Fear of Intimacy and the Child Inside

I was recently discussing with a woman her current “man trouble.” Her very serious boyfriend of two years was pulling back, lashing out in anger over imaginary slights, and accusing her of being too needy, too much of a drama queen.

She had been in tears for weeks, having exhausted every possible angle of approach, thinking, sadly, that she had no other recourse but to end it.

I inquired how things had been just before he started to act distant.

“That’s the crazy thing!” she told me. “Everything was going great! We were talking about moving in together. It really seemed as if we’d gotten beyond so many of our past issues.”

Then, he started to pull away. He was mean, said cruel things. The evening she called me, he had sent her a text message earlier, asking her to call him at a certain time. She was hopeful that they were going to be able to talk things out and turn them around. When she phoned him at the prescribed time, he dismissed her, groggily. “Sorry, I can’t talk. I’m half-asleep.”

She was gob-smacked! Of course she felt hurt, surprised, angry, rejected, and manipulated. She reacted organically and vocally to those feelings.

“Why do you always have to be so clingy!?” he snapped at her harshly. “I just can’t deal with your drama right now! I have my own problems!”

“You see! she said. “He accuses me of being dramatic but he’s the one instigating the drama!”

She was in tears, wondering what she had done wrong to make him behave that way. She was mentally going over her own behavior; wondering how she could behave differently to win him back.

The diagnosis seemed obvious: Classic fear of intimacy. (FOI) He was pushing her buttons with his passive-aggressive behavior; instigating her to act out in a way that would make her more easily dismissible. He encouraged her hopes, then smashed them down, and when she cried, he accused her of being too emotional. In this way, he undermined her confidence. Then, when she craved reassurance, he accused her of being “needy” and “clingy.” Now, at last, he had “good reason” to reject her. Making her the fall guy was an expedient way of avoiding his own intimacy issues. She was right – he was the one creating the drama.

The more she told me about him, the more the pattern revealed itself: A period of wonderful closeness and a sense of moving forward in the relationship, followed by retreat – usually with accusations on his part of her neediness, etc.

Here’s what I’ve learned about people with FOI: It’s not they don’t crave deep emotional intimacy. Most of them do, absolutely. But the idea of being so vulnerable strikes a primitive terror deep in their soul. This see-saw between opposing needs governs their lives – and, also, unfortunately, the loves of those who love them.

Usually FOI goes hand-in-hand with low self-esteem. The “logic” being: “If I let them see how I really am, they will quickly recognize that I am unworthy of their love, and they will leave me; that would be just too painful and humiliating. It is much safer to keep them at a distance.”

And most of them are not being purposely malicious, even if it sometimes feels that way. They are literally so overcome by fear, they cannot function rationally. They act out in whatever way will protect them most expediently.

The conscious and unconscious minds each speak their own language. Their systems of evaluating and understanding the world are completely different. The unconscious is based deep in the reptilian brain. Its internal “logic” is emotion-based, harmone-driven, heavy on the fear. It reacts at the first whiff of danger – both external and psychological. It’s extremely adept at hiding deep-rooted conflicts from our conscious understanding, because it doesn’t “trust” our conscious mind to protect us properly. I imagine it as a hyper-vigilant child of an alcoholic parent: Its job is to take care of us and protect us from the damage that our careless conscious selves will do: Intoxicated with love!? No, no, no! Must keep you away from the bottle!

The thing to remember is, the unconscious mind always believes it is working in our best interest. It thinks it knows best (and in many cases, it does!). When it regards vulnerability as a danger, it jumps into protect us from it.

Most of us have experienced at least a touch of FOI. We all feel a bit frightened when we start to recognize that we’re falling in love. The stakes are higher; there’s more to lose. The lucky ones are able to push through the fear, and embrace all the joy of true love.

For some however, that fear is crippling.

The exact distance at which others must be kept is different for everyone, but it is strictly monitored by the unconscious mind. Get too close, and the warning bells begin to clang! “Attention! Attention! Danger!” The gates fall; the armed soldiers march into position and the secret psyche is protected. (Likewise, should the romantic partner back away and the distance become too far, the charm kicks in to lure them back.)

These walls ostensibly protect, but in reality of course, they just keep the psyche prisoner.
Many who suffer from FOI are painfully aware of their problem yet despite an intellectual understanding of this ‘automatic response”, they still find themselves unable to alter their reactions/behavior. They may work on this issue, either alone or in therapy, yet each time they make progress, they may find themselves pulled back into to self-defeating behavior. Remember, the unconscious mind is a child! No sooner does the conscious mind understand and conquer one protective behavior, the unconscious mind substitutes another!

While it is frustrating, confusing, and painful for those on the outside trying to get in, it is probably more frustrating, confusing and painful for those who can’t help but protect themselves at any cost. If they cannot find their way through this fear, they must suffer through life without love.

If you are in a relationship with such a person, you may feel confused by the seemingly illogical push-pull. You may not understand contradictory or passive-aggressive behavior. While you may feel deeply emotionally connected to this person, at the same time, you might ask yourself if it’s worth all the pain and disappointment. In staying, you are forced to ride the other’s “fear cycles” so you swing back and forth, between deep love and angry hurt.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to calculate the emotional “cost-benefit” ratio. If you decide to stick it out and keep trying to break through, it can be very useful to have someone help you understand your partner’s behavior and motivations more clearly, so you are not pulled into a passive-aggressive or self-destructive dynamic.

If you need me, I am here!