The Fear of Intimacy

The other day a few colleagues of mine were discussing intimacy on a lunch break.  The one had his own therapy group that was focused on the topic of intimacy and he was expressing his distress in how often people sign up for the groups on topics like “anxiety”, “depression” and “grief” but few wanted to sign up for the intimacy group.

“People don’t want to be intimate anymore”, one of my colleagues said in response to his distress, “We’re living in a separate individualistic culture”.

“Yeah, a lot of people are just focused on their phones and technology now,” said another, “Nobody really wants intimacy”.

Up until this point in the discussion I was an observer, like a bird looking in through the window, but I felt an urge to say something to add my own two cents.  “Well, I think the problem is that people don’t like conflict,” I said, “and you need to be able to work through conflict in order to be more intimate”.  

This is where I differ a little in my view.  While I certainly believe that our Western culture influences and encourages individualism, I don’t necessarily see it as the cause.  The cause runs much deeper than that and it’s far more complex — our culture is merely a reflection of our internal state.  Also, this would imply that a culture who is more community-focused (like Asian countries) have greater intimacy in relationships, though (as someone who has lived in Asia) I don’t believe that to be the case.

So let me elaborate on the relationship between intimacy and conflict.

For starters, if I were to tell you that you had to learn to be more intimate with your partner, what would come up for you?  There’s a lot of things that could come up.

For some of you, your first thought may be sex.  While sex is certainly important in its own right, sex does not equal intimacy.  Sex is an expression of physical intimacy.  However, real and deep intimacy is on an emotional level.

When we’re emotionally intimate with someone, we are able to share someone our true emotions — our sadness, fears, worries and even our anger.

By becoming emotionally intimate, we allow ourselves, slowly and gradually, become more seen by another person.  It creates more love and deepens the relationship.  The other person is better able to know us for who we truly are and we are then better able to know the other person.

Now, what is coming up for you now as you hear more about what emotional intimacy is?  Can you imagine expressing your true emotions to your partner?  What has come up for you in the past when you’ve tried to do that with someone you trust?  How did others react?

I would venture to guess that, at least on some level, fear comes up.  There could be fear of getting hurt, fear of being judged, or fear of being rejected.  I would also guess that there could be anger or even sadness upon thinking about how your emotions weren’t honored, accepted and validated in the way they should have been.

That’s why the process of learning to be intimate in a relationship isn’t easy.  In fact, it’s terrifying because it requires us to be incredibly vulnerable.  It requires us to face our fears, despite how much we’ve been hurt by others in the past.

To be intimate requires us to take down our defenses and expose ourselves with another person with the hope that this other person is going to react with acceptance and love.

For most of us we haven’t had that reflected to us in our childhood.  We’re used to being judged and shamed.  We’re used to feeling guilty.  We’re used to not being accepted.

We’re not used to other people giving us a safe and loving space for us to express our emotions and to simply say something like, “I know that’s tough.  I feel you.  I’m here for you and I love you no matter what”.

This is where conflict makes things tough, because, for many of us, we were not raised in a way where conflict was perceived as a good thing. Conflict can feel very rejecting.  We may have come to believe that any kind of conflict means fighting, which could lead to things that are scary or, at least, dysregulating.  

However, the reality is that disagreements and conflicts are a good thing.  Why?  Because, through conflicts, we are able to deepen in our relationships.  Through conflicts, we are able to share own views, emotions and experiences.  We share more of ourselves and our partner shares more of their selves.  A disagreement doesn’t need to be a threat to the relationship.  Both people can simply just choose to disagree and still love and respect each other (no wonder our current political climate is the way it is, right?).  

The reality is that through conflict, if we can communicate in a way where both people take responsibility for themselves and both are able to share their own genuine internal experience, we can actually become much more intimate.

Through conflict we have the opportunity to see another persons’s deep inner wounds, so we can better understand what makes them who they are.  We then have the opportunity to give them reassurance that all is okay and that they are loved and accepted no matter what.

So how can we better deal with conflict so that we can become more intimate? 

First off, you got to gain greater self-awareness of your own relationship to conflict.

Are you one who avoids conflict at all cost?  Do you tend to believe that a happy relationship means no arguing?  What is your relationship with anger?  How do you hold or express anger?  What comes up for you when you imagine having a debate that’s healthy, respectful, loving, and free of anger and resentment?  These can be great things to explore in therapy to help expand your own self-awareness.

Second, be sure to track yourself.

So when a discussion starts to turn a bit sour, be sure to check in with yourself.  How are you feeling?  Are you angry or anxious?  Are you tense?

When we’re triggered and become angry, anxious, tense, or upset, this is when we are unable to think clearly.  We literally can’t process information the way we can otherwise because our nervous system is outside of our normal window of tolerance.  So it’s important to recognize that you’re triggered, so you can stop, breath and maybe take a break before you continue the discussion and repair.

In my practice, I’ll often give my clients a triggers and activation track worksheet as homework if this is something they want to work on.

Third, you’ve got to recognize where the other person is and focus on discussing (not fighting or abuse).

Does the other person appear tense and angry?  Are they saying things like “you always” or “you never”?  If so, then it’s likely that they’re triggered.

Remember how I said we can’t process information clearly when we’re outside our window of tolerance?  Well, when you can’t then, often times, the other person can’t either.  When one person isn’t regulated, it makes it much harder for the other person to regulate as well. This is why learning co-regulation is so important — and it’s not only in parenting, but in all relationships.

So it’s important to learn to recognize when others are dysregulated so you know when to disengage, walk away and allow space to cool off.  

When both people are cooled off and regulated, then a real discussion can happen.

Fourth, be very mindful about your language.

If you want to be loved and respected then know that the other person deserves to be loved and respected as well.  So be mindful about your language and avoid saying things that are condemning, like the words “childish” or “selfish”.  Avoid saying things that may imply that you’re placing all the blame on the other person, like “you always” or “you never”, because, realistically, it takes two to tango, and I highly doubt your partner has, in fact, “never cleaned” or “never helped around the house”.

This is where tools like, Non-Violent Communication and the concept of the Four Horsemen from the Gottman Method can come in handy.

So, do I really think people don’t want intimacy?  Not at all.  I think, deep down, we really truly do want intimacy, it’s just that our fear gets in the way and it causes us to stay in the cycle of suffering.  We need to be willing to do the work to recognize, acknowledge and heal our wounds that block us from experiencing deep intimacy with others.