Is Fear of Intimacy Becoming the New Normal?
7 reasons why people may be uncomfortable with emotional closeness.
Posted May 25, 2019
Technology now allows people to have less and less face-to-face contact and still feel “connected.” It offers efficient ways to access factual information, to manage logistics in a relationship, to help organize projects, plans, and pathways to success.
It also means we can avoid the real-time impact that our behavior can have on someone else. We are able to side-step potential conflict and eradicate any real intimacy that could be forged by struggling through the management of differences, of disagreements, or even of desire, amplifying self-deception as we foster an illusion of closeness and redefine intimacy. The benefits of close relationships have long been documented scientifically and reported in popular literature.
Potential reasons for our increased comfort with emotional distance (and discomfort with emotional closeness) abound. I defer to future research on whether the pull or the push weighs in most heavily. For now, I only propose origins that could profitably be addressed in that research.
1. Are more people growing up with an “insecure attachment”?
Are their close relationships riddled with conflict (“anxious-ambivalent” or “preoccupied” attachment) or disdain (“dismissing” or “avoidant” attachment) or even chaos (“disorganized” or “fearful” attachment), with the terror it can bring? Is there a lack of appreciation of the benefits of a “secure attachment”? Or of a willingness to put in the time and energy to create and maintain one?
2. Is a societal emphasis on “career success,” as defined by numbers such as salaries, promotions, and titles, and as requiring a transactional perspective on relationships to get there, increasing?
Is “networking” replacing a more complete kind of connection between people and fostering one in which people only see in each other what they hope they might gain or profitably be able to give?
3. Are we witnessing a redefining of “close relationships” in which commitment yields to convenience, and relationships are seen as disposable, easily replaced?
Social media has allowed people to have contact with others they have not seen in decades as easily—or more easily—than with their own family, friends, and neighbors. Are people beginning to see the number and frequency of interactions as weightier than the quality of those contacts?
4. Are people becoming more anxious when they address their own or another person’s need (or desire) for emotional connection?
Does the nature of empathy and possibly fear of its consequences elicit alarm, perhaps a worry that action will be required, or a demand will be made, or a course of action may be disrupted, all because of the needs of another person? Are we becoming more protective of our own interests and unwilling to set them aside to lighten another’s distress, assist at a tense moment, bring a new perspective to a situation?
5. What does it mean to be in the presence of another person’s energy?
Does the situation trigger a rejection response? A danger reaction with an impulse to fight, flee, or freeze? A concern that you might threaten someone else’s autonomy through your presence or influence?
What might happen when illness or another source of legitimate need arises? Why might a person prefer those who are more distant by the very definition of their role—doctors, assistants, babysitters, other people one can hire, even a neighbor—to provide a service, rather than allowing an intimate to lend a personal hand?
Is the person in need afraid that the person who helps may remember their vulnerability? Why might that memory be problematic?
6. Could fear of expectations be the source of a preference to maintain distance?
Someone in a close relationship might feel entitled to make further (or future) demands. Psychologists like Karen Rook, Bert Uchino, and Toni Antonucci have written about the burdens of close relationships.
7. The other person might want more in an exchange meant to be reciprocal than you might want to give.
They could reject a part of you that is important to your self-image or force you to face a part of yourself you do not want to see, perhaps because it shames you, or perhaps because you do not want to change it. At present, that part serves you well, perhaps bringing pleasure or a sense of self-sufficiency, a feeling of being more independent than any of us actually are.
These are only a few of the many reasons why people may be avoiding the challenges and thus losing the benefits of intimacy in relationships. Taking a less demanding route can be more comfortable in the short term, certainly more convenient, and definitely simpler.
But the losses incurred when we only connect to those parts of someone else that may somehow serve our interests are huge. Not only do we miss out on the depth of getting to know another as a whole person, but we also truncate a part of ourselves in doing so. Is that what we really want moving forward?
copyright 2019 Roni Beth Tower
Antonucci, T.S., Lansford, J.E., & Hiroko Akiyama (2001) Impact of Positive and Negative Aspects of Marital Relationships and Friendships on Well-Being of Older Adults, Applied Developmental Science, 5:2, 68-75, DOI: 10.1207/S1532480XADS0502_2
Rook, K. S. (1998). Investigating the positive and negative sides of personal relationships: Through a lens darkly? In B. H. Spitzberg & W. R. Cupach (Eds.), The dark side of close relationships (pp. 369-393). Mahwah, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
Simpson, J.A. & Rholes, W. S. (Eds). (1998). Attachment Theory and Close Relationships. New York, Guilford.
Uchino, B. N., Cawthon, R. M., Smith, T. W., Light, K. C., McKenzie, J., Carlisle, M., . . . Bowen, K. (2012). Social relationships and health: Is feeling positive, negative, or both (ambivalent) about your social ties related to telomeres? Health Psychology, 31(6), 789-796. https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fa0026836