There’s often a lot of mystery surrounding a budding relationship. When we first start dating someone we like, that mystery is usually centered on them. Is this person right for me? What are they thinking? How do they feel about me? What are they looking for?
As things get closer, however, we often find that some of the biggest mysteries around a relationship have to do with us. Am I really interested? How do I feel? What do I want? Am I doing what’s best for me? Why am I freaking out right now?
The big question for many of us is why we start to pull away from people we like or situations that seem desirable. This avoidance can take the form of fear and anxiety, a loss of interest, boredom, excessive nitpicking, or a feeling that the “spark” has faded. We may then take steps to create distance or even walk away from the relationship.
If you find yourself continually falling into this pattern, it may be time to realize the answer is yes, you are avoiding intimacy.
There are many elements that contribute to avoidance around intimacy. Here I’ll focus on three psychological factors that can strongly contribute to why some people feel like pumping the breaks when it comes to love.
1. Your attachment patterns are getting in the way.
One of the most profound influences on the way we behave in relationships is the early attachment patterns we experienced. As we grow up, these patterns go on to serve as models for how we expect people and relationships to work, and they influence how we relate in our close relationships.
People who experienced a secure attachment had parents or primary caretakers who consistently attempted to meet their needs and were attuned to them, making them feel safe, seen, soothed, and therefore secure. As adults, they’re able to feel more secure in their relationship, balancing closeness with their partner with their own personal sense of autonomy.
People who experienced an anxious attachment pattern as kids often go on to have a “preoccupied” pattern in their adult relationships. Preoccupied attachment is characterized by feelings of insecurity and uncertainty. People with a preoccupied attachment tend to feel unsure or nervous about how things are going with their partner.
An anxiously attached person may be seen as more of the “pursuer” in a relationship, always trying to go toward the other person. However, even as they seem like they’re the ones who want more closeness, they tend to engage in behaviors that actually create a certain amount of emotional turmoil and distance. This, in large part, is because they’re recreating the inconsistency of a childhood in which their parent was only intermittently available, sometimes giving them what they needed but other times being insensitive, emotionally hungry, or intrusive in ways that left the child wanting.
If preoccupied attachment is associate with pursuing, dismissive attachment is associated with “distancing.” Dismissively attached individuals tend to be less emotionally available and may even seek out isolation. If someone feels like their partner’s needs are often overwhelming or an intrusion, they may struggle with this attachment pattern.
People with dismissive attachment have learned to be pseudo-independent and meet their own needs. Because their needs and wants weren’t attuned to as kids, they felt shame for having them. As children they developed an avoidant attachment. They adapted by attempting to keep their needs below their level of awareness to avoid feeling shame. They are hesitant to rely on or open up to someone else. They may pull away from intimacy or even deny its importance. Their psychological defenses (once created to protect them as kids) now shield them from true closeness.
They’re more inclined to shut off from their desires and may feel like running for the hills when someone starts to want something from them. Ironically, they may choose partners with a more anxious pattern of attachment, which exacerbates their feelings of withdrawal. Sadly, this old, engrained pattern can actually lead them to step away from people or connections that could make them happy.
2. You may have a fear of intimacy.
In addition to whatever attachment pattern we experience, we all have varying degrees of fear around intimacy, also usually shaped by our past. For most of us, when we fall in love, our guard is down. We’re being open and vulnerable to another person, and while that may feel amazing on one level, on another level our defenses are being threatened. According to my father, Dr. Robert Firestone, author of Fear of Intimacy, there are many reasons our fears around relationships get ignited, but here are five primary sources.
1. Real love makes us feel vulnerable. Stepping into the unknown (especially something that makes us feel different about ourselves) can be inherently frightening.
2. New love stirs up past hurts. Sadly, being loved in a way we haven’t felt before reminds us of ways we were hurt and could be hurt again.
3. With real joy comes real pain. Anytime we feel the preciousness of our lives, be it through our sheer happiness or an attachment to another person, it’s often accompanied by a natural, yet profound sadness or fear around losing it.
4. Relationships can break your connection to your family. This can be hard to wrap our heads around, because falling in love may seem like it’s about growing our family, not leaving it behind. However, when we form a new connection, particularly one that’s different from those in our past, we can feel a sense of separation from old (sometimes painful) patterns from our history. We may be letting go of ties or bonds that once felt life-preserving (even when they were limiting or destructive). Or, we may simply feel the fear around taking a step that is symbolic of growing up.
5. Love stirs up existential fears. Finally, allowing ourselves to deeply care for someone else leaves us vulnerable to the possibility of loss. Feeling more invested or connected to our lives and the people in it will always leave us more in touch with existential realities.
3. Your identity is being challenged.
Sadly, many of us don’t carry around a very high opinion of ourselves. We struggle to feel our own value or believe that anyone could truly care for us. This low opinion is often the work of a “critical inner voice” we all possess, which is like an enemy in our head that constantly tries to bring us down. This “voice” likes to make us feel unloveable and doubtful of anyone’s feelings toward us. It fosters critical and suspicious attitudes in us toward ourselves, our partners, and relationships in general.
Because this voice is shaped out of painful childhood experiences and critical attitudes to which we were exposed, it’s hard to shake it. Allowing someone to love us is the ultimate challenge to this inner critic, and don’t expect it to go down without a fight.
Our critical inner voice is all about preserving our negative sense of identity. Unpleasant as it can be, we attach ourselves to this identity out of protective feelings we have around our past. To see ourselves as okay might force us to see a whole lot of things that happened to us as not okay. Instead, we stay committed to our self-attacks and feel threatened when another person sees us another way.
While love and connection is something most of us say we want, in order to let ourselves experience it, many of us have to be willing to look at the defenses we harbor that keep what we want at bay. This means being willing to challenge our cruel inner critic, explore what really scares us about intimacy, and look more closely at the patterns of attachment we experienced.
It can take a good dose of bravery to dive into the past when all we want to do is move forward. Yet, our willingness to know the deeper elements that cause us to avoid intimacy could lead us to have a kind of closeness that redefines our feelings about love and, ultimately, about ourselves.