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Relationships • Conflicts

Who is Afraid of Intimacy?

Sometimes we may end up in a couple where we spend a lot of time complaining – to concerned friends and family – that the other person is evidently and committedly ‘afraid of intimacy.’ They don’t often talk of their emotions; they may find it hard to be physically cosy; they don’t cry so often. 

Whereas we on the other hand – as all our acquaintances know – are the emotionally fluent ones. We long to be close to someone, we long to discuss our feelings openly and without restraint, we are healthy and ready for love. It’s simply such a pity – and so profoundly unfortunate – that we have ended up with such an unyielding and resistant partner.

Painting by Edvard Munch of couples dancing at a wedding.
Edvard Munch, The Dance of Life, 1899-1900

But however genuine our cries for intimacy can sound, there is one incontrovertible fact in the way of their full credibility: that we actually chose our partner, and we did so not under duress, not because of some religious edict or familial injunction, but with our eyes fully open, in the light of day, with plenty of alternative options before us.

This should at least complicate the story we are telling ourselves and our concerned and encouraging audience. There is arguably a limit to how interested in intimacy anyone can be who skilfully picks out the kind of partner who just happens to have precious little interest in the matter. 

Furthermore, examination of our day to day behaviour may reveal us to be too often acting in exactly the sort of irritable, belittling or persecutory ways that guarantee that we will never attain our stated aims of trust and connection. We cannot fairly claim to be on the one hand desperate for intimacy, and on the other, regularly call our partner incompetent or frigid, a blockhead or a brick for not being so. We must at least in part know that we won’t be successful in securing the tenderness we say we so badly want – so long as we continue to ask for it in humiliating ways. 

A mature approach to the gridlock means taking on board a possibility that we may until now have been shielding ourselves from with devilish care: that we might both – in fact – be scared of intimacy and rather happy at its absence, that we might both – in truth – be fleeing from the terrors and joys of mutual surrender. Not because we are evil or demented, but because intimacy is exceptionally daunting to those whose early experiences and childhood stories have predisposed them towards guardedness and suspicion. 

A sincere path to intimacy begins with a graceful acknowledgement of the temptation to blame others for what we cannot bear in ourselves, and the acceptance that we may have far more in common with our partner than we have until now been able to concede. Whatever the surface differences, we are – in essence – just as scared and ambivalent as they are, a joint realisation with the power, finally, to bring about the compassion and tenderness we have both been in flight from for so long.

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