’s dad and she needs him. I needed him once, too. Not so, now. At least, not in that way.

The subject of the interrogation in the above excerpt defies all odds and finds intimacy in North Korea. He falls in love. He can do this, because he refuses to lie to the woman he loves. She, in turn, offers the same. That’s how intimacy is struck. That’s how relationships are sustained.

I feel somehow buoyed by the possibility of love in such harrowing circumstances. I know it’s fiction. Perhaps it can only happen in fiction. And yet… ?


20 thoughts on “Intimacy

  1. Well, sobriety is not a bed of roses (as you are finding out). Still, I venture to say that things are still better for Rosie and I wouldn’t give up hope on the relationship yet.
    There are many complex things going on in early recovery. Can I send you a book?

  2. The one thing that alcoholics do well is duplicity and manipulation and lying. I was very good at those things, sadly. (I was just starting to write a post on it myself) Duplicity is one of the antidotes to intimacy. So is withholding. Both are attempts at exerting control. I can only find intimacy when I can allow myself to feel vulnerable, and to let someone in on that vulnerability. Hard to do when I not being honest, or holding back on things that build a wall around the chance of intimacy (emotional, spiritual, physical).

    Seems he’s dug his heels in and is unrelenting to let his guard down…a guard that is a defence mechanism, a coping mechanism. It is your decision, obviously, whether you continue to try and get him to open up (how’s that working?) or just focus on you and Rosie and the hapiness that can come from that relationship (and that seems to be working a lot better 🙂 )


  3. If he’s still blaming you for his condition, then he’s not yet fully accepted his responsibility in it. Perhaps when he’s vulnerable with himself, he’ll be able to be vulnerable with you.

    • Melanie is right keep trying. Mine never accepted his responsibility for anything in our marriage. Every situation is different every alcoholic is clever they know how to play on your vulnerabilities.

      • Mine accepts some responsibility, but then focuses on the guilt, without considering that change is in his hands. That guilt is not going to change anything. Only changing his behaviour can alleviate the guilt. Which begs the question, has he really accepted responsibility….

      • I searched for many years for answer and sometimes still do a bit. I sometime bashed myself up for answers and it did not do me any good. he has to accept responsibility to enable you to get some sort of trust back into your life. Only you can give the answers I looked for answers and only now with a new life have found peace….Just do the best you can and that is all anyone can ask of you

      • He may never re-engage. I’m sorry. You’ve hung on so long.

  4. Sorry, hun, it’s awful when trust is betrayed–continually. It takes your footing away and you don’t have anywhere to stand.

    Relationships don’t have to be so hard.

  5. Every time I read your blog I see my life flash before me. My husband was so removed from himself as well. Take care and keep writing it helps

      • I have started over the last couple of weeks at a gym in the town where I now live and making a few new acquaintances, small steps but getting there. Also put in an application for a passport, thinking of a holiday soon. Funny what a health scare does to you. I want to go to the uk Ireland and Scotland before I get to much more older. If he knew my dreams and thoughts now he would have one hell of a shock doing stuff I was never allowed to do or think about.

  6. Of course there was no intimacy in my marriage. He could not bear it and I got burned out reaching for it. By the time I had started a new relationship, I was numb and did not even know what intimacy was. Five years later, I’ve started to take down the walls around me, and it feels pretty good. I wish you the freedom and strength to eventually find a relationship where honesty, love, and support are mutually given and received.

    • Seems it’s a difficult thing to find in our situation. And now, the walls I’ve built. They’re cement. I’m really glad you found someone you could trust. It’s an act of courage, really.

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