Once upon a time, you met someone who sent you into paroxysms of joy and bliss.
You were wildly, passionately, deeply in love. Everything this amazing person said or did was exciting, intoxicating, and thrilling. And when you were with your new love, you felt more complete and alive.
Maybe you and this person made a commitment, and now you're married or in a long-term relationship.
And maybe, as the years have gone by, things don't feel quite the way they did once upon a time.
In fact, perhaps a gulf has grown between the two of you that makes the Grand Canyon look like a rabbit hole. You wonder how you ever shared such a deep and profound connection back in the day.
- You don't talk for hours the way you once did.
- You don't share your deepest joys and fears.
- You don't feel emotionally safe or understood.
- There's very little affectionate or intimate touching.
- The fun has gone out of the relationship.
- You can't let your guard down or your partner can't.
- One or both of you resorts to passive-aggressive behavior rather than honest dialogue.
- You've lost respect for each other.
- You spend more time apart than alone.
- Deep, honest, raw emotion makes one or both of you extremely uncomfortable.
- You find yourself spending more time with kids, friends, or work than with your partner.
Why do you feel like you're living with a stranger in a strange land?
Why is there such a fear of intimacy now when you were so captivated and closely bound in the beginning?
One major culprit for this state of disengagement is a fear of intimacy, either in yourself or in your partner. When you can't be emotionally intimate, when you can't be authentic and vulnerable, when you don't make the effort to share and connect with your partner, then your relationship is bound to wither and die.
So what is emotional intimacy?
The cornerstones of emotional intimacy are mutual trust and care.The relationship is a safe haven for both partners.
Couples enjoy deep connection when there's a level of trust and communication that allows both partners to feel safe to share their innermost selves. Emotional intimacy allows us to feel accepted, respected and admired in our partner’s eyes, even though they are aware of our innermost struggles, fears, and failures.
Emotionally intimate partners deeply care about each other, wanting the best for one another and exhibiting true concern and empathy for each other.
- You are as concerned with your partner’s satisfaction and happiness as with your own.
- You desire for your partner to be fulfilled emotionally, intellectually, socially, physically and professionally.
- There's a strong sense of fairness in your relationship, and you both take pleasure in the successes, pleasures and happiness of the other.
According to Linda Bloom, L.C.S.W., and Charlie Bloom, M.S.W., authors of Secrets of Great Marriages: Real Truth from Real Couples about Lasting Love, “It's only when we both reveal ourselves fully that the deepest, purest, most soul-nourishing love can be exchanged. The remedy for coming back to engage more fully is to first be in touch with what we are feeling and then to express, rather than repress, connect rather than protect, and reveal rather than conceal.”
Without intimacy, a marriage or relationship will grow empty and lifeless as more and more distance grows between a couple. But why would either partner allow this to happen in the first place? Or why would one partner enter a relationship unable to share emotional intimacy?
Why do we fear intimacy?
There are many reasons why one might fear the emotional intimacy necessary for a deeply connected, loving relationship. Here are a few of the culprits:
Every one of us carries a unique set of baggage from our past that impacts and informs our close relationships. If our past was filled with feelings of rejection and inadequacy, or if we didn't experience emotional safety as children, then we carry these fears and feelings into our adult relationships.
After experiencing hurt in our earliest relationships, we fear this pain and are reluctant to take another chance on being loved.
Or if we attempted emotional vulnerability in past romantic relationships and were hurt or betrayed, we might close ourselves off to intimacy in relationships we develop later on.
“In to see me.
The simplest and most understandable way I have ever heard intimacy described is by breaking the word down: in to me see. That is what intimacy is about – allowing another person to see into us, sharing who we are with another person.”~Robert Burney M. A.
Fear of Engulfment in Men
Measuring fear of intimacy among men and women is tricky, but one study found that men scored higher on a Fear-of-Intimacy Scale. Some men fear “engulfment” or being smothered by their partner or losing control. As a woman becomes more emotionally attached, she may want closeness — which does not threaten her womanhood. (By nature, women are nurturers and desire closeness.)
However, some men experience closeness as stressful at times. It suggests a “loss of one’s self.” Malone & Malone (1999) point out that men are on an eternal quest to protect their manhood which manifests as a need to be independent and not emotionally reliant on another.
Mental Health Issues
There are some mental health problems that impact intimacy in relationships. People with OCD or OCD features are often afraid of intimacy because of the uncertainty and lack of control inherent in relationships. People with OCD have a high need to feel their environment is extremely controlled and predictable.
A person with a paranoid personality type is often afraid of relationships are hypervigilant about their environment. They are extremely aware of power hierarchies and experience an ongoing fear of being trapped or taken advantage of.
Of course, depression, anxiety, and addictions all can wreak havoc on relationship intimacy.
Ironically, the positive, loving support of one partner might trigger deep-seated fears, self-doubts, and low self-esteem in another. The less secure partner wonders why he or she would merit this intimate love and therefore sabotages it by pulling back and withholding intimacy. When the idea of being deeply and intimately loved conflicts with our self-image, we resist an emotionally intimate relationship.
How to Get Over the Fear of Intimacy
Ideally, both partners are equally committed to building intimacy in the relationship. You both must understand and embrace the necessity of intimacy in creating a healthy, loving, long-term connection.
Because practicing these skills can trigger deep-seated emotions, resentments, and fears initially (if you are in a state of disconnectedness), having the support of a good couples counselor is extremely beneficial as you work toward building emotional intimacy.
However, you can begin practicing the skills of intimate, safe interactions even when you aren't working with a counselor. Here are a few ideas:
1. Create a safe haven for each other. Curtail criticisms, judgments, and passive-aggressive remarks or behavior. Practice being a refuge for each other so that you can both express your innermost feelings, fears, and desires. Even if you have feelings of judgment or fear about what your partner shares with you, simply listen without expressing them for now. There will be time later when you can safely express your fears or feelings.
2. Practice vulnerability. Begin to let down walls and defenses. Show yourself as you really are. Entrust yourself — the good, bad and ugly — to your partner, and ask for their love and non-judgmental acceptance. Of course, this requires that your partner practices #1 above, but you can begin by allowing small vulnerabilities to show that feels less threatening.
3. Review your past. Honestly assess how your childhood experiences, as well as your previous romantic relationships, have impacted your ability to be emotionally intimate with your partner. Communicate these with your partner, and ask your partner what past life events might contribute to his or her emotional withdrawal. You can begin healing these wounds as you and your partner create a safe and loving space between you.
4. Spend more light and fun time together. You can create intimacy simply by spending easy time together. You don't have to discuss intimacy to enjoy it. By simply enjoying one each others company, participating in a shared interest, or even just reading together in the same room, you can increase the feelings of closeness and intimacy.
5. Practice non-sexual touching. Emotional intimacy is heightened with affection and physical touch. Make a practice daily of holding hands, hugging, sitting close together when reading or watching TV. Offer unexpected, loving touch throughout the day without it necessarily leading to a sexual encounter. Loving, physical touch creates deep bonds between two people. It's hard to feel angry or disengaged when you are touching.
6. Learn mature communication. Learn more about emotionally intelligent communication styles, especially during conflict. Try not to resort to snide or hurtful comments, stonewalling, or defensiveness. Resolve conflicts as quickly as possible so you don't stoke the flames of disconnection.
7. Offer positive comments daily. According to relationship researcher John Gottman, for every one negative feeling or interaction between partners, there must be five positive feelings or interactions. Stable and happy couples share more positive feelings and actions than negative ones. Unhappy couples tend to have more negative feelings and actions than positive ones. So on a daily basis, offer supportive, positive comments to your partner and regularly acknowledge even their small successes.
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The more you practice intimacy in your relationship, the more connection, and joy you will experience with your partner. These positive feelings will motivate you to further depths of intimacy in which you and your partner enjoy deep and abiding fulfillment and passion. Imagine how life-changing this kind of relationship could be.
As relationship experts Linda and Charlie Bloom remind, “The real catastrophe is to come to the end of your life only to realize that by playing it safe and trying to avoid risk, you took the biggest risk of all, and lost the most valuable thing that you could lose: a life that was rich with meaning, feeling, and joy, one that not only filled your own cup to the brim but spilled over to fill the cups of others who were moved and inspired by you.”
Do you or your partner have a fear of intimacy? Check out my book, 201 Relationship Questions: The Couple's Guide to Build Trust and Emotional Intimacy.