Fear of Intimacy

Building stronger relationships with counsellor Dr Charmaine Saunders.

Building stronger relationships with counsellor Dr Charmaine Saunders.

Being intimate simply means allowing and experiencing closeness and the only thing that stops us enjoying intimacy is fear. Fear is crippling in its extreme form; in its more mundane application, it limits our experience of life. It stops you living life to the full.

Psychological fear stops you from taking positive risks, becoming too controlled and guarded which in turn cancels spontaneity and joy. In your emotional life, too much self protection can work against you instead of helping.

Where do these fears come from? They are often a knee jerk reaction to disappointments and past hurts. We become afraid to expect the best in life. It's safer to cling to outworn, unproductive, but familiar, ideas and attitudes. That's why change is often so threatening.

Many people have been hurt, disillusioned and let down through trusting, but it's not love or sex that fails, just specific situations. Trust takes courage, but a life without intimacy is pretty empty. If you don't firstly love yourself you will have little chance of finding lasting happiness with another.

So, the first point about fear is that it's linked to insecurity and self doubt. Worrying should be banished altogether because it creates a lot of stress and serves no good purpose. Fear is a conditioned response learned over many years.

The second point about fear is that it's essentially a fantasy existing only in the mind. That's what the proverb means about the "coward dying a thousand deaths". The imagination is fuelled by fear which then makes the unthinkable seem likely, for example, being dumped by a lover. That's why it's so important to monitor your thoughts and especially the recurring ones as they form patterns and clusters of beliefs.

If your thoughts are full of fears, that's how your life will play out whereas if you approach people and situations with confidence, you will generally receive a positive response. Even though your worst fears rarely come true, you'll be too unhappy to enjoy all the good things around you. Fear is very much linked to negative thinking and is the antithesis of trust.

When it comes to very personal areas like sexuality and relationships, our fears really come to the fore. Family background has a lot to do with whether we are demonstrative and affectionate in our interaction with others and whether we are able to share closeness. Even hugging is fearful for some people. We need to allow other people emotional space, but still help them to open up bit by bit. If we are the ones who are allowing fear to cripple our spontaneity and joy, sabotage our happiness and put up barriers between ourselves and those we love, it's up to us to release these fears.

Keep in mind that intimacy is something we share not only with lovers and romantic partners, but with everyone we're close to and, especially, with ourselves.

Irene Kassorla, in her book Putting it all together, says that no one is good at intimacy, that we all find ways to create what she calls "distancing". My favorite example is the one about a couple having a really special weekend after which, on Monday morning, "reality" sets in. They no longer feel the warm connection so they get busy, get silent, get brusque. It's time to get back into the real world and it's awkward to keep up the kissing and cuddling. It's almost as though they're relieved to be able to separate, both physically and emotionally. This reaction is also often evident after sex when the intensity is followed either by light hearted banter or embarrassment or a complete change of mood on the part of lovers. Of course, some people are more demonstrative and free with affection than others, but all human beings in whatever degree have a level of tolerance for real intimacy beyond which they don't feel able to go. This places barriers between the very people who want and need closeness - family members, close friends, lovers, spouses, and perhaps, most of all, the lonely.

Healthy boundaries are necessary and good, but walls are not. Walls are defence mechanisms designed to protect us from hurt, vulnerability, and emotional risk. There are many, many different ones, most commonly silence, aggression, busyness, arguing, rudeness, coldness, talkativeness, moodiness, non-stop joking, things like TV, reading, newspapers and so on.

The problem with walls is that they become impenetrable and habitual. It feels safe behind the wall, but it's not really living. Just as fear limits our complete enjoyment of life, walls stop us interacting altogether. They're built brick by brick and get wider, thicker and higher as time goes on. Yes, they keep pain out, but they also keep out all the good things like love, tenderness, connection, joy and intimacy.

If you find yourself behind a wall, you have to choose to dismantle it and the only thing that will help you decide to do this is when you feel safe to come out. The same applies if you're dealing with a person who's walled off, whether a spouse, a friend or a child. The more you pound on the wall to demand they come out, the stronger their resistance will become. But if you just let them know it's okay to come out, in their own time, they will.

Intimacy is knowing yourself and being prepared to know others and let them in. It's communication, touch, fearless love, openness and most of all, trust. Be prepared to reach out and take a chance on yourself and on love.

You can keep fear at bay and thus achieve intimacy by:

* loving yourself
* releasing the past
* self acceptance
* believing in love
* trusting yourself
* letting go of control

True intimacy is a goal worth pursuing and brings the emotional freedom we all crave.