By Richard Nicastro, Ph.D
Intimacy is a lot like trying to get warm on a cold winter night. You wrap yourself up in your favorite blankets and settle in for sleep, but at some point overnight you may feel too warm and constrained by the blankets. So you disentangle yourself and push the blankets away. But after a few hours you feel chilled again. So you grope for the discarded blankets and wrap them around you again, basking in the warmth and security they bring…that is, until you feel too warm once more…
Fear of intimacy
The term “fear of intimacy” is often used to describe someone who has difficulty creating and maintaining a close connection to his/her partner. The phrase highlights a person’s struggle to become physically and/or emotionally close and we often describe this struggle as a fear. However, this general term can’t fully explain what lies behind one’s struggle with intimacy.
Let’s take a closer look at three ways a fear of intimacy can manifest in your marriage or relationship.
1. Intolerance for closeness–physical and emotional.
For some, a more accurate description would be an intolerance of intimacy. You may have a desire for intimacy yet at the same time have a strong, negative physical reaction to deeper levels of connection. It’s as if your body’s intimacy-thermostat is set to avoidance or withdrawal mode whenever a certain level of intimacy occurs. People who have this reaction may feel confused by it and not fully aware that it is happening.
Overcoming a fear of intimacy that stems from adverse physical reactions:
The roots of this reaction often (but not always) stem from the disruptions of intimacy (i.e., neglectful or intrusive parenting) in childhood. When this is the case in your history, the goal for you will be to learn how your body reacts to emotional and physical intimacy. (Be sure to suspend self-criticism while monitoring your reactions.) Once you become aware of your bodily cues, you can use relaxation exercises as a way to recondition your body so that you can accept the deeper levels of connection offered by your partner.
2. Gender role constrictions
Society and culture create powerful rules for how men and women relate to each other. Female/male stereotypes have a potent influence on what you feel are acceptable ways to experience and express intimacy. Often these gender roles function behind the scenes in your relationship, at times guiding you and your partner. However, they can frequently serve as a strait-jacket, limiting the level of intimacy allowed in your relationship–the influence of gender role constrictions frequently attribute to one’s fear of intimacy.
Societal and cultural rules may work well for you and your partner, but at times they can adversely restrict the ways in which you and your partner relate to one another. For instance, some cultures send the message that men shouldn’t experience feelings that make them feel vulnerable, while women receive the message that the assertion of their needs is unfeminine.
Overcoming a fear of intimacy based on gender stereotypes:
Questioning the assumptions that lie behind gender-role stereotypes is the first step toward loosening the restrictions that accompany these assumptions. Here are a few questions to get you started:
Do you feel that societal and cultural gender role stereotypes are holding you (or your partner) back in your relationship? If so, take some time to journal the ways in which female/male stereotypes are blocking your marriage or relationship from reaching its full potential.
Can you discuss this with your partner and develop a mutual plan to overcome any gender restrictions that may exist in your marriage or relationship?
3. Family role models
Most educational systems do not teach you how to create and maintain a long-term, intimate relationship. Often learning occurs by trial and error–and for better or worse, most of us learn by observing the relationships that surrounded us throughout our formative years. You learned by observing how your caregivers related to one another (and to others), as well as how the important adults in your life related to you.
The long arm of your childhood family role models can create powerful expectations and beliefs that negatively influence your view of relationships and intimacy. Problems arise when your partner’s need for intimacy differs from the role models you’ve internalized.
Overcoming a fear of intimacy caused by relationship role-models:
Becoming mindful of your (and your partner’s) beliefs that inhibit emotional and physical intimacy can help you clarify any conflicting attitudes that the two of you might hold about intimacy. Often couples misinterpret their differing expectations as a fear of intimacy.
What expectations do you hold about emotional and physical intimacy?
How do you believe intimacy is best created in your relationship? Is this view consistent with your partner’s?
Do you hold any beliefs from your family-of-origin that negatively impact your ability to create a close bond with your partner?
Use these questions (and others you might think of) to start a dialogue with your partner about how to take the steps necessary to begin increasing the intimacy in your relationship.
Like that blanket that can keep you warm one moment and feel constraining the next, over the course of your relationship you will need to adjust the level of intimacy depending on the type and degree of closeness that feels most comfortable to you. If you (or your partner) frequently cast the blankets of intimacy aside, it may be a sign that an underlying fear of intimacy is at work. If so, take the steps to examine what lies behind your fear of intimacy and you will be on your way to creating a deeper, more fulfilling connection with your spouse or partner.
To discover other ways to create a deeper, more intimate relationship visit www.StrengthenYourRelationship.com and sign up for Dr. Nicastro’s free Relationship Toolbox Newsletter.
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Richard Nicastro, Ph.D. is a psychologist and relationship coach who is passionate about helping couples protect the sanctuary of their relationship. Rich and his wife Lucia founded LifeTalk Coaching, an internet-based coaching business that helps couples strengthen their relationships.