One of the biggest sources of joy and happiness in life is having an emotionally and physically intimate relationship with a partner who feels the same about us as we do about them. But for some people, becoming emotionally intimate with another person is difficult. Let’s explore some of the reasons people fear emotional intimacy, and some of the ways to let go of this fear and build healthy, emotionally-rich relationships.
What is emotional intimacy, and why would someone fear it?
Emotional intimacy is the state of feeling supremely connected to your partner. You feel safe, protected, and understood. You know that you can allow yourself to be totally open, vulnerable and honest with your partner and they will never criticize or belittle what you are experiencing. Emotionally intimate relationships are partnerships in the truest sense of the word, and something to aspire for when envisioning the highest level of adult love.
But there are many people who are not equipped with the tools to become emotionally intimate partners without some expert help. Men and women who come from backgrounds that include physical and/or mental abuse, trauma or neglect have a difficult time attaching emotionally to others. People who grew up in households where criticism, fighting, denigration and threats were weapons parents used against each other and the children have challenges to overcome to be able to open up emotionally with their partner. For marriages, the danger here is that long-term emotionally distant people can unknowingly contribute to unhappiness, dissatisfaction and eventually the end of the relationship.
Why the fear?
Fear comes from a place of anxiety. It is hard for someone who did not grow up in secure, loving and stable conditions to feel safe bonding with a partner. They may imagine themselves as unworthy of love (because they had a critical parent), or feel certain that their partner will leave them one day (because they grew up with an absent parent). They may have learned to shut off all emotion because expressing feelings was met with contempt and humiliation when they were young.
Obstacles to creating emotional intimacy
- Lack of trust- A key factor in bonding emotionally is trust, and people who have experienced childhoods where trust was not able to be established have to reprogram their brains in order to trust others, and in turn, become emotionally intimate with them.
- Lack of feeling safe- Adults whose formative years were spent in situations where they were clearly unsafe, due to household or community violence, unreliable, sporadic parenting, poverty, drug or alcohol use, have trouble getting emotionally intimate.
- Trauma- Inability to bond emotionally with a partner is a predictable consequence for those who have experienced trauma such as rape, incest, violence in the home, and other life-altering events.
How to break the cycle and develop emotional intimacy
- Don’t be afraid to reach out to expert help- For people coming from backgrounds of abuse, trauma and neglect, it is highly recommended that they enlist the help of a qualified therapist to help them learn to restructure how they see others and acquire the techniques needed to build trust. This is not a quick process, but well worth the investment so that the emotionally-fearful partner can truly experience intimacy in all its forms. If you are in love with an emotionally absent partner, therapy can be helpful for you, too, so that you can understand how your partner became the way he is, and what you can do to support his evolution towards becoming an emotionally intimate person.
- Tell your loved one where you are coming from- If you are finding it difficult to establish emotional intimacy, it will be essential to tell your partner what you are experiencing so they won’t think they are at fault. This is also the first step in showing your vulnerability and not meeting with rejection—an important part of your path towards bonding with your partner.
- Learn to express your emotions, not shut them off- Another vital step in building intimacy is to express your feelings—negative and positive—with your partner, using “I” statements. “I am feeling overwhelmed by all these emotions” is a great way to begin! The reaction of a loving and understanding partner, who listens and validates your feelings, will show you that it is OK to open up to them. They won’t mock you or run away (like you experienced in childhood). Make these disclosures small so that you maintain a feeling of safety throughout this process. There is no need to go big with this step. Express your emotions bit by bit, at a rate in which you feel comfortable. As you obtain validation from your partner, memorize that feeling. You are retraining your brain to recognize that your loving partner is a safe person to open up to. They will not reject you for showing who you are inside.
- Take it day by day- Moving from an emotionally distant or absent person towards becoming an emotionally available person is a long process and it takes patience and understanding for both partners. It took many years for the emotionally distant person learn this adaptive behavior and it will take him some time to reframe how to view the world as a safe place. The process is not straightforward, and there will be moments where you may see regression instead of progress. But stay optimistic. Ultimately the gift of becoming a person capable of becoming emotionally intimate is worth the work involved. Your relationship will become richer and closer as you open up to the creation and deepening of the emotional bond that ties you together.