A cliche in the self-help/therapy/relationship sphere is “a fear of intimacy.” It’s at the heart of pretty much every insecure, codependent coupling. I think it’s worth looking at what intimacy is, why we might fear it, and the ways in which we block it.
I call these blocks intimacy defense mechanisms.
What is intimacy?
Healthy intimacy requires the trusting offer of our true self to another and our trusting acceptance of the other’s true self in return. — Pia Melody
Or as the venerable John Bradshaw puts it in Homecoming:
It is impossible to be intimate if you have no sense of self. How can you share yourself with another if you do not really know who you are? How can anyone know you if you do not know who you really are?
A lot of what blocks intimacy is not, as most people think, forms of self-sabotage.
Because intimacy feels unsafe to those who come from childhood trauma — enmeshment, abandonment, abuse, neglect, etc. So who would want to engage in something that feels unsafe, even though at a conscious level we know we want it?
It’s our subconscious mind — the emotional center of our brain — that has stored associations around intimacy and vulnerability, and they’re painful.
Sometimes it’s because we fear abandonment. Other times it’s because we fear engulfment or entrapment. Either way, humans are pretty creative when it comes to denying ourselves of the intimacy we crave.
The Madonna-whore Complex
I always turned a blind eye to who my partner was in a relationship — always. There were parts of them — the same parts within myself — that I’d consciously reject. I didn’t want to know about them, and I’d pretend they didn’t exist.
More accurately, I’d be OK with certain behaviors, desires, wants, etc. in the early stages of dating, but when any form of emotional attachment set in, I’d want to throw away their past and every sexual thing we did, in favor of a safe, domesticated woman who was not real.
In short, I wanted security and control.
Growing up in a chaotic household and eventually becoming my mother’s surrogate spouse, what I needed most was stability. I often looked at my aunt as having that loving, nurturing, stable family environment, and wished that I was part of it. I wanted to be loved for who I was instead of having to be perfect all the time, or meet my parents’ needs.
All of this paved the way for becoming a Nice Guy — a guy who hides his true self from the world, thinking that if he’s perfect and everyone likes him, he’ll have a secure, stable, and problem-free life. Unfortunately, no matter how hard he tries, he runs into the same problems over and over again, especially with women.
Such a man will often court someone with maternal qualities, hoping to fulfill a need for maternal intimacy unmet in childhood, only for a return of the repressed feelings surrounding the earlier relationship to prevent sexual satisfaction in the new. — Sigmund Freud, On Sexuality
This is a common pattern in men suffering from enmeshment trauma. While his primary relationship turns into the dynamic he had with his mother, he resorts to dubious methods of getting his sexual needs met. Usually this is in the form of porn, cheating, emotional intrigue, or straight-up prostitution.
Sexual and/or emotional anorexia
Another type of defense mechanism is the outright avoidance of sex and/or relationships altogether. Often times this manifests as “excuses” as to why she’s not good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, or just about any reason to not engage with her.
Quite literally there’s a reaction in the body that “shuts down” when faced with a realistic prospect, leading to long stretches of no sexual or romantic contact. This behavior is known as Anorexia. The anorexic however, may feel OK with anonymous sex, prostitutes, massage parlors, casual hookups, and of course, porn.
Again, anything that involves emotional attachment is too scary, so the anorexic resorts to cheap substitutes for nurturing, care, and support, often choosing to live in a fantasy world rather than reality.
Another hallmark of intimacy defense is the choosing of unavailable people. This can be attached — married, or any form of “not single” status — distant (emotionally or physically), or generally not interested in you.
The draw here is that she doesn’t feel like a “keeper” from the outset. He can abandon the relationship at any time because she was never his to begin with. This is similar to that of the anorexic because there’s little chance of it materializing into something long term, and to the enmeshed child, this has an element of built-in safety.
Additionally, these types of relationships provide fantasy, anxiety, uncertainty, and that all-encompassing “chase.” These are addictive states, and therefore double as powerful analgesics and excellent blockers of intimacy.
Compare and despair
This is a thing that insecure people do when they lack a strong sense of self, and that’s compare themselves to their partner constantly. This comes in the form of score-keeping sexual experiences, number of partners, salary, job title, education, inheritance, or any number of things that can be used to create a feeling of disparity.
The partner ceases being an autonomous individual and more like the property of the partner. As the couple gets closer, this defense mechanism manifests itself as a deeper and deeper desire to control — to possess even — the other, until something snaps. Then the bindings are loosened, apologies are made, and the cycle starts all over again.
Other examples of Intimacy Defense Mechanisms:
- Inciting jealousy
- Abandoning or detaching from the relationship just when it’s about to progress
- Withholding feelings and vulnerability from their partner
It’s amazing how acrobatic people get to “avoid getting hurt,” when that’s exactly what happens as a result of these defenses.
There’s no rationality to these behaviors, just ways in which the subconscious attempts to keep us “safe” and feeling good.
Intimacy is Reality
Disney, and the movies we grew up with, rarely paint a realistic picture of what a relationship is like. They take us from the characters meeting, through some sort of conflict, to resolution, then to happily ever after in two hours. They tell us that “love” is that feeling you get at the end of the movie, and it should last forever.
In reality, it just means they’re gonna have great sex that night.
Idealism of someone is not reality, and it’s not intimacy. It’s just another fantasy. Putting your girlfriend or wife on a pedestal — a common thing for Nice Guys to do — is not intimacy.
Basically, anytime we’re out of sync with reality we’re not experiencing intimacy. People with childhood trauma have a hard time living in reality because our earliest defense mechanisms told us that reality is not safe. We needed to be someone — or somewhere else in order to feel secure and in control.
Intimacy is not control. It’s the acceptance that we have very little control in any situation. We can’t control another person, however insecure people in relationships try and fail miserably.
Intimacy requires trust, and since the abused child had his or her trust violated repeatedly, they enter relationships as a persona. Two illusions coming together as adult children.
Much like a computer, humans have a primitive section of the brain called the Amygdala. These two nodules of grey matter store some really powerful emotions, including those involved with PTSD. This acts as a BIOS, which is the most basic operating system in a computer, and heavily influences the other processes.
The Amygdala is programmed through experience from infancy and beyond, so any traumatic events in childhood are stored there. Let’s call this operating system youOS, to borrow from Apple’s naming convention.
youOS is extremely powerful, and without a concerted, conscious effort, it will override logic, reason, and the conscious mind at will. Since youOS is directly tied to emotions, any activation of its warning system can send shock waves of panic, fear, or anxiety through the body like an electric current.
These are called “triggers,” and the response is called Fight, Flight, or Freeze — the same survival response in the most primitive animal.
Examples of triggers are your boss telling you he’s not happy with your presentation, and you feel like he said “You’re stupid, incompetent, and grab your shit…you’re fired!”
Another example is the guy who stayed up worrying that his girlfriend is cheating on him, and he’s feeling a sense of abandonment that might have happened as a toddler.
In order to recover from these triggers, youOS needs to be reprogrammed through repetition and positive association. Written exercises, meditation, journaling, fact-checking, seeing a therapist, joining a men’s group, cultivating hobbies, and staying in gratitude — these are all tools that can be used to combat stories and triggers, and build a life outside of the relationship.
So many relationships end badly because of some story, then trigger, then emotional outburst, then resentment and retaliation from the hurt party. Once that ball is in motion, the resentments pile up until there’s nothing left between the couple but a wall.
Luckily, with repetitive action, positive association, and mindfulness over thoughts and emotions, recovery from bad youOS programming is entirely possible.