by Kassandra Lamb
I’m in the throes of final editing of the next Marcia Banks and Buddy book, and a subplot running through the whole series is Marcia’s struggle to trust her heart to love again after a disastrous marriage.
That struggle got me thinking about the two biggest obstacles to romantic partners initially getting together—intimacy phobia and commitment phobia (there are lots of other challenges re: staying together). People often assume these two fears are the same thing, but there are subtle and important differences. Today I’ll talk about the first one, which I think of as the come-here, go-away syndrome.
Human beings naturally crave connection with others. It’s part of our makeup. Survival of the species depends on pooling our efforts to benefit the group and to raise our young.
So we crave connection, but those of us who have been hurt before by someone close to us (Show of hands? *everyone raises their hands*) also tend to carry some scar tissue around our hearts.
If we rate the thickness of that scar tissue on a scale from 1 to 10, a few people, with 9 to 10-level scar tissue, will manage to squash the urge to connect completely and they will avoid relationships.
For many of the rest of us, the scar tissue falls in the 1 to 4 range—mild to moderate thickness that we can work our way past when someone comes along who seems trustworthy and truly interested in us (friend or lover).
But those in the 5-8 range are most likely to engage in come-here, go-away behavior. They crave connection and allow a relationship to get started—maybe even actively pursue a potential partner or friend—but then the fears set in and the dance begins. They just can’t handle letting someone get too close.
There are several ways the fear of intimacy will be manifested.
- The walls go up.
- The person sabotages the relationship.
- The person starts trying to control his/her partner.
- The person starts denigrating his/her partner.
The walls – Somehow you get the gut sense that your partner is holding back. There is a part of them they keep hidden. You may be picking up on little hesitations in personal conversations, as if they are weighing how much to say. Or they may change the subject when things start getting too intimate.
(Note: by intimacy, I don’t mean sex; I mean emotional closeness, which results from disclosing your thoughts and feelings to your partner.)
Also they may pull away after a surge of intimacy. You bare your souls to each other on a date and you’re feeling all warm and fuzzy about that, but then your partner cancels the next two dates.
The worst thing you can do is to try to beat down the walls by sheer force (trust me, I’ve tried). Insisting that your partner let you in will likely get the opposite response.
The best approach is patience and being as open and trustworthy as you can be. People with walls tend to assume that others also have them. If they sense that you don’t (or you at least have doors in your wall), then they may feel more comfortable reciprocating and letting you in farther.
Also, if they are telling you they need things to slow down, hear that. Acknowledge that it’s scary to let someone in and that you’re afraid too.
My husband and I had a whirlwind courtship that felt pretty much out of our control. Somewhere around the second month we started this little routine. We would look at each other and then one of us would start it.
- “Who the heck is driving this runaway stagecoach anyway?”
- “I thought you were.”
- “No, I thought you were.”
- “Aw crap, guess we’d better hold hands and hang on tight then.”
I don’t remember anymore who thought of that little exchange first, but it got us through those early, scary times.
But there are no guarantees when it comes to walls. The person’s wall may be so thick, even they don’t know how to dismantle it.
Sabotage – This can take many forms. It may be picking fights, becoming unreliable, or even being unfaithful.
The important thing here is to recognize the underlying fear. If the couple keeps fighting over the sabotaging behavior itself instead of addressing why one or both of you feel the need to sabotage, the relationship probably will come to an end.
The best way to address this is directly but gently. “I’ve noticed you’ve been doing ______ a lot lately. Is that because you’re uncomfortable with how close we’ve become?”
Keep in mind the old adage about leading a horse to water. The other person may or may not admit to you or themselves that the sabotage is coming from a fear of intimacy.
Again, trying to force the issue is likely to backfire. Let it go for now and see what seeds you may have planted. Then address it again the next time they sabotage. (This is assuming you can tolerate the sabotaging behavior.)
Controlling – Trying to control you may be another form of sabotage, but there’s another layer here too. If your partner can control you, then they feel more secure that you won’t leave them.
Also, some people are controlling by nature. This too comes from fear, but more from a fear of being out of control and helpless. Try to step back and ask yourself if your partner is trying to control YOU or the environment in general.
If it’s the latter, you’re not likely to get them to change readily, so then you need to ask yourself how willing you are to deal with their controlling behavior.
If it’s truly you they are trying to control, then again gentle confrontation is in order, but this time couple it with reassurances. “First, let me assure you that I’m not going anywhere. I care about you. But I feel lately like you keep trying to control me and I don’t like that. Is that just because you’re afraid I might leave?”
Denigration – This one is perhaps the hardest to deal with. Your partner starts putting you down, criticizing what you wear, how you talk, etc. This is often another form of control.
It can come from two possible motives. One is “if I tear you down, you won’t feel confident enough to leave me.” This is a sign of an abuser and you probably need to get away from this behavior and this person sooner instead of later.
The other can be a byproduct of their own poor self-esteem. I actually had a boyfriend tell me one time, “I know I’m a little pile of [crap] so I figure if you love me, then you must be a little pile of [crap] too.”
I kicked his pile of crap out the door.
But if you don’t want to do that, you can try confronting the behavior. Point out what they are doing and how it makes you feel, then go a step farther and ask them how they would feel if you said those things to them. If you can get some empathy going, you might just get them to change this behavior.
It can also help to point out that if they are doing this to tear you down so you won’t leave them, the behavior is about to backfire. It is driving you away.
Never, ever stay with someone who continues to put you down. You will not please them (because they don’t want to be pleased) and your self-esteem will be harmed, and it could be the first step to more serious abuse.
I’m sure there are other, more creative ways that people sometimes deal with their fear of intimacy, but these are the ones I saw most often during my 20 years as a therapist.
What about you? How thick is the scar tissue around your heart? Have you seen other ways that people exhibit intimacy phobia?
And here is the wonderful cover for my new book! I think my cover designer, Melinda VanLone outdid herself on this one.
The Call Of The Woof, A Marcia Banks and Buddy Mystery, #3
Army veteran Jake Black has a new lease on life, thanks to service dog Felix and his trainer, Marcia Banks. Despite a traumatic brain injury, Jake’s able to ride his beloved motorcycle again, with Felix in the sidecar. But his freedom to hit the open road is threatened once more when he and his wife are accused of robbery.
Called in to dog-sit, Marcia can’t sit idly by. She and her mentor dog, Buddy, set out to clear the Blacks’ name, fighting misconceptions about bikers and the nature of TBI along the way. When murder is added to the mix, Marcia redoubles her efforts, despite anonymous threats and her sheriff boyfriend’s strenuous objections, both to her putting herself at risk… and to dragging him along on her wild ride.
I hope to have the book available for Preorder by July 10th. Release day is July 20th.
Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries set in her native Maryland, and the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries set in Central Florida.
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