Compassion Matters

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5 Ways to Deal with a Partner’s Fear of Intimacy

How can you get closer in your relationship?

As a therapist, I often hear couples complain that whenever one partner tries to get close, the other pulls away. It's a painful reality that love isn't always as easy to give and receive as we'd like to think. Many people have developed defenses that make them intolerant of too much love, attention or affection. Our personal limitations and insecurities are regularly acted out in our closest relationships. Very often, our current reactions (especially our overreactions) are based on negative programming from our past. In the blog "Why You Keep Winding Up in the Same Relationship," I discussed how and why we form defenses that make it difficult to get close. In this blog, I want to offer a few ways to work on overcoming a fear of intimacy that may exist in our partners and even in ourselves:

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Don't build a case
Although relationships can feel like a tug of war with one of us struggling to pull closer while the other resists, engaging in the blame game is never the solution. Too often, we build a case against the people we are involved with. We use their flaws against them, cataloging their shortcomings in our minds until admiration slowly erodes into cynicism. When this transformation occurs, we become highly attuned to our partners' less desirable traits. We start to filter and distort our view of them, so that they fit into the case we've built against them. We fail to see our partners as they really are, with strengths and with weaknesses. When we don't see all aspects of a person, we become bent out of shape ourselves. We may act out or behave in ways of which we don't approve. Conversely, when we interrupt this tendency to build a case, we can focus on ourselves and act in ways that truly represent who we are and how we feel. Staying vulnerable, open and compassionate toward our partner can make them feel safe and allow them to take a chance on being close. Being our best is the surest way to bring out the best in our partners.

Look at ourselves
If we notice our partners pulling away at certain points, it's helpful to explore ways we might be contributing to the problem or even provoking it. Be open to the reality that we help create the situations we're in. A good exercise is to look at what our partner does that we dislike the most, then think about what we do right before that. If a partner is unwilling to open up, do we do anything that might contribute to them shutting down? Do we nag? Get distracted? Do we talk down to them by trying to fix their problems or telling them what to do? Do we complain to them? Do we ever draw them out or just let them vent? We can take a powerful position in making our relationship closer by changing our own behavior. As psychologist and author, Dr. Pat Love says, "Feel your feelings, then do the right thing."

Identify patterns
When people feel close, they react. Sometimes these reactions are positive, and sometimes they are negative. The reasons for this are complex and have a lot to do with how we've learned to see ourselves and the world around us throughout our lives. We may respond perversely to positive treatment, because it conflicts with negative ways we're used to being seen or related to. Wherever these challenges come from, we can start to overcome them by identifying destructive patterns and dynamics in our relationships. For example, when our partner pulls back, how do we respond? Perhaps this action creates a certain amount of desperation within us, which in turn might leave us acting more needy or dependent toward them. Our distressed behaviors may make our partner more critical, perceiving us as weak or clingy, and they may then pull back further. Alternately, a partner's withholding may leave us angry or hardened against him or her. We may withdraw in response and become colder in our actions. Naturally, this too will leave us estranged and emotionally distant from each other.

Talk about issues in non-heated moments
When engines are revved and chords are struck, it's not always the best time to get into a conversation about the state of our relationship. However, once we've cooled down and have our emotions in check, we should have an open dialogue with our partner about the patterns or issues we observe. We can draw them out and really listen to what the experience was like for our partner. We can also discuss why we reacted the way we did in the hurtful interaction. We can develop our compassion for each other. We can show genuine interest when we ask our partners to think about what provokes them. We can even inquire as to how this reaction might be related to their past. Did they have an intrusive caretaker who left them feeling like they need to be guarded? Did they have a manipulative parent who left them feeling untrusting?

Seeing a therapist can be very helpful in uncovering why each of us is sensitive to certain triggers. We can make connections between past events and current tendencies. We can each learn where our critical self-images came from and why it threatens us to have them contradicted by someone who loves us. The more we understand ourselves and what drives our behavior, the better able we are to choose our actions and be open with our feelings; the better able we are also to live more fully in the present instead of recreating our past. When two people in a relationship know themselves and each other, they can point out when the other is overreacting without placing blame or building a case.

Don't take a powerless approach
No matter what goes on in our relationship, it's important not to feel hopeless or that we are at the mercy of someone else. No matter how perfect we aim to be, people struggle, and when our partners have a hard time, we shouldn't always take it personally. We can learn to be solid and secure in ourselves, maintaining our personal power and building our emotional resilience. We can do this by knowing ourselves and learning not to react to our loved ones from a childish or primal place.

When a partner struggles, we can learn to be compassionate rather than feeling victimized or cynical. Watch yourself to make sure you aren't making statements that start with, "You make me..." As adults, rarely can we be made to do anything. We control our own behavior. Rather, you could say, "When you do that, I feel..." which places no blame, but instead invites your partner to know you more fully.

When it comes to relationship goals, our chief aim should be to be kind and loving, not provoking or reactive. We should be open to working on ourselves and evolving psychologically so that we can express our feelings in a way that is mature and independent of wounds from our past. We should seek to better understand, and develop more compassion for, our partners and ourselves. With these initiatives in mind, our fears of intimacy may still exist, but they will be greatly weakened in their effort to limit our pursuit of love.

Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, author, and the Director of Research and Education for the Glendon Association.

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