- William Stitt / Unsplash
- Some people can’t help but push their partners away because of a fear of intimacy.
- Sometimes this is because they had a tough upbringing, and find it difficult to connect with people.
- Others may have been through trauma later on, such as an abusive relationship.
- The best way to become comfortable with intimacy is to work out your vulnerabilities and learn to use them as a power.
We’ve all been there – you start dating someone and they act a bit too keen. They’re messaging you at all hours, and cannot wait to meet up again.
However, some people push others away more often than seems obviously justified. Sometimes it can feel like somebody loses interest even though things were going perfectly.
If you feel someone pulling away once your relationship has started to get a little more serious, it could be because they have a fear of intimacy.
Anxiety can sabotage a relationship.
According to psychologist Hal Shoreyin in a blog post on Psychology Today, about 17% of adults in Western cultures fear intimacy and avoid closeness in relationships.
Perpetua Neo, a psychotherapist and coach, told Business Insider that when people have anxiety in a relationship, it’s about how they are going to perform in that relationship, and this extra layer of tension stops them from really being present.
“You’re out on a date with your partner and you’re supposed to be having a good time, holding hands, cuddling, and kissing them, but in your head you’re thinking, maybe I’m doing this wrong, and checking yourself all the time,” she said. “This anxiety is going to stop you from actually being intimate, because you’ve got all these standards you’re raising for yourself, and that’s going to sabotage it.”
In one way, this can be explained by perfectionism, of which there are two main types: productive and unproductive. The productive group get things done to a high level every time, whereas the unproductive types put things off and procrastinate. Perfectionist anxiety can sometimes be the root of intimacy fears, Neo said.
However, at a deeper level, this fear is usually a result of what Neo calls our “stories.”
“We are run by stories, and we don’t know what kinds of assumptions rule us until we pause and reflect,” she said.
“In therapy we call these stories ‘core beliefs’ … but I say we are run by stories. It could be upbringing, it could be a difficult experience, or attachment, that can lead to stories about us, such as ‘I’m not good enough,’ ‘I’m not worthy,’ ‘I’m unlovable.'”
When you are run by these stories, Neo said, it is very hard to be intimate, because intimacy requires vulnerability. If you always fear being unlovable or unworthy, you are always on your best behaviour, which translates to great standards, perfectionism, and anxiety. This means you cannot be vulnerable, and you cannot show who you really are.
It starts with the relationships we have with our caregivers.
So where do these stories begin?
Neo said that a lot of research on attachment has involved children, as it is a pattern that develops as an infant that we are wired to have in order to survive.
The term “attachment theory” was first coined by British Psychologist John Bowlby in the 60s. His work established the idea that how a child develops depends heavily on their ability to form a strong relationship with at least one caregiver – usually a parent.
Neo said that as a species, humans are very slow to develop. Compared to something like a gazelle, which is walking within a few minutes, it takes us over a year to get to that stage. We can barely do anything on our own as an infant, which is why we have evolved attachment behaviours in order to survive.
This attachment to the person who cared for us influences our attachment behaviours once we have grown up. Neo said these behaviours can either be secure or insecure, depending on how your relationship was with your caregiver.
“A person in a secure attachment pattern or relationship will tend to feel ok if their partner is not in the room with them, or if their partner goes away for extended periods of time,” she said. “They are able to speak about what makes them unhappy, and stick to their boundaries, and their partner understands what they want. So if you have a secure pattern of attachment, it’s easy for relationships because you can be intimate.”
However, if you had a tough upbringing during these early attachment stages, you’re more likely to develop an insecure pattern of relationships.
For example, if a parent is dismissive or angry when their child is upset, this leads to them to believe their feelings are negative and will be punished. The child eventually learns that the easiest way to deal with emotions is to not feel them – so they are effectively acting to regulate their parent’s feelings, rather than the other way around.
If the parent is neglectful, a lot of the child’s effort growing up may be poured into trying to gain their affection and approval. Those who have strong bonds with their parents are more likely to be adventurous, because they know they have a back-up of support waiting for them. Those who don’t are less willing to try new things, and perhaps throw themselves into relationships.
“This can mean a fear of being intimate, or to mesh with another person on a deeper level,” Neo said. “It can be easy to talk to a person, but it’s not easy to tell them the truth. It can be easy to sleep with a person, but it doesn’t mean that person really knows you.”
Other relationships can play a part, too.
- Matthew Hamilton / Unsplash
Sometimes people have a good, stable childhood and still end up damaged somewhere along the way. This can happen if you become attracted to an abusive person and end up in a relationship with them.
Neo said if you end up in an abusive relationship, your whole world can feel thwarted and destabilised, especially in the aftermath.
“Most women who have been in abusive relationships, they don’t understand life anymore, because everything doesn’t feel real anymore,” she said. “People go about life thinking that good things happen to good people, the future will be bright or at least okay, but when something bad happens – not just abusive relationships, it could be a job loss or a death of a partner – this will shatter our world of assumptions.”
Some people fail to rebuild themselves and their lives after a trauma, and this means their outlook on life shifts to one that is uncertain and scary, where bad things happen.
Whenever they meet someone new, they expect the worst of them, and this begins a vicious cycle of never getting close to anyone. They are always looking out for something to go wrong.
“If I meet someone and act suspicious, I’m not going to interact well with this person,” Neo said. “And what’s going to happen is they’re not going to like me because they’re going to pick up on the fact I’m suspicious and hostile. So it’s a vicious cycle. If we don’t manage to build our sense of coherence and meanings about the world, we will have this fear of intimacy.”
Neo says identifying the red flags of an abusive partner is important, but you shouldn’t actively search for them. Rather than thinking “please don’t end up being a narcissist,” you should think “please be wonderful, kind, and funny.”
There are things you can look out for.
Shannon Thomas, a clinical social worker, told Business Insider that there are several methods people use to sabotage intimacy in their relationships.
“One is that we become critical of another person who is trying to bond with us,” she said. “We question their motives of trying to be close. We may tell ourselves that they don’t really care but are pretending. What we think is what we feel and will influence our behaviours.”
Someone can push their partner away by saying they are busy with work or other activities, so they don’t have the time needed to invest in getting close to others. They can also create unnecessary tension by starting arguments or not putting in any effort, meaning the other person will eventually give up the pursuit.
“Survivors of abuse have learned in real life that some people are not safe,” Thomas added. “This can create a fear response when a new relationship starts to feel ‘too close.’ Survivors of abuse will subconsciously keep people at an emotional distance. They set up barriers for the exact purpose of limiting connections so not to be hurt again.”
Save your energy for people that matter.
Abusive people don’t prey on the weak – they like a challenge, so they often go for those who are smart, confident, and strong, largely because it makes them feel superior.
Neo said this is important to remember, because it helps identify where you were vulnerable. If can be painful working out why you were a target, because it can come with a lot of self-blame. However, once you identify it, you can then use it as a superpower.
“People with high levels of empathy are often not aware of boundaries, because we give and give,” Neo said.
“But when you don’t have good boundaries, it leaves you open to abusers. Imagine if you’re in a war zone and you don’t have a fort, then all these bad people are going to come in. The really important thing is to emphasise that if you can keep your energy for the people that matter, the real genuine people, it means you can help yourself and help them. How can I heal from that horrible experience and use it to create something beautiful and better in life?”
Thomas added that it’s really important to choose emotionally healthy people to connect with, because unhealthy people will only reinforce beliefs that getting close to people is damaging.
“Once we have established that someone has the emotional intelligence and maturity to bond, we need to be honest that we struggle with fears of being close,” she said. “[We] will need their help to create a safe environment so we can learn to trust other people again.”