5 Strategies for Dealing With Your Partner’s Fear of Intimacy

fear of intimacy, psychalive

As a therapist, I often hear couples complain that whenever one partner tries to get close, the other pulls away. It’s a painful reality that love isn’t always as easy to give and receive as we’d like to think. Many people have developed defenses that make them intolerant of too much love, attention or affection. Our personal limitations and insecurities are regularly acted out in our closest relationships. Very often, our current reactions (especially our overreactions) are based on negative programming from our past. In the blog “Why You Keep Winding Up in the Same Relationship,” I discussed how and why we form defenses that make it difficult to get close. In this blog, I want to offer a few ways to work on overcoming a fear of intimacy that may exist in our partners and even in ourselves:

Don’t build a case
Although relationships can feel like a tug of war with one of us struggling to pull closer while the other resists, engaging in the blame game is never the solution. Too often, we build a case against the people we are involved with. We use their flaws against them, cataloging their shortcomings in our minds until admiration slowly erodes into cynicism. When this transformation occurs, we become highly attuned to our partners’ less desirable traits. We start to filter and distort our view of them, so that they fit into the case we’ve built against them. We fail to see our partners as they really are, with strengths and with weaknesses. When we don’t see all aspects of a person, we become bent out of shape ourselves. We may act out or behave in ways of which we don’t approve. Conversely, when we interrupt this tendency to build a case, we can focus on ourselves and act in ways that truly represent who we are and how we feel. Staying vulnerable, open and compassionate toward our partner can make them feel safe and allow them to take a chance on being close. Being our best is the surest way to bring out the best in our partners.

Look at ourselves
If we notice our partners pulling away at certain points, it’s helpful to explore ways we might be contributing to the problem or even provoking it. Be open to the reality that we help create the situations we’re in. A good exercise is to look at what our partner does that we dislike the most, then think about what we do right before that. If a partner is unwilling to open up, do we do anything that might contribute to them shutting down? Do we nag? Get distracted? Do we talk down to them by trying to fix their problems or telling them what to do? Do we complain to them? Do we ever draw them out or just let them vent? We can take a powerful position in making our relationship closer by changing our own behavior. As psychologist and author, Dr. Pat Love says, “Feel your feelings, then do the right thing.”

Identify patterns
When people feel close, they react. Sometimes these reactions are positive, and sometimes they are negative. The reasons for this are complex and have a lot to do with how we’ve learned to see ourselves and the world around us throughout our lives. We may respond perversely to positive treatment, because it conflicts with negative ways we’re used to being seen or related to. Wherever these challenges come from, we can start to overcome them by identifying destructive patterns and dynamics in our relationships. For example, when our partner pulls back, how do we respond? Perhaps this action creates a certain amount of desperation within us, which in turn might leave us acting more needy or dependent toward them. Our distressed behaviors may make our partner more critical, perceiving us as weak or clingy, and they may then pull back further. Alternately, a partner’s withholding may leave us angry or hardened against him or her. We may withdraw in response and become colder in our actions. Naturally, this too will leave us estranged and emotionally distant from each other.

Talk about issues in non-heated moments
When engines are revved and chords are struck, it’s not always the best time to get into a conversation about the state of our relationship. However, once we’ve cooled down and have our emotions in check, we should have an open dialogue with our partner about the patterns or issues we observe. We can draw them out and really listen to what the experience was like for our partner. We can also discuss why we reacted the way we did in the hurtful interaction. We can develop our compassion for each other. We can show genuine interest when we ask our partners to think about what provokes them. We can even inquire as to how this reaction might be related to their past. Did they have an intrusive caretaker who left them feeling like they need to be guarded? Did they have a manipulative parent who left them feeling untrusting?

Seeing a therapist can be very helpful in uncovering why each of us is sensitive to certain triggers. We can make connections between past events and current tendencies. We can each learn where our critical self-images came from and why it threatens us to have them contradicted by someone who loves us. The more we understand ourselves and what drives our behavior, the better able we are to choose our actions and be open with our feelings; the better able we are also to live more fully in the present instead of recreating our past. When two people in a relationship know themselves and each other, they can point out when the other is overreacting without placing blame or building a case.

Don’t take a powerless approach
fear_of_intimacy_buy_nowNo matter what goes on in our relationship, it’s important not to feel hopeless or that we are at the mercy of someone else. No matter how perfect we aim to be, people struggle, and when our partners have a hard time, we shouldn’t always take it personally. We can learn to be solid and secure in ourselves, maintaining our personal power and building our emotional resilience. We can do this by knowing ourselves and learning not to react to our loved ones from a childish or primal place.

When a partner struggles, we can learn to be compassionate rather than feeling victimized or cynical. Watch yourself to make sure you aren’t making statements that start with, “You make me…” As adults, rarely can we be made to do anything. We control our own behavior. Rather, you could say, “When you do that, I feel…” which places no blame, but instead invites your partner to know you more fully.

When it comes to relationship goals, our chief aim should be to be kind and loving, not provoking or reactive. We should be open to working on ourselves and evolving psychologically so that we can express our feelings in a way that is mature and independent of wounds from our past. We should seek to better understand, and develop more compassion for, our partners and ourselves. With these initiatives in mind, our fears of intimacy may still exist, but they will be greatly weakened in their effort to limit our pursuit of love.

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012).Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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Hi Dr. Firestone,

I recently fell in love with someone and it ended abruptly because of “the marriage” conversation. To be honest it came out of no where, way too early and I realized how differently we viewed love and marriage.

I knew this person for most of my life and we didn’t cross paths into i moved to a common city. I told her that I had a crush and she invited me to her new city. We visited each other for months and eventually committed to a distance relationship before discussing a move to th same city.

Our last trip I would have written down as one of my best. We were growing close and I was starting to fall in love. The week that followed she asked me what I would do if I moved to her city. All and all she randomly asked me if I thought it was weird that she didn’t believe in marriage. I said yes and we kept talking and switched subjects. I honestly didn’t think she was serious; Ives heard plenty of people say they’re not getting married.

A week later she brought the question back up and said she had been thinking about it. She proceeded to say I do not want you to have an expectation to get married because I do not believe in it. I didn’t really know what to say, I’ve never really thought about the importance of marriage to me. The conversation then lead to her saying I don’t know if I believe in love, children, or
ever getting married. I asked if we felt
In love and grew close, we she turn that person down from marriage and she said yes. She said she didn’t believe in marriage and couldn’t promise that she wouldn’t change her mind down the road.

The conversation ended and we split.

I’ve been dealing with this in my head the last month. I showed her unconditional love and looked forward to growing close together.

Her parents had a bad divorce and I believe it traumatized her. She is not receptive to being loved, which doesn’t make sense because I felt nothing but love and good things from her. She always has a positive attitude and is encouraging in all ways.

How do I move on? How do accept that she clearly has been let down and potentially never felt loved?

Thanks for your time.


Hi Brendon,

I had a similar situation a couple of years ago with my then-boyfriend. I was in your shoes. Same thing – person from my past, long-distance love relationship between him being in Chicago and me being in NYC. Talk of relocation to be with each other, talk of marriage & children, meeting families. Then, suddenly, talk of me ramping up the relationship and how he doesn’t, after all, want to have marriage and family. That was two years ago, and I haven’t heard back from them (which I’m beginning to realize, and you will hopefully too, if you haven’t yet, is a good thing). I can’t tell you how much I cried or felt terribly about myself.

To break it down to you, sometimes, there are no abandonment issues. Sometimes, the other person is just a d**che. She’s a cold-hearted person who used you & will do similar to others. That’s how my ex was. You’re better off and will meet a great, kind person, if you haven’t yet.

All the best.


I want to ask some thing my boyfriend have lot of fears like he is uneasy showing his love in public places he thinks every one is judging him and he just never had sex and he is scared of it no matter how much we try he get scared and could not be able to do it i want to help me get out of it n when he can not do it he gets angry n get fustrated he thinks bad of himself i love him alot but when we are in the places we can not do it n and he is relaxed enough n in mood then i feel he can because i felt him so can you help me and tell me ways that i can take him out of this fear that he is living in

Celeste Gibbins

I m in a strange situation. I am with a man who loves me and loves our baby daughter but he is brutally honest about everything and it hurts me sometimes and if I tell him it hurts me, he withdraws his love and calls me complicated and elaborate and threatens a breakup. When we first got together we were passionately in love, so I misread this for commitment. He lived in France and me in Ireland. Then he came to stay with me for two months for an internship so I read this as serious. We made love without protection eventually and even though I thought I was unable to conceive I read this to mean he won’t be devastated if I became pregnant. He was. I didn’t want an abortion. His family accused me of trapping him, I don’t know why he’s an unemployed student, I’m obviously with him for love and not another reason. He was very clear about not wanting the baby but he stayed with me out of duty and has been in a state of anxiety depression and detachment ever since. Sometimes he relaxes enough to realise he is happy and has freedom and empowerment but so often he focuses on viewignour life together as a big sacrifice. When he’s happy sometimes I feel safe enough to tell him hi I feel bout his unhappiness about being in a relationship and it throws him straight back into depression, denial and judgement of me. And I feel terrified and alone.


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