Relationships

Why Do We Avoid Intimacy When We Crave Love?

Five ways to get over the fear of love.

Posted Jul 31, 2020

Almost everyone wants to be in a loving relationship; social connections are the number one ingredient to happiness.Loneliness is a killer and COVID-19 is not helping at all. However, COVID is also yet another culprit we can point to when the more fundamental problem lies deep within ourselves.

I see it in my former, younger self: While I yearned for love and intimacy, I continued to choose partners who were not ready or willing to form such a bond, which inevitably broke my heart. Eventually, someone asked me the pivotal question: “Is it possible that you yourself are not ready for an intimate relationship?” After thinking long and hard about this possibility, I concluded that I was indeed avoiding a close bond with my choice of unavailable partners. As I had been kind and loving myself, it was hard for me to see the role I played. After this insight, it took quite a bit of effort and time to dig up the reasons for my avoidance, and even more to override my unconscious pattern.

The German attachment expert Stefanie Stahl explains in her book that there are three main prototypes of people who are afraid of intimacy: the hunter, the princess, and the stonewaller:2

  • Hunters (and huntresses) would be interested as long as they cannot have a potential partner. The moment they “have” the partner, hunters become unattainable. Either way, the hunter or huntress keeps a safe distance from the threat of love.
  • Princesses (and princes) would be those who constantly find fault in the other and eventually just have to break up their relationship.
  • Stonewallers would regulate intimacy and distance with overworking or having a too time-consuming hobby.

Stahl points out that there are numerous other ways to escape intimacy, such as infidelity, long-distance relationships (and I would add internet relationships), boycotting communication, and, of course, choosing an unavailable partner—the passive, hard-to-identify way.

Many psychologists concur that avoiding intimacy stems from an unconscious fear of abandonment. Somehow the avoider has had experiences so overwhelming that he or she senses immense danger at the possibility of it happening again. Usually avoiders yearn for love just as everyone else does, but only to make this love actively or passively impossible. The overwhelming experiences set up an instinctive pattern for future behavior.

Some psychologists believe attachment issues always result from a failure to securely bond with a primary caretaker during infancy and toddlerhood: A primal trust was betrayed. It is understandable that such early experiences would leave an unconscious imprint on the mind.

Other psychologists believe that a person can have overwhelming experiences at any time during the maturation process. For example, if a teenager feels used by a needy parent in any way, he or she might associate a sense of being taken advantage of or suffocation with feelings of intimacy.

While everybody needs love, if we do not feel safe and solid in our skin, our need for autonomy might dominate our minds. The moment we come close to the feeling of love, panic or irritability might be triggered and ruin the most hopeful relationships.

Are all relationships doomed when one partner has intimacy issues? Many experts believe that couples can work together to counteract the unconscious fear of abandonment or enmeshment. It all begins with:

1. Take responsibility. Whether we actively push away an intimate partner or passively accept someone who pushes us away, we need to own that the problem resides in us. We need to own our pattern. (I hope it goes without saying that taking responsibility never means to take blame for abuse.) Some of us must gain insight into our pattern with the support of a therapist.

2. Take in the fact that you can override old patterns of attachment and fear with new patterns of love and courage. We can all learn to love. It is never too late for love as our human brains are designed for togetherness.

3. It is most helpful if the partner of the avoider is calm and capable of intimacy but lowers his or her expectations for the time being. It is crucial to give space for needing autonomy and/or safety. The avoider must learn to tolerate his or her discomfort, which is only possible when it is acceptable to separate. Agreements need to be forged. Once again, the couple may need to have extra support to negotiate the safety net for the avoider.

4. Get used to intimacy. Attachment expert Karl Heinz Brisch advocates for tireless introspection and the mutual giving of feedback between the partners.3 According to Brisch, the fearful avoider must experience consciously and often enough that he or she will not get abandoned in a love relationship. Eventually, the exposure would extinguish the old fear. It might be more accurate to say that we can learn to tolerate our fear or discomfort instead of running away. Some of us might never completely lose the fear of intimacy but become stronger and more determined to stay.

5. Learn to calm yourself with mindfulness and relaxation exercises. In order to tolerate the discomfort of intimacy or even just the thought of commitment, we can sit with the discomfort and learn to observe it. Learn to just sit (or walk or do the dishes) and breathe calmly. When you have established a daily calming practice, you can find a way to access your calm mind when you begin to feel irritated, critical, or feel the urge to escape the relationship.

There is no panacea for attachment issues; not all can be cured. However, most of us can “face and embrace” our fears, learn to tolerate, and eventually enjoy love. Just remember that you cannot change the other: Everyone must take responsibility for himself or herself and commit to growing and cultivating love. Choose wisely. 

© 2020 Andrea F. Polard, PsyD. All Rights Reserved.

References

1) Andrea F. Polard (2012). A Unified Theory of Happiness: An East-Meets-West Approach to Fully Loving Your Life. Sounds True. Chapter 6: Connection.

Stefanie Stahl (2020). Yes, No, Maybe: How to recognize and overcome fear of commitment - Help for those affected and their partners. Kailash Publishing.

Karl Heinz Brisch (2014). Treating Attachment Disorders, Second Edition: From Theory to Therapy (2nd Edition). The Guilford Press.