Do you find it difficult to start a relationship? Do you always find yourself in the wrong relationships? Are you unable to maintain a good relationship?
As human beings, we crave intimacy but some of us find it hard to achieve the right of level of closeness, so we either avoid relationships completely or struggle to maintain those we form. A good relationship can be a very fulfilling, integral element of life; however, to form such a relationship, we need to place our trust in someone else. The ability to trust, to let down your guard, is a fundamental experience, and crucial for happiness.
If mistrust is a dominant element in your life, then you will probably find it hard to form healthy relationships. This often results in anxiety and self-doubt, and negative emotions such as anger and despair.
There may be many different underlying reasons that lead to an inability to form healthy relationships but, in this blog, I'll discuss the fear of intimacy which is one of the primary causes.
Why do we find it hard to trust? And where does the fear of intimacy come from?
To create intimacy with someone, we need to have the ability to trust. Problems with trust and intimacy often stem from our early experiences as a child, when we were more vulnerable to feelings of disappointment, rejection, and betrayal by those within our family unit. Children don't know how to make sense of these intense emotions and can find them intolerable.
Children need their physical and emotional needs met by their caregivers if they are to have a healthy development. When these needs are not met in one way or another, children may feel abandoned. A sense of abandonment as a child can result in a fear of abandonment as an adult, forcing us to distance ourselves from healthy relationships. I say ‘healthy’ relationships because a ‘healthy’ relationship is based on trust and intimacy. Some of those who fear intimacy either avoid relationships or find themselves in ‘unhealthy’ relationships, where one partner pulls and the other pushes. This unhealthy push–pull dynamic is a result of neither partner being able to get close enough to the other for of fear of rejection, abandonment and loss.
These fears of rejection (read more about fear of rejection in my other blog) and abandonment may stem from childhood losses: when a mother is suffering from depression and is not able to emotionally attend to her child; an absent father (either emotionally or physically); loss of a parent through death or divorce; and, in general, any period of inadequate emotional and/or physical care. Emotional neglect can also come in other forms such as parents who have high expectations of their child or who use them for their own needs, and emotional and physical abuse, etc. These experiences will cause the child to lose trust in their parents, forcing them to emotionally withdraw and rely only on themselves. Adults who fear intimacy are usually self-sufficient and hold back from others, although some may be clingy as they fear further loss. The right distance is never there for these adults.
When we experience hurt in our early relationships, we will do anything to protect ourselves from being hurt again. Subsequent relationships trigger an innate defensiveness and create a huge amount of anxiety, as we feel more vulnerable to the other person and the potential feelings of rejection and loss. These reactions all happen at an unconscious level. The person who finds themselves unable to form a relationship also finds it difficult to understand why that is the case or why it is that they always find themselves in an unhealthy relationship. The fear of intimacy is unconscious and manifests in different forms. We may retreat emotionally and/or physically from our partner, we may appear as very independent and self-sufficient giving the impression that we don't need our partner, we may make ourselves unlovable so no one gets close to us, we may engage in affairs or promiscuity just to regulate the distance between us and our partners, we may become addicted to porn; there are many other ways and these are unique to every individual. What is the same, however, is that we are unconsciously using all these coping strategies to reduce the anxiety of getting close to someone.
How does therapy help?
As there are unconscious underlying issues around the fear of intimacy, a good therapist will help you to recognize that your behaviours are shaped by your fear of intimacy. They will help you to challenge the defences that have got in the way of you getting close to someone and forming a relationship. Your relationship with your therapist is the main tool for recognizing these defences. The therapeutic relationship will enable you to face your intimacy fears, to begin to accept the fear of loss, and learn to let someone in. This can be a very rewarding experience.