Frances Cohen Praver Ph.D.

Love Doc


Fear of Real Intimacy

Why do some people avoid what they want most?

Posted Nov 15, 2009

Tiny of waist, trim of girlish body, brilliant of mind, Maria smile beguiled. "He's really so great. Bret's kind, accomplished and he respects and cares about me and my three children. I don't understand myself, but now that we're getting serious, I want to date others. Do you think I'm flighty, shallow, or just immature?"

Knowing Maria as I do, she is none of the above; she is a sensitive, highly educated, competent, but self-deprecating young woman. A survey of her experiences with intimacy reveals a barren landscape. Not only do her parents live in the same house and not talk with one another, not only do they disapprove of her lifestyle ─ a divorced mother living in near poverty - but prior attempts at intimacy have failed the test of time.

Kyle was twenty five years older than Maria, set in his ways, and definitely not sexy. Jonathon, on the other hand was age appropriate, emotionally engaged with Marla and definitely sexy. Unfortunately, Jonathon was married. Then there was Steve, a recently divorced upstanding man, who was still in love with his ex-wife. None of these men were either physically, emotionally, or sexually available. Not until Bret came into Marla's life.

A successful young financial wizard, Bret's pragmatic personality complimented Marla's artistic one. Encouraging her sculpture, he built a studio for her and helped her mount a show. A good natured single man, Bret adored Marla's children who in turn adored Bret. For these reasons and many more that are inexplicable, Marla and Bret were madly in love ─until Bret talked about marriage.

Self doubts and doubts about Bret suddenly cropped up. Marla noticed that Bret was sweet and that his family was wonderful, but that he was not sexy. "He is not a sensual person, and that's so important to me."

Was Bret really not sexy? If so why did Marla come to this conclusion now, after a year with Bret? Why was she putting the brakes on?
Simply put, Marla feared intimacy.

Not unique in the fear of intimacy, Marla is one of many people who desire intimacy at one level, but at a deeper level, fear it. But why? No single brushstroke paints all people who fear the thing they want most ─an intimate relationship. Unique with a multiplicity of diverse backgrounds, temperaments, and cultures, we each have our own influences. Marla is a case in point of how some people, unwittingly, avoid intimacy.

Marla's life experiences tell us that her parents did not provide her with good role models for intimate relating. Her father had extramarital affairs, and her mother suffered a multitude of psychosomatic illness. Her father, busy in his own world, was emotionally neglectful of Marla so that her mother compensated by obsessing over Marla's every emotion, thought, and intentions. Their overly close relationship, rather than solidifying Marla's growth, stifled it. Marla's joy, anxiety, or sadness was eclipsed by her mother's own intense emotions. No matter that Marla was capable of making good decisions about her education and career choices, her mother intruded herself into all her life choices. The boundary between mother and child was fused, leaving Marla suffocated and gasping for air. Intimacy then meant losing herself in the other person.

So what's a gal who wants intimacy but fears being taken over by her partner to do? Search for intimacy only to find unavailable men. When she does find love with an available man, she flees as fast as she can. That's precisely what Marla was about to do with Bret.

In therapy, Marla began to express her desires and needs only to find that I was keenly interested but, unlike her mother, I did not overreact. But of course, this was a new type of interaction felt unfamiliar to Marla and she balked at it. In no uncertain terms, she told me that I was mean and withholding, and that I abandoned her like her father did. In her frustration and despair about our separateness, she threatened to leave therapy. The choreography of intimacy was in peril.

In time, however, Marla could recognize the ghost of her mother and her father hovering and distorting our interaction. Slowly, she began to relax, gain confidence in her decisions, and enjoy her separateness. She found that involvement did not entail immersion, nor did intimate relating entail intrusion. As to her relationship with Bret it's in the works.

Marla, like so many other people fear getting what they want ─a real intimate love. Some like Marla fear losing themselves in their partners and others fear losing their partners. This fear can prevent entering into a serious relationship or it can seep into a long-term one.

Contrary to conventional thinking a long-term committed relationship that seems safe is not really. Indeed, a long term relationship with love, caring, and comfort along with lust, spontaneity, sex, and excitement ─ real intimacy ─is everything everyone wants. Yet so many long-term relationships foreclose one side of this equation ─ the romance and the passionate red hot sex─ and focus on the caring, security, and comfort.

In case you're thinking that romance and passionate sex inevitably fade over time, think again. They don't necessarily fade; it's that couples unwittingly split off the sizzle─ the excitement, the passion and the sex ─ from the steak─ the comfort and security. Why? It's safer that way. With less intimate relating, the fear of losing yourself in your partner is diminished. On the other hand, with less intimate relating, the fear of losing your partner is less frightening.

Clearly fear kills love. Yes, love is a risk. But would you rather risk getting hurt or risk not realizing the most human basic need ─love? So why not take a chance on love?


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