SF Counseling Center

Emotional Kwashiorkor – Problems with Intimacy

Starving Kids in Magazines

Kwashiorkor is a terrible condition of malnutrition. Images of children suffering from this disorder used to populate National Geographic and other similar magazines.  The children with this disorder are skinny, but with bloated abdomens.  The average person in the first world could not imagine how a child could look both like he or she was starving and obese at the same time.  Invariably, the dramatic photographs of these children would carry captions claiming something to the effect that these kids’ bodies could no longer process food, and if they ate even a few grains of rice, they would throw it back up. (The medical accuracy of that claim is unclear.  More actual information about this disorder can be found here.)

Emotionally Starved Adults – Problems with Intimacy

For our purposes, I would like to discuss an emotional condition, which I will term ‘Emotional Kwashiorkor.’ Many times in therapy you find someone who was longing for a particular experience, most often some form of love or intimacy which, they felt they did not receive from a parent.  Perhaps the parent was abusing substances, was depressed, over-worked, in a bad marriage, didn’t want to have children, had a history of abuse, etc.  The list of possibilities is potentially endless.  The main point is that the parent was unavailable for some form of important parenting and the person who is now an adult has grown up starving.

Now in adulthood, the person still feels like they are starving.  Somehow they keep choosing partners who ‘can’t’ give them what they want.  Moreover, a loving or present partner is seen as needy, intrusive or some other way which is problematic and allows for the person to create distance.  Seemingly, the person is stuck in a world in which his or her needs can never be met.

In therapy, you can see the need to avoid psychological intimacy.  In a variety of ways, the person makes clear they cannot process the experience.  Like the kids who would vomit up the nutrition they need, so too, these people seem incapable of tolerating the experiences they need.

What to do?

One analogy which seems to make sense to most people with this condition is that intimacy and/or love feel like an itchy wool sweater.  They want it, but it is hard to manage for long.  An important first step is to understand this is not a problem of the partner, but a problem one is carrying along with them and continuously creating.  It is possible to have chosen a partner under these conditions who will be incapable of giving what one needs, but very often it is a problem of tolerating the ‘nourishing’ experience for longer and longer times and to deeper and deeper levels.

Grieving can also be an extremely important aspect of this therapy for this problem.  One has to grieve the fact or idea that they did not get these experiences in their childhood (or perhaps did not get them the way they wanted). Grieving the loss of the potential for those experiences (one is no longer a child) allows the person to become freed to appreciate what IS available in their adult life.  Perhaps their spouse or partner does not show love in EXACTLY the way they hoped for from their parent(s), but perhaps their partner is loving in other and extremely important and nourishing ways.

As long as a person is only willing to recognize love or intimacy along very narrowly defined (and often unconsciously determined) ways, they will not be open to the wealth of experiences available in the present.  Grieving the past and a mindful awareness of the present can be enormously healing.


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