Romance Redux

Using science to understand and improve relationships.

How to Overcome Intimacy Fears: Lessons from a Vampire Slayer

Why sharing feelings takes more courage than fighting monsters

Loving someone can be, simultaneously, one of the most exhilarating and terrifying experiences we know. That's because truly loving our partners–by letting them know our hopes, our dreams, our fears and our deepest longings–entails no small amount of risk. We don't just risk being hurt (that seems an obvious one). We also risk depending on someone, only to have them disappear precisely when we need them most.

The experience of truly depending on a partner is a bit like leaping into the air, eyes closed, in the hopes that someone–anyone-–will catch you. We can never be sure what happens next. It should come as no surprise, then, that some people simply opt out. For those who've been very badly hurt, trusting anyone in this way can seem like madness. The unfortunate irony, though, is that the tactics we use to manage the fears often make intimacy all the more fraught and the world seem like an even more dangerous place.

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I was reminded of this, recently, while watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I know the connection seems tenuous, but bear with me). The premise is this: the show's eponymous heroine, Buffy, has been chosen, by fate, to be the one girl in the world, The Slayer, who fights and destroys the vampires and other monsters that plague the human race. (The show readily becomes an extended metaphor for the way we all battle our own demons, which gives me a professionally sanctioned reason to watch reruns of powerful females laying waste to monsters and such). In this particular episode, Buffy has been recovering from dying (briefly) at the hands of a particularly powerful and cruel vampire named The Master. It's upon her return from summer break that we see how she's handled the terror of that experience, not just by shutting down her feelings, but by shutting her friends out altogether. Clinicians will recognize in Buffy the telltale signs of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder–jumpiness, irritability, frightening images and feelings that come to her, all at once–but what struck me most was how powerfully (and accurately) the story illustrates the perils of  avoiding intimacy with those we love.

Buffy, in fact, actively and energetically pushes people away. She refuses help, and flinches from her boyfriend's comforting touch. She hurls insults, implying that everyone around her is weak. She dances seductively with a friend, Xander, who clearly longs for more than friendship, and then abruptly turns her back on him, flaunting her sexual power. (This last move is a common defense in those who fear intimacy, called projective identification. You can think of it like playing hot potato with unwanted feelings, by stirring them up in others:  "I don't ever want to feel that weak and powerless again," Buffy says by making her friend want her, then cruelly walking away so he feels as weak and powerless as she once did; " Here, you take the feelings. You have them!")  The end result of all this "protecting" herself is that Buffy's more vulnerable than ever. Her friends become angry, sometimes lashing back. She becomes isolated, which only leaves her lonely-another kind of vulnerability. And in the end, she nearly dies again because she tries to face her demons alone.

Most of us, of course, rarely fend off intimacy in such obvious ways. Instead, we bristle at our partners when what we should really do is ask for help. Or we brood, when scared, instead of saying, simply, "I'm afraid." But in our vain attempts to ward off real intimacy, like Buffy, we merely invite more and more demons into our life. The most relentless efforts to hide often draw open anger or attack; or if not that, they stir up more loneliness, more fears. All of which makes us even more frightened of what might happen if anyone, especially a partner, finally sees who we really are. Will they embrace us in our pain or cruelly push us away? The memory of yet another fight or tearful night alone makes the answer to that question more uncertain than ever. And that makes us want to opt out of intimacy altogether.

Which brings us back to Buffy. As I said, she nearly dies. At the last minute, luckily, her friends manage to rescue her, and she lets go, collapsing–falling–into the arms of Angel, the man she loves; it's a moment where he sees her at her most vulnerable–sobbing, exhausted. After the tears finally subside, she finds the strength to destroy the demons plaguing her once and for all (she literally smashes The Master's bones into dust).  But she only succeeds at all this–she only feels truly safe–by letting people, especially her partner, get close to her again.

Intimacy is an act of courage. We're terrified of falling into the void if we leap towards someone. Nothing can change that. But actively avoiding intimacy–avoiding the leap–only makes the prospect of letting people in scarier. Because when we push people away, when we hide our feelings instead of letting people see who we are, the world becomes a truly dangerous place, where everyone is a potential attacker and even our partner's embrace seems unsafe.

Buffy becomes strongest when she finally shares all her fears, directly, in a single act of courage. Instead of hiding her pain, she takes a leap of faith that she can seek comfort and be held. She lets people truly see her–all of her–at her most vulnerable. And while none of that is ever easy, it's what we all have to do. The payoff is that the world, itself, becomes a lot less frightening for everyone.

Want to read more? Check out www.drcraigmalkin.com For more content, including exclusive tips and insights, follow Romance Redux on facebook and twitter

Craig Malkin, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who taught and trained at Harvard Medical School.

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