Love is not only hard to find, but strange as it may seem, it can be even more difficult to accept and tolerate. Most of us say that we want to find a loving partner, but many of us have deep-seated fears of intimacy that make it difficult to be in a close relationship. The experience of real love often threatens our self-defenses and raises our anxiety as we become vulnerable and open ourselves up to another person. This leads to a fear of intimacy. Falling in love not only brings excitement and fulfillment; it also creates anxiety and fears of rejection and potential loss. For this reason many people shy away from loving relationships.
Fear of intimacy begins to develop early in life. As kids, when we experience rejection and/or emotional pain, we often shut down. We learn not to rely on others as a coping mechanism. We may even begin to rely on fantasy gratification rather actual interactions with other people; unlike people, fantasies cannot hurt us. Overtime, we may prefer these fantasy over actual personal interactions and real positive acknowledgment or affection. After being hurt in our earliest relationships, we fear being hurt again. We are reluctant to take another chance on being loved.
If we felt unseen or misunderstood as children, we may have a hard time believing that someone could really love and value us. The negative feelings we developed toward ourselves in our early years, became a deeply embedded part of who we think we are. Therefore, when someone is loving and reacts positively toward us, we experience a conflict within ourselves. We don’t know whether to believe this new person’s kind and loving point of view of us or our old, familiar sense of our identity. So, we often react with suspicion and distrust when someone loves us, because our fear of intimacy has been aroused.
Our capacity to accept love and enjoy loving relationships can also be negatively affected by existential issues. When we feel loved and admired, we start to place more value on ourselves and begin to appreciate life more. This can lead us to feel more pain about the thought of death. We fear both the loss of our loved one and of ourselves, and in the process many of us unconsciously pull back from our relationships. Fear of death tends to increase the fear of intimacy.
Even though the fear of intimacy is a largely unconscious process, we can still observe how it effects our behavior. When we push our partner away emotionally or retreat from their affection, we are acting on this fear of intimacy. Holding back the positive qualities that our partner finds most desirable is another way we act on this fear. We often try to make ourselves less lovable, so we don’t have to be as afraid of being loved. These distancing behaviors may reduce our anxiety about being too close to someone, but they come at a great cost. Acting on our fears preserves our negative self-image and keeps us from experiencing the great pleasure and joy that love can bring.
However, we can overcome fear of intimacy. We can develop ourselves to stop being afraid of love and let someone in. We can recognize the behaviors that are driven by our fear of intimacy and challenge these defensive reactions that preclude love. We can remain vulnerable in our love relationship by resisting retreating into a fantasy of love or engaging in distancing and withholding behaviors. We can maintain our integrity, learn to “sweat through” the anxiety of being close without pulling away, and gradually increase our tolerance for being loved. By taking the actions necessary to challenge our fear of intimacy, we can expand our capacity for both giving and accepting love.