Fear of Intimacy: Are you a relationship saboteur?

Do you put up roadblocks to your happiness in relationship? If you do, you are not alone. There are many people who unknowingly sabotage their relationships because they fear being engulfed, controlled or rejected by their romantic partner. This relationship behavior is called a fear of intimacy, although the term doesn’t express completely what this fear is all about.

I’ve heard so many people say, why are we having trouble so early in the relationship? Isn’t this supposed to be the honeymoon period? Is this a sign that we are not right for each other? There are surely some people who are not right for each other. But, I find more often that arguments and strife in the first 6-24 months of a relationship are more about establishing parameters for the partnership. These parameters help to strengthen the relationship and work for the good of both parties. Take Jackie and Nick for example. When single, it was common for Nick to hang out with his friends several nights a week and well in the morning hours. Jackie was uncomfortable with this. Once Nick understood that Jackie wasn’t trying to take away his freedom, he was receptive to change and establishing boundaries around this activity that satisfied both of them. Nick’s understanding and receptivity went a long way to deepening the relationship and making Jackie feel secure.

To establish a secure, trustworthy relationship bond, you have to loosen your boundaries and merge identities and lifestyles with the other partner, while keeping your own identity. This can stress out even the most secure amongst you.

The merging process is not easy. But, I don’t have to tell you that one, right? You’ve spent many years forming your beliefs, values and preferences and ways of being, learning what you want and don’t want—and, what you fear. Now, to get the love you want, you have to relax your boundaries enough to integrate the identity and needs of your partner. Now, a relationship identity is born.

Relaxing our boundaries enough to be able to form a relationship identity with our partner is never easy. It feels in direct opposition to what you have been trying to achieve independently thus far.

Some of us are more ready than others to do this. Some of you may have been hurt in the past; that makes you shrink back from the developmental tasks involved in making a relationship thrive. Defensively, you may have built a lifestyle where you learned to rely solely on yourself to meet your needs and desires.

The hurt you feel may have stemmed from childhood or from experiences with past lovers. You learned that closeness means losing yourself. If so, closeness involved being abandoned, engulfed, controlled or rejected by someone with whom you put your safety and trust. You can see why these fears run deep; namely, because they involve a potential loss of self.

In your darkest moments, you imagine your mate taking away you freedom or hurting you in some way. Your more insecure moments involve imagining what he or she will do to you. The fear gets so intense that it has to be released. And, it does, but through what I call relationship unfriendly behaviors that temporarily reduce your fears, but also sabotage closeness. You can now quit the relationship or leave, you say to yourself. But, there’s a part of you that knows you really don’t want to do this.

The real problem is you. You really fear that you are not strong enough to tolerate the tensions of intimate relating—and my goodness, there are many. There is the tension of having to merge together to form a strong relationship identity. You have to trust that you can assert your views, needs and preferences while still respecting those of your lover.  You have to continue to fulfill your desires and passions in the context of the relationship unit. Additionally, there are tensions of integrating family and friends into the relationship dyad without weakening it or demolishing its structure. Need I say more? No wonder you are afraid. You have a whole lot of new experiences and learning going on here.

It seems like the roadblocks that you put up to mask your true fear would be easy to spot and resolve, but they are not. We humans are oh so creative in conjuring up defensive maneuvers to prevent from happening what we most fear—namely, to lose ourselves in relationship.

Fear of intimacy is really a fear of losing yourself.

You may consciously fear being engulfed, controlled or rejected by another person. But, deep inside, you fear you can’t handle the numerous tensions of intimate relating, especially the ones that threaten the integrity of your own identity.

Here, are just a few of the defensive maneuvers that I often see in people who have a fear of losing themselves in relationship. They engage in distancing behaviors.

  • Differences are blown out of proportion: Here, any conflict or difference gets linked, no matter how much of a stretch it is, to your fears. The conflict gets personal, for you. Airing of emotions quickly turns to personal attacks about the intentions of your partner to deprive, deny, subjugate, abandon or reject, or control or engulf. The complaint speaks to your fears.
  • Person uses arguments to stir up calm: Closeness and good feelings can make some people uncomfortable. They want to be happy, but their energy is tuned for upset and conflict. They will tend to pick an argument when things are good that has little to do with whatever is happening. It has more to do with your fear of intimacy.
  • Opening up the relationship dyad to friends, family, and other people who threaten the strength of the partnership: Both of you have an inner circle of friends whose meaning to you or ways may threaten the strength of your relationship. If you have a fear of intimacy, it may be difficult for you find a place for this relationship that does not threaten your partner and the strength of your relationship bond with him or her.

It’s hard to embrace fully the level of openness, risk, and personal change that you must make in loving. This is especially true if you were traumatized in love before. You are dancing as fast as you can to protect yourself, as the saying goes. I know this isn’t fun for you on any level.

You find ways to distance yourself in relationship to protect yourself against what feels unsafe to you. The next time you find yourself in a relationship conflict, unhappy with the relationship to the point where you want to end it, fearful of losing yourself, or being abandoned, please ask yourself the following questions. They’ll help you to better understand what is going on, so that you can choose behaviors and make decisions with full awareness.

  1. Describe your distancing action(s). Did you move an airing of differences to a full-blown conflict? Did you pick an argument that has nothing to do with the moment?
  2. Flesh-out what you fear. What do you fear you are losing, giving up, or will happen to you if you allow yourself to get closer to your partner?
  3. Ask yourself, do these old ways of solving intimate problems work for me now? Remember though, no matter how intelligent, competent and capable you are of intimate relating, if you haven’t had the right partner for whom you can solve relationship problems constructively, you have little experience in knowing how to do this. You can learn new ways.

You can change and modify ways of being that strengthen your relationship and still stay true to yourself. Don’t let your fear of intimacy fulfill the prophecy that the relationship is no good or not right for you. You are putting up roadblocks to intimacy to protect yourself. The safety you feel in the short-run may be sabotaging your happiness and the life of your relationship.

If you like my post today, please say so by selecting the Like icon that immediately follows. I welcome your thoughts and reflections on today’s topic. Best to you, Deborah

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25 Responses to “Fear of Intimacy: Are you a relationship saboteur?”

  1. Great! thanks for the share!
    Arron

  2. avatar Gina says:

    Wow! Thank you. This is not me, but it is the man I have spent nearly two years loving — my best friend, very briefly my boyfriend. Do you have any advice for those of us on the other side of the equation–those of us who love people who are afraid of intimacy?

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Hello Gina, thank you. I know it must be difficult on you emotionally–the come forward, go back. I promise you I will write a post very soon on how to cope with a romantic partner who has a fear of intimacy. I know many people who have struggled with this difficult problem. One of the first things you have’t already mentioned; if possible, stay his or her friend. But, that being said, it helps much to appreciate his fears of being of being controlled and engulfed that have nothing to do with you. And, it will serve the mates of relationship saboteurs well to resist pressuring and demanding actions that stem from fears of being rejected or abandoned themselves by the saboteur. Yes, people who have fears of intimacy engender their fears in their mates through their rejecting actions. Thus, you have to work hard not to accept these insecure feelings (know which ones are really yours and the ones that are evoked by your saboteur).

      Gina, you have provoked me to set out to write this article for an upcoming post. I’m so glad you stopped by to read my posts. I have you visit frequently, as I’m always adding new articles and vlogs meant to help you and others. Warm regards to you, Deborah.

      • avatar Gina says:

        Hi Deborah,

        Thank you so much. I will look forward to reading the article.

        It is such a confounding situation to love someone who is afraid of intimacy, commitment, engulfment, even, I think, being loved. Remaining steady in the face of that takes a toll and sometimes I think I am making a mistake. What if I am waiting for someone who will never get there? Or never get there with me?

        As to staying friends–sigh–sometimes it is hard on me, as much as I enjoy our friendship. I do want more. And it is hard to love someone, to believe in them, to believe that they can learn to love again, and with you, and yet have them not see it, not feel it, not want it. I would walk away if we did not have so much together. I would walk away if he did not act caring. I would walk away if he had not once talked about spending his life with me. I would walk away if I did not believe that listening to love is better than listening to fear. But I fear, all the time, that maybe he will never come round. Or maybe, and here is my insecurity talking, maybe it is just that I am not for him.

        You are right, I know, that pushing is not the way and when I do that, well, usually he retreats, which just triggers my fear of rejection and abandonment. Then again, sometimes, particularly I think when we are getting closer, he will react fearing that I am trying to trap him, or move things in a particular direction, even when I am not. And so there we are: stuck. I hope your words and advice will shed some light and help provide some guidance.

        Thank you.

  3. avatar Gina says:

    Dear Deborah,

    One more thought — when you write your article will address the question of how someone like me can help an unwilling partner, a person who fears intimacy and even love, learn to love again? What can I do, if anything?

    Thanks!

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Good morning Gina. My next post is on the topic of coping with a mate who has a fear of intimacy problem. And, most certainly, what I say suggests the ways to cope with this, as their mate. Thank you for your comments. Gina. Stay tuned. I will post soon. Warmly Deborah.

  4. avatar Rocky says:

    thanks doc!! great article that helped me understand what exactly my problem is….God bless you!!

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      I’m so glad Rocky. But stay tuned, I will write a post on how to work with and get over a fear of intimacy. Blessings to you too. Deborah.

  5. avatar Lin says:

    Dear Dr. Khoshaba,
    I am a male Gina with a twist. I was married
    50 years to a wonderful lady who died in
    2009. I later married a lady 26 years my junior.
    She has a doctorate in psychology. Over
    these two years of marriage, it has finally
    dawned on me that she has been manifesting
    behavior that appears to be a fear of intimacy.
    The term just “dropped into my spirit,” so
    I sought the Internet and discovered your
    article. AMAZING! Where may I access the post
    about coping? An additional complication: she
    has beautiful 8 year old son whom I love and
    who loves me. I have not seen or heard from
    either of them for 6 weeks now. Both are with
    her mom an hour away.

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Hello Lin, first, I’m sorry for your loss Lin. To share more of your lived life with this one person tells me about your positive relationship capabilities and also the extent of the pain and loss you must have endured. I’m glad your inner intuition guided you to Psychology in Everyday Life. Wonderful. I’m glad the article illustrated what you have been feeling and I hope that you can work it through with her. Can you tell me more about which coping article that you are speaking about? I will go to this article again and see if I mentioned a coping article. Thank you for stopping by and sharing with me. I hope to see you here soon. Warmly Deborah.

      • avatar Lin says:

        On October 11, 2012, you wrote to Gina that
        you would post an article for her concerning
        coping with a partner who may have a
        fear of intimacy and that is my reference. Thanks
        for your thoughtful reply to my inquiry. By the
        way, there are terms for phobias. Is there
        a precise vocabulary word that categorizes fear of
        intimacy as a phobia?

  6. avatar Lin says:

    Dr.Khoshaba,

    Did you respond to my last inquiry? I’m
    not too talented in this type of
    communication, so you may have sent
    something that I’m unable to locate.
    I am truly impressed with what I sense
    as your compassion and wisdom.

    Lin

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Hello Lin, I think I may have responded to you in another email. So, I won’t repeat my words here. But, thank you so much for your kind words and your support and friendship. It’s a pleasure to have you as a friend. Warmly Deborah.

  7. avatar MS says:

    Hi, Doctor!
    This really describes my situation right now. I’m getting married in 5 months and I have this constant fear of intimacy and committment and I feel like I always let it get in the way of me being happy.

    Do you think it will ever really go away?

    Thanks,
    M

    • avatar Dr. Deborah says:

      Hello MS. If your fear of intimacy goes back to your childhood from how you saw your parents relating, then you may have built up some defenses around intimate relating that may appear from time to time in the relationship. The more you trust that your partner loves and wants to meet your needs and that it is safe to relate to him or her, the less fear you will have. But, this requires that you meet the needs of your romantic partner too. When we behave in ways that bring about trust, we are treated in ways that make us trust.

      It’s a good question M. I wish you the very best here. Remember, when you start to feel afraid, don’t run away or act out in ways that harm the relationship–STAY, work through your fears and get the love that you want in your life. Warmly Deborah.

  8. avatar shahnila says:

    I think i hav dis same prblm! But i nevr had any relation b4. Dis is my 1st relation. Wat shud i do? I was nevr ready 4 dis relation.. N um so scared.. :(

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Hello, it can certainly happen with your first relationship. First relationships can be a little scary. Do you think it is only because this experience is new for you, but you are not really fearful of intimacy based on what I say in the article? Thanks Shahnila. Warmly Deborah.

  9. avatar juana says:

    Hello dr. Deborah, iam into a new relantionship for 5 months now. I am thinking about ending it because this guy don’t believe in passion b4 sex, i told this human been about caressing, and he said that i am talking[CRAP] i think that i have to let go and keep on moving. can you tell me if i am wrong. thanks.

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Hello Juana. I’m unsure if the person is not intimate because of religious views. But, people do express affection and intimacy after 5 months in a relationship. And, you are right. This doesn’t have to lead to sex. But, affection is a normal desire and expression when we are in love. So, although I can’t tell you what to do. Let me say Juana to trust your instincts. Happy New Year–good health and I wish you healthy, happy experiences in your search for true love in 2014. Warmly Deborah.

  10. avatar Joey says:

    Dear Dr Deborah Khoshaba:

    Thank you for all you do! I find your articles very enlightening and helpful. I’m not sure if i’m dealing with a girl that has fear of intimacy or fear of commitment. Let me share some background and would love to hear your thoughts.

    She is 37, owns her own place, great career. We dated for almost 3 months. Everything was going amazing. She would text me after our dates and say she had a great time and couldn’t wait to see me again. She would say “things just seem to work between us”. She also wrote me a hand written thank you card for a bday gift i bought her. We had great chemistry and a lot of fun together.

    When we meet she let me know that her walls were high and that she knew it was a problem and was working on taking them down. She also said that she hasn’t had sex with anyone in over 2 yrs.

    She’s also been burned in the past with bad relationships. In particular, one relationship that lasted 5 yrs, where she said he was emotionally abusive and believes he cheated on her a number of times. She said he also proposed to her but she didn’t accept it. I know she went through therapy for it and has continued to see a therapist.

    Fast forward, one night we went out to dinner with another couple. She learned new things about me over dinner when we were chatting with her friends which i think made her believe i was not open to sharing my past with her. That same night after dinner she asked me if I wanted to stay over – which was the first time i stayed overnite at her place. Nothing intimate happened that night or in the 3 months we dated for that matter. We ended up just cuddling the whole night and chatting. She also let me know that night that i was the first guy she’s had in her bed in 2 yrs. She also mentioned when we were chatting that she wanted her own kids and family one day.

    A few days later she called to break up and said that she couldn’t start a relationship based on dishonesty and me not being upfront with my history (good or bad). It seemed like a complete 180. She also said that she knew herself well enough that she would always think i was telling her everything. And she also said “do you want to spend the rest of our life proving to me your trustworthy”? She also said that no one has ever treated her as well as i’ve treated her — and that it scared her/freaked her out.

    I’m really confused on how things ended so suddenly when things were going so well. She made a clean break and did not want to talk about it on the phone or in person.

    Would love to hear your thoughts if you get a chance.

    Cheers,
    J

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Hello Joey. Thank you. I’m so glad you like what you find here. Let me just confirm that her behavior is very confusing by what you describe here. It does sound like she has intimacy fears and used what she heard to confirm her worst fears. The last long term relationship must have really hurt her. I’m sorry that she didn’t give you a chance to talk about her fears and why she distrusts you. It would have been good for her to work through her anxiety around her fears to get a chance to see that they won’t be conformed. I wish I could say something more hopeful for you here (but I don’t know enough and she hasn’t given a chance to move forward). But, I can tell you that she may have spared you many more months of pulling close and then pushing you away by what she felt and feared. It sounds like she needs some counseling to figure things out.

      People with intimacy fears can be very convincing of their sense of things and the reasons for why they are breaking up with someone. I don’t know what she heard about your past, but I’m going to assume it wasn’t truly so terrible that it became a relationship deal breaker. Everyone has a past of learning, making mistakes and growing from them. She doesn’t seem to be able to tolerate humanness very well. So, don’t make the mistake of blaming your past. And, as I said, she may have spared you (unknowingly) many months of frustration and upset. You take good care. And, thank you again for your support and for commenting today. Warmly Deborah

      • avatar Joey says:

        Hi Dr. Khoshaba,

        Your reply has helped my soul immensely! So thank you for that!!

        A couple other facts…

        I was initially dishonest with her about my living situation (I was living at home with my parents b/c i had to take care of them as they were both were sick). It was only 2 dates in and I wasn’t ready to share that part of my life so early in dating her as it’s really private and uncomfortable for me to talk about. I did clarify my living situation with her after 5 dates. She was super sweet and supportive the night I told her. She told me it wasn’t a deal-breaker for her and that it was amazing what i did for my parents. Perhaps this made her question my overall honesty?

        The new things she learned about were about my entrepreneurial ventures that i started after working in corporate america. They ulimately weren’t successful so it’s not something i get excited talking about because I view them as failures in my life. I wasn’t trying to hide anything but wasn’t really comfortable talking about it. I can’t remember if we talked about it before or just brushed on it. I believe she thought I was not open with her about my past because she did comment that she didn’t know about my entrepreneurial ventures. I believe my not being more open/forthcoming about my work history made her believe I was not an honest person. But if she felt like i was leaving things out, why not talk about it with me?

        Furthermore adding to my confusion over the sudden end to things is what her last text to me stated. She said that she “really hopes we can stay in contact if and when you’re ready. Who knows… maybe our timing will come back around. I know i’m going to look back on this and kick myself at some point. I’m really sorry Joey. Thank you for being understanding.” I feel this last message was very unfair to me. Was this because she was ambivalent and wanted to leave the door open or was that message for herself to make herself feel better ending things with me??

        Appreciate any further thoughts you may have. I know I’ll probably never know the reasons why but I’d love to know:

        (1) whether it was intimacy fears/trust issues at play here or was it that she was in a place where she was ready to settle down and start a family and I was not in that same place yet since I was not independent and was in the process of looking for a job. And her biological clock is ticking!

        (2) whether I was too nice to her and whether that was uncomfortable to her as she’s only experienced bad relationships in the past???

        (3) where we broke up because I didn’t attempt to have sex with her the night I stayed over at her place … even though she invited me to get naked but i didn’t … i was trying to be respectful in her wanting to take things slow and knowing her walls were high. Maybe me not being more aggressive or more of a man made her question things…

        Lastly, it really hurt me to see her on another dating website recently too… sad face.

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