All children (well, all healthy children) crave their parents’ attention. “Mom, look at me!”, “Dad, let’s play!” If such and other expressions of desire for connection are refused in a cold or even aggressive manner, or if emotional connection is abused through manipulation and emotional blackmail, a child can develop a belief such behavior is normal and nothing much better can be expected in other relationships, either. Aggressive-manipulative relationship between parents, as well as possible emotional incest, can strengthen such an impression. Even when such children see examples of happy families and warm individuals elsewhere, they might be convinced such people are just good in pretending.
Such people can not only learn to be afraid of close relationships, but might become convinced that their most beautiful emotions – love, tenderness, longing… – are weaknesses to be smothered and rejected. I’ve met smart and able men and women who were convinced they should fight such feelings and avoid being influenced by them. Some of those people can be unpredictable and volatile – constantly in inner conflict between their innate warmth and learned coldness.
Independence and control
Being in control is an important idea when you are afraid of intimacy. The fear of pain can motivate you to avoid emotional risks, suppress emotions, and make you unable to relax. You might expect ridicule, criticism or manipulation as soon as you show any emotion. You might try to control other people to avoid being hurt by them, using similar strategies as your parents used to control you, including aggression and humiliation.
You might feel that if you allowed yourself to be close to someone, you’d soon end up suffocated and controlled. Every objection or complaint, or need for compromise, or even disagreement, can seem threatening and manipulative, no matter how mildly expressed. You might be unable to set healthy boundaries, so you can give up on relationship rather than your boundaries. You might apply the same approach even to your children, as children spend quite a lot of time testing others’ boundaries. You might even be unable to truly laugh and have fun – even that can feel like losing control.
These people can be quite financially successful – the need for independence and control might push them to invest most of their energy into securing financial status and security, perhaps also power over others. Work can also be used as a way to avoid emotions, and as a substitute for fulfilling relationships. Substitutes can also be sought in other ways: through status symbols, addictions, promiscuous sex, or any other activity which distracts from emotions. Healthy relationship can seem boring to such people, so they can keep provoking drama (often unconsciously) so that they could feel “at home”.
Consequences for close relationships
A relationship with a person afraid of intimacy can be very frustrating and hurtful. Understanding is not enough, expressing love can be rejected out of fear or even scorn (sometimes boredom, too), and forgiveness only enables continuation of the same. Even people who are rationally aware they have a problem, might be resistant or not motivated enough to invest the effort needed into learning relationship skills. They might perceive emotional risks as too frightening. They can feel that whatever they do, would be in vain – like they experienced in their early families. The inner child is not aware that they are not in their early family anymore.
A while ago, I was working online with a couple in Australia. The man was very charming, friendly and popular, but he had a habit of insulting his girlfriend and treating her condescendingly, especially in public places. When she mentioned it, I expected him to deny it, at least in part, but surprisingly, he confirmed her story. When I asked him what motivated him to act like that, he said that for him, such behavior was a way of being intimate. Apparently, his father treated his mother in a similar way, and mother tolerated it with some sort of humorous attitude (although it’s hard to know how she really felt inside). Meanwhile, neither of the parents gave healthy attention to the son, but used criticism or manipulation to control him. No matter how much this man wanted fulfilling relationships, as long as he imitated his parents, he was unlikely to achieve more than frustration and disappointment. He wasn’t motivated enough to give up his manipulative behavior, so his girlfriend eventually decided to leave him in spite of sorrow and love she still felt. Some months after, she told me she felt much more relaxed and confident, without someone around to constantly prod her and humiliate her. Eventually, she found a very healthy, kind and supportive partner.
So no matter how many other interesting qualities somebody might have, if they keep sabotaging intimacy you might eventually have to let them go, except perhaps if you enjoy emotional masochism. Compassion doesn’t equal self-sacrifice. You might want to check if you have some form of “savior complex” or a need to earn approval, originating from your early family. Perhaps you hope your partner would change in the way your parent(s) didn’t change. It’s not likely to happen, if your partner is not expressing strong, genuine motivation.
If you are afraid of intimacy, can you imagine, even for a moment, how would it be if all parts of you – both parts you perceive as “strong” and parts you perceive as “weak” – could cooperate in a friendly way inside you, rather than fighting? Imagine how would it be if “stronger” parts of you were supportive of the more gentle ones, so that you can encourage yourself through emotional risk and vulnerability. How would it be to have the best of both worlds, a feeling of inner harmony? Perhaps you’d get in touch with inner resources and qualities you were lacking throughout most of your life. Perhaps not so much beauty of life would be missed. Yes, I’m a bit of an idealist. It’s a good way to be.