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Relationships • Compatibility

Are You Afraid of Intimacy?

If we were introducing a proverbial Martian to the ways of earthly life, one of the many somewhat dispiriting complexities we’d need to mention is that humanoids don’t seem to have too much of a native ability to understand whether they are in love or not. The greatest emotion of which we’re capable is also one whose very existence we seem – with certain tragic consequences – to have a hard time discerning.

Imagine we were in a relationship in which we appreciated our partner in a host of ways but at the same time, wondered – perhaps with increasing intensity – whether we should continue with them or not. To have such doubts might indicate that we should cleanly draw the relationship to a close, but that would be to miss a painful nuance likely to nag strongly at the conscience of any moderately informed, psychologically-aware person at large today: Am I really not so keen or might I – deep down – simply have a fear of intimacy? Is my desire to quit evidence of disinterest or – paradoxically – proof of an interest so intense and therefore so threatening to my sense of integrity that it has triggered a wish to flee?

Painting of a nude woman reclining on a sofa
Amedeo Modigliani, Reclining Nude, 1919

That we should find ourselves ruminating in this way is a legacy of pioneering work carried out across the second part of the 20th century by a cohort of psychotherapists including John Bowlby, Erich Fromm, George Bach, David Shulman and Leslie Greenberg, who in slightly different ways all posited the theory that we humans are under the sway of two diametrically opposed inclinations: to seek closeness with others on the one hand and on the other to escape from them for fear of letdown, generally created by an actual experience of letdown during a childhood that has not been sufficiently explored or understood. 

The theory places us at the sharp end of the dilemmas of self-knowledge. We might be sitting across the table from someone at dinner, with a strong impression that we’d be better off with another candidate, and at the same time, outside of conscious awareness, be thinking in this way only because it was our companion’s rightness that was gnawing at our walled-off, emotionally reticent and wounded characters.

How might we learn to separate out a legitimate aversion for someone from an inhibition about intimacy? We might start by asking ourselves some of the following questions:

1. Complete the sentence: if someone knew me completely, they would think I was…

Some of what may lie behind our desire to get out of a relationship as it deepens is an unease about being known. The more someone sees who we are, the more they might take fright at what they discover. A fear of intimacy may in essence come down to a belief in our fundamental unacceptability. 

2. Which of the following seems most immediately true:

a) ‘People can be trusted’ 

b) ‘People let you down’

We don’t want to stick around, not because we dislike the partner so much as because nothing in our pasts suggests to us that people in general are capable of extensive loyalty or kindness. It isn’t the partner’s sweetness that is alarming us – so much as our unconscious trepidation as to when it might end, as our histories suggest it always will.

3. In life in general, how easy do you find it to be happy?

Our love stories should be considered alongside our broader capacities for contentment, the extent to which we can derive pleasure from any experience, be it a holiday, a gift, money or visible success. Being content in any way may alarm us because it might once have triggered the jealousy or sadness of an angry or fragile parent. We may find it easier to fail than to be threatened because we have won.

4. When did this desire to leave your partner set in? Did you ever feel keen – or did your coldness descend principally once they decided they felt warmly for you?

It pays to look closely at chronology – and explore whether the nauseous feeling has arisen recently or would have been there from the start. The real issue may not have anything to do with a dislike of the partner overall. We may just not be able to forgive them for one specific lapse: that they have had the bad taste to approve of someone like us. We could start to respect them once more, if only they would come to their senses and better align their view of us with our view of ourselves. The issue may be self-hatred, not hatred or disinterest per se.

5. Did your parents offer their love freely or were they – in a variety of ways – a bit of a challenge?

Adult love sits upon a base formed in childhood; and our pasts may have taught us that the really interesting, special people are those who are not generally available, don’t warmly approve and always mix their affection with judgement and aloofness. The principal mistake of a current partner might be that they aren’t following the script of pain we have been habituated to expect. They don’t have the tricky personalities of those we grew up to admire. They are entirely alien – and therefore daunting – in their steady kindness.

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The theory of the fear of intimacy has hugely enriched our analyses of what may be at play in love. Optimistically, it has given us a handy way of communicating a problem for which we should be understood rather than condemned. We can now explain to our partners that we have something poignant to confess: that we don’t truly want to run away, we’re just wrestling with a very powerful but unreliable itch to escape an unfamiliar, unwarranted-feeling of being accepted.

And even if we are not in the grip of this disease at all, its renown has been of help. All over the world, there are now legions of people who don’t any longer need to believe that they have been abandoned because there was ever anything wrong with them. They were fine enough, even very much in the right. It was just that they had the misfortune to encounter another one of those well-charted  scoundrels: a terrified intimacy-avoider. 

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