Do You Have Trouble With Intimacy? If So, You're Not Alone

Measuring your or your partner's tolerance for closeness

Posted Aug 18, 2015

Unsplash, copyright free, Benjamin Combs
Source: Unsplash, copyright free, Benjamin Combs

What we learn during our childhoods about how relationships function shapes our responses to overtures in love and friendship, as well as our reactivity in our adult connections. Children who were listened to, loved, and felt that they were known by their parents grow up to be adults who navigate relationships with relative ease, and seek out and get comfort from closeness; they are, as attachment theory has it—developed by John Bowlby, Mary Main, and others— securely attached. Those who grew up in emotionally unstable circumstances—in families where love was either denied or meted out in unreliable bursts, criticism or dismissal was the norm, emotional needs were either ignored or disparaged, or the child was made to feel unlovable or lacking—develop insecure styles of attachment which are either anxious or avoidant. 

It’s estimated that some 40% of us or perhaps even more display anxious behavior in close relationships or avoid them as best as we can.

The terms anxious and avoidant aren’t quite as fixed in stone or as defined as say apples and oranges; as researchers note, most people mix these unhappy-making tendencies over the course of a relationship or over time. Nor are these categories as simplistic as they sound. The work of Kim Bartholomew and Leonard Horowitz hypothesized that there were four dimensions of attachment, each of which contains both a working model of self and a working model of other. Secure people score a win/win: they have both a positive view of self and a positive view of others. Those who display a preoccupied-anxious style of attachment have a working model of self which is negative (fundamentally lacking or unlovable) but a positive view of others; they actively seek out relationships to get the self-validation they need, but cling or worry by turns about that support being withdrawn. Those who display a fearful-avoidant style of attachment have negative models of both self and others, and are afraid of intimacy and socially avoidant; they too need validation but fear rejection more and that stops them from taking the risks they see in close relationships. Those with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style have a positive view of self  (they see themselves as independent, self-reliant, and not needing others) and are dismissive of intimacy.

Many of us have found ourselves in relationships in which the desire and need for closeness are less than a perfect match or one in which the attachment styles of the two partners are out of sync. Seeing your own relational patterns with greater clarity, as well as those of your partner, can help you decide whether the relationship can be nurtured, grown, or improved or if what you need to do is get out.

Keep in mind that it’s sometimes difficult to read precisely where someone stands in a relationship. You may have a partner, as I did, who claimed that intimacy was something he wanted but was sufficiently armored and unwilling that his behavior usually registered as dismissive-avoidant. Almost universally, my emotional demands and overtures were answered with stonewalling or withdrawal (a classic pattern of unhealthy interaction called “Demand/Withdraw.”) In the end, there was no reconciling his needs and mine. That said, on the surface at least, he continued to assert that closeness was his goal, which was both frustrating and confusing at once.

For fun and elucidation, here is a short scale developed by Bartholomew and Horowitz. Following are four general relationship styles that people often report. Place a checkmark next to the letter corresponding to the style that best describes you or is closest to the way you are.

____ A. It is easy for me to become emotionally close to others. I am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t worry about being alone or having others not accept me.

____ B. I am uncomfortable getting close to others. I want emotionally close relationships, but I find it difficult to trust others completely, or to depend on them. I worry that I will be hurt if I allow myself to become too close to others.

____ C. I want to be completely emotionally intimate with others, but I often find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I am uncomfortable being without close relationships, but I sometimes worry that others don’t value me as much as I value them.

____ D. I am comfortable without close emotional relationships. It is very important to me to feel independent and self-sufficient, and I prefer not to depend on others or have others depend on me. 

These are the broad patterns with description A corresponding to secure, B to preoccupied, C to fearful, and D to dismissive.

But, again, these descriptions are not as set in stone or exclsuive as they might seem. Explore further by ranking how well or poorly the statement applies to you on a scale of 1 to 7; 1=strongly agree, 4=neutral or mixed, 7= strongly disagree.

Where did you come out? I am a mix of secure and somewhat fearful.

Intimate connections are, for many, hard to find and harder to maintain. But understanding your own behaviors—as well as the roots of your clinginess or the source of your fearfulness or the reasons you push off or distance yourself—can be an important first step. Keep in mind too that the broadest patterns of relating aren’t confined just to romantic relationships. I noticed, of course, that my ex had few friends and distant connections to his colleagues, and no real intimates, but I chose to ignore those red flags and rationalized them instead. (Yes, love is blind or at least in need of corrective lenses, especially when the person is fully versed in attachment theory.)  But it’s not necessary to don a Sherlock Holmes hat  if you actually pay attention to your partner’s behaviors as he or she connects and interacts with others.

If you’re dating someone or just getting to know them, you may want to pay attention to how easily or readily they share information about themselves. (Too much, too little, or just right?) Does he or she seek out support from friends when things go south (too much, never, just right?) ? Even the pace of the relationship—an eagerness to be committed or serious which seems somehow inappropriate or, alternatively, an unwillingness to commit to anything including plans for the near future—may reveal a person’s attachment style.

Insecurely attached people can, as it happens, appear very attractive at first, as one research study by Claudia Chloe Brumbaugh and R. Chris Fraley demonstrated; in fact, they may even come across as more appealing than securely attached folks! For example, an anxiously attached person may appear concerned, caring or very attentive at first, or very open and self-reflective. (It’s that need to get your approval at work but you may not see it that way at first.) Similarly, an avoidant guy or gal might seem extraordinarily self-possessed and confident. As Brumbaugh and Fraley noted, it’s not just that we often mistake what is really a function of insecure attachment for other traits; it’s also that the insecurely attached appear to have conscious strategies to make themselves look good. (Don’t we all when we’re dating?)  Preoccupied people seemed interesting, talkative, often captivating and unusual. Avoidants, especially avoidant males, used consistent eye contact and frequent touch to dispel any notion that they might not be as into intimacy as they seemed, as well as a sense of humor. (Ironic, no?)

These patterns of behavior are, of course, largely unconscious and run by an ancient script until we work to bring them into conscious awareness. Knowing what motivates you—and your partner—is the elusive key to a lasting and satisfying relationship.

Copyright © 2015 Peg Streep            

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Bartholomew, Kim and Leonard M. Horowitz, “Attachment Styles Among Young Adults” A Test of a Four Category Model,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1991). Vol. 61, no.2, 226-244.

Brumbaugh, Claudia Chloe and R. Chris Fraley, “Adult Attachment and dating strategies: How do insecure people attract mates?  Personal Relationships (2010). 17, 599-614.