Updated: Mar 16, 2021
While most of us say we want love, pretty much all of us have some degree of fear around intimacy. The type and extent of this fear can vary based on our personal history: the attachment patterns we developed and the psychological defenses we formed to protect ourselves from early hurts. These patterns and defenses tend to hold us back or even sabotage our romantic lives. Yet, it’s important to remember that we come by our fears honestly.
Because our childhood attachments serve as models for how we expect relationships to work throughout our lives, difficulties in these early relationships can lead us to feel self-protective. We may think we want love and connection, but on a deeper level, we’re resistant to let down our guard for fear of stirring and re-experiencing old, painful emotions. As my father, psychologist and author of Fear of IntimacyRobert Firestone wrote, “Most people have a fear of intimacy and at the same time are terrified of being alone.” This can create a lot of confusion, as a person’s ambivalence can cause a real push and pull in their behavior. So, how can you identify if your own fear of intimacy is getting in the way of love?
1. Your Actions Don’t Match Your Intentions
For some people, their anxiety around relationships is apparent. They may consciously notice their instinct to pull away from connection or commitment. For others, it can be more subtle. They may feel as if they’re trying for closeness when their actions are leading to just the opposite. Because of this confusion, the first thing to reflect on is how much what we think we want lines up with our behavior.
The way we create distance in a relationship is different for each of us and is typically heavily informed by our attachment history. A person with a dismissive-avoidant attachment pattern may be aloof toward the needs of another person, in particular a romantic partner. They tend to be pseudo-independent, caring for themselves but finding it challenging to attune to their partner and feel empathetic toward the other person’s wants and needs. They may avoid getting too close and resent someone else depending on them. When their partner (often inevitably) expresses frustration over wanting more from them, the avoidantly attached person may pull away even more, feeling put off by their partner’s “neediness.”
A person with a preoccupied attachment pattern may feel just the opposite, like they need to get their partner’s attention. They may have a tendency to feel more insecure, worried, self-doubting, paranoid, suspicious, or jealous in their relationships. They may think they’re looking for more closeness with their partner, but they may engage in habits that are more clingy and controlling, which actually serves to push their partner away.
A person with a fearful-avoidant attachment pattern is likely to have fears both about their partner coming toward them and about their partner pulling away from them. When things get too close, they’re likely to retract, but when they sense their partner is drifting away, they may become very clingy and insecure.
Getting to know our attachment history can offer us tremendous insight into our patterns and understanding of our behaviors. Yet, as we’re examining our relationships in real-time, it’s valuable to identify the moments when our actions don’t match our idea of what we want. Do we say we want to go away with our partner, then spend all of our time planning rather than living in the moment? Do we complain about not getting alone time, then wind up on our phone the whole period we’re together? Do we say we want to meet someone but come up with reasons not to date every person we encounter? Do we believe we want to be vulnerable but find ourselves making little digs at our partner? Do we say we love the person but not take the time to ask them about themselves? These counteractive actions can actually be signs that we’re afraid to be vulnerable and get too close.
2. You’re Becoming Hypercritical of Your Partner or Potential Partners
One of the most common complaints between couples after they’ve been together for a while is that they lose the spark or stop feeling as excited or attracted to each other. A lot of this has to do with our defense system. More closeness feels more threatening, therefore, when things get more serious, we start to force distance by indulging in much more negative thoughts and observations of our partner.
Of course, all of us are human and all of us are flawed, but the ways we start to hone in on and become hypercritical toward the flaws in our partner is often the result of our fears around closeness. The “critical inner voice” is the language of our defense system, an internal dialogue that tears us down and often leads us to self-limiting behavior. This “voice” can also focus on our partner. “He’s always so distracted. He’s clearly bored by you,” it may say. “She never cleans up after herself even though you’ve asked her to. She obviously doesn’t care about how you feel,” it may chime in.
This inner critic is like a horrendous life coach designed to sabotage and create distance. This is because this critic is frequently operated by our deepest fears around relationships. “Don’t get too close.” “All relationships end in disaster.” “Never let him see how you feel.” “Just ice him.” “Don’t call her.” “Don’t depend on someone else.” “You don’t need anyone. Just stay on your own.”
Anytime we notice our heads filling with thoughts cataloguing our partner’s flaws, building a case against them, or over-analyzing their actions and intentions, we may be falling victim to our critical inner voice and letting it take the wheel. Separating our real self from this inner critic means standing up to it and adopting a more vulnerable and compassionate attitude toward ourselves and our partner.
3. Your Feelings Suddenly Shift
Because of these often subconscious fears, the sweet spot of feeling love for someone and their love for us can be very challenging to stay in for a long period of time. Instead, we may notice our feelings suddenly shifting. One minute, we’re on a date with someone, laughing and feeling a sense of excitement, the next morning we’re second-guessing and talking ourselves out of our feelings. A voice may pop into our heads, saying, “She’s just too into you. You shouldn’t lead her on.” Or “He’s not really that attractive. He’s not exactly your type.”
Once again, what we say we want is suddenly in question the minute we seem to get it. In a relationship, we may react to a particularly precious and close time with our partner by picking a fight or doing something that pushes them away and makes us feel less vulnerable. Most of us fail to realize it, but we actually have a much lower tolerance for being present with our feelings of love and being loved that we think. This is often because being connected to someone else also connects us to our fears around loss and the pain of not having felt that love in the past.
The good news is that the more we understand our fear of intimacy, exploring its source and challenging the behaviors it inspires, the more we can grow and develop in ourselves and our relationships. We can expand our capacity to give and receive love. And we can enjoy the lasting closeness and connection we say we want.