Many things can interfere with a person’s ability to make a commitment to or enjoy the intimacy of a healthy relationship. By intimate, I am referring to the different aspects of closeness between couples, specifically emotional intimacy, as well as sexual intimacy. Many people complain that their partner or spouse is not emotionally available to them, or is acting like a single person despite being in a monogamous relationship. I sometimes refer to these people as ‘independent contractors’, acting as though they are not responsible to their partners. Often, they will not share their thoughts, feelings, desires, or even time with their partners. They may acknowledge that they are in a relationship, but are not really willing to consider that means changing their behaviors, or taking their partner’s needs into consideration. They sustain a level of independence that goes beyond what is necessarily healthy in a relationship in order to create a feeling of safety for themselves. They seek protection from the perceived fears of vulnerability and hurt that can come from being in love, committed and intimate with their partner.
Fear of commitment usually masks an underlying fear of intimacy. It is the protection from being called upon to have an intimate connection with another human being. This fear of intimacy generally guards against one or two things. This can be an and/or situation, and usually references back to earlier relationships; sometimes romantic, sometimes familial. Our early relationships often form our views of relationships, either in what we experienced or what we observed.
The first is a perceived fear of rejection or abandonment. If deep down (or not so deep down) someone has experienced being hurt in an earlier relationship, they may carry those fears into their current relationship. So, for example, a person who experienced a parent moving out, or a parent so involved with work that they neglected them as a child, may grow up guarding against another potential abandonment. Also, an earlier relationship where they were cast over for someone else (having an unfaithful partner) or had a demeaning parent or partner, may cause them to protect themselves from another painful rejection. These are some examples, but the experience is not limited to these. The fear may be unconscious or conscious, and the resulting behavior may be purposeful or incidental. The irony is that not correcting the behavior actually brings about the thing they are trying to prevent…loss of love and acceptance. However, sometimes having brought it about yourself is a better alternative than the vulnerability of having it happen to you.
The second thing that may prevent people from experiencing and enjoying being intimate in a relationship is a fear of losing one’s sense of self; one’s personal identity. This can go two ways – a belief that your identity is so strong that you will overcome and subsume your partner’s identity or vice-versa, that they will take over yours. The fear may manifest in men or women who think they will end up living in their partner’s shadow, or under their thumb. They believe that being giving, is giving something away. Often they will be confrontational, as though participating or compromising is an unnatural demand. Understanding hidden motivations may help people make changes toward a more secure relationship and allow for more accessibility to feelings and emotional connections.
Relationships are tricky business, and require understanding of ourselves and our partners, as well as consistent care and nurturing. We sometimes think that a good relationship should just be easy and happen naturally, but that is not reality. The concepts expressed here are difficult and psychologically complex. Healing requires the conscious desire for change, and the willingness to choose different behaviors, even if it is out of one’s comfort zone. Being a loving and supportive partner means (among other things) helping to identify underlying fears, and then being supportive by giving or asking for the assurance needed to be a more considerate and dedicated partner.
Leslie Fabian, LCSW-R, MSW
Couples Counseling and Individual Psychotherapy
Croton on Hudson & NYC