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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7 Comments

Btyler

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.
Brendon

Reply
Anna

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.

Reply
rubaca

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

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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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Nikki

My partner and I have been off and on for 10months now. She’s a beautiful but hardheaded Latina woman and I love her dearly. She has a hard time expressing emotions, but when she does you can almost see the relief on her face. It gives me joy when I know I have given her a space where she feels safe to do so. Now, this isn’t a common occurrence. She lashes out and gets angry really fast. I try to calm her by not reacting when she does and to calmly say something like “hey that’s not fair.”
The more we go through life the more we both learn how to communicate. Things were getting to be great again once we got back together, but almost like clock work, her ex texts every 3 months-ish and boom we r back to this spot of whether or not she cares about me or is comfortable. She gets her feelings of fear which show to me as dread, at times she will just say “I don’t know if this will work in the future.”
She seems to push for reassurance and I give it. I love her! But when she hides and gets sneaky after her ex pops up, I’m at a loss. I’m hurting and confused, and frankly I’m damn tired. I don’t wanna be here every few months.
Every time this has happened she gets weird, she hurts me, she pushes me, then “chooses” me and we go through the process of blocking the girl and moving forward. We get back on track and then as our relationship gets more serious (We were moving in together), she pulls away.
The ex texted her while I was out of town. When she and I spoke I could tell something was up. I asked flat out and she told me. I knew it. But maybe I should have been patient and waited for her to tell me. Instead I felt hurt like she was hiding it from me. I stayed calm but was up front about my feelings and accused her of hurting me. In hind sight I realized I may have spoken down to her when I said “we’ve talked about this before and you said you weren’t going to do that, right.”
Damn. I sound like a condescending parent
🙁
I’m sure I can find different way to say that, or wait for her to come to me and talk. ??? I need help there.
I also need help with what to do now.
In a synopsis:
She says she doesn’t thinks she knows how to love. She says it has nothing to do with her ex. But her ex texting her “Wakes her up” to seeing that maybe she’s just comfortable with me. She hid her phone after deleting their messages. Wasn’t too happy to see me when I showed up after my trip. (That sucked). Then after she took a shower when we were hanging out and talked some. She gave me hope when she showed me a new text from her ex. The ex described how she wanted my gf, by expressing the attributes and attitudes she wanted from her as a partner.
Ouchie. I couldn’t help but wonder what provoked that. My gf told me that she didn’t ask or inquire about anything that the girl just sent that. I told her “alright, if you say that’s true then I believe you.”
She later asked me if I hated her. I said “no, I don’t think I can. I love you. But don’t test it because everyone has their limits.”
She hugged me as we were laying down. She let me hold her. I asked her if she wanted me to leave and never come back. She said no. But in the earlier convo when we were knees deep in me grilling her about her ex, she said she didn’t care if I was around or not. That that was a problem.
I feel her pushing me away. AGAIN. I wanna fight for us, but I’m definitely approaching differently.
I left that next morning, after terrible sleep, I could tell she was trying to be apart from me and we were both on edge and uncomfortable:( and when I checked the front screen of her phone (it was the one between us) for the time she woke up, and went to pull the phone from under me and was like “what r u doing?!” I said “nothing sleeping, I checked the time. I could have told you it if u asked.” But we both know she assumed I was snooping or something popped up or IDK but she removed the phone and kept it right:(
I HATE when she makes the phone a weapon in our relationship. She knows that because my ex did it to me. Now she does it to me when she gets fearful. 🙁
This synopsis is getting long.
I left that morning, explaining, (along these lines)“ we are still gfs as far as I understand it, and I will treat you as such until otherwise. Please Don’t cheat or lie. I know you will figure this out. I deserve the respect of you not doing those things, you deserve that respect, and over all US/WE deserve that.” She would say uhhuh or barely open her eyes and then close them. I could feel her embrace get tight and then loose. Boy did that hurt. I kissed her and told her I loved her. She said okay. OUCH again.
I went off to work.
I told myself to say nothing until she does.
She decided to text me a little about how her day was and what she was doing. I was simple in response. Then we didn’t talk for 6+hours then she said. “Id like to be alone tonight if that’s okay…” I said “I figured you would. I’m assuming that means I am working alone tonight right? And would you tell me if you weren’t actually going to be alone?” (I do grub hub and she comes along, it’s acually fun!) she replied later on “yes and yes” that’s been it. That was yesterday. It’s been almost 24 hours since contact.
Like I said we r still together as far as I know. She hasn’t said any different and didn’t when I said that (more than once).
So my other need for help is WHAT NOW?! Should I text and let her know I’m here for her? Do I stay distant?
I’m afraid distance makes her feel abandoned. I don’t want that. I also don’t want this to be a cycle. Should I wait for her to reach out or?
I love her. I want her. I know she loves me. Even when she says she doesn’t think she can. I understand from her past, between family being hard on her (she says she’s the red headed step child and they don’t disagree with her about it:( it’s not fun to watch them not include her and when they do they can be mean), also her father and mother had a violent relationship when she was young. Etc. she has no friends here in a new state (she’s been here a couple years after she followed her mom down here from the north). She doesn’t want friends. I can’t tell by her stories, many friends have taken advantage of her and hurt her. And on top of all of her ex’s now being with men (except the one pawning for her now), this recent ex pulled her away from family in friends (OH btw this girl came down and lives her too UGH), to the point where I think her ex made her feel like she could only have her in her life. Controlling and isolating. My girl sounds so damaged but I don’t see her that way. I love her. I don’t want to fix her, I want to love her while she does it for herself. I want to be there for her while she works through it.
Help plz. I know I may not be seeing something. I don’t want to react negatively so I’ve stayed distant .

Reply
lucy

Hi Nikki, I think you have found clarity when you say “I love her. I don’t want to fix her, I want to love her while she does it for herself.” The key part of that is that she is prepared to fix herself, to get support, accept her struggles and do the work. I am in a similar situation with my gf and we both have work to do, if she wasn’t prepared to, I wouldn’t stay in relationship with her, it would just be pointless and damaging to us both.
I wonder how things are for you now, a month on? I hope you can take care of yourself and your needs regardless of what you choose.

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