Everyone wants love and most of us, knowingly or unknowingly, are profoundly afraid of it. These fears may show themselves in our difficulties or resistance in creating nourishing love or in our difficulties sustaining intimacy once we are in a relationship.
Quite often, we are not aware of the fears that drive our thoughts and behaviors in relating because we may hide them between subtle strategies and firmly held beliefs.
For instance, we may mask our fears behind a belief that to come close to someone means we will lose our freedom and that the other person only wants to control, manipulate, or possess us. We may choose to have multiple partners because it is safer and more exciting that way. We may believe and even experience that we simply can’t find anyone mature or conscious enough. Or we may be continually attracting unavailable partners or partners who need to be rescued. Once in a relationship, we may lose ourselves in work or distractions so we don’t have to stay open or we may engage in dramas or power games instead of risking to be vulnerable.
These are some of the more common ways we may hide our fears of deep committed intimacy and it is easier to stay in one of these protective strategies rather than becoming vulnerable with someone and admitting to ourselves and the other person how scared and insecure we really are inside.
We teach five major fears of intimacy that, from our experience, cover most of the reasons people avoid coming close to someone.
- The fear of rejection.
- The fear of exposure.
- The fear of invasion.
- The fear of losing ourselves.
- The fear of boredom.
- The Fear of Rejection
Lurking in our unconscious is a deep wound of abandonment that can get triggered by even the slightest real or projected feeling of rejection. It may feel safer to avoid love rather than having to confront the pain of rejection. This fear may not surface until we allow someone to matter to us in our life today and when it surfaces with a partner or friends, we may be totally surprised by how reactive and emotional we can get when we feel rejected, unloved, unappreciated, unsupported, or unaccepted.
For instance, Jonathan gets insanely jealous when his lover, Julia, shows even the slightest attention to another man and he cannot control his angry reactions.
Angela cannot understand why she is having such a hard time getting over her ex-lover, Ralph, even though they both knew that it was time to move on and they separated as friends. She deeply misses their good times together and having someone to share with.
Anton admits that his relationship with Johanna is terrible and that he is not in love with her and perhaps never was. Yet, he cannot leave because he is too afraid of being alone.
Rejection fear can be terrifying because the wound of abandonment underneath is deep and unexplored. However, once we open to it with love and understanding, it begins to loosen its grip on us and we can make different choices.
- The Fear of Exposure
Our fear of exposure comes from our wound of shame. This wound may easily convince us that we are unlovable, unattractive, not interesting, and we may expect to be rejected. In fact, because of our shame, our expectations of rejection can be so strong that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We may even attract partners that will treat us in a way that validates our negative self-concept and our belief that we do not deserve love and respect. We may hesitate to open because that could mean revealing parts of ourselves that we don’t like and are convinced no one else would like either. We may cover our shame with different compensations, but these may only work if we keep our relating superficial and based on power games.
It is not easy to face our shame but learning to love ourselves means also learning to accept how insecure we are inside. Paradoxically, that also makes us much more loveable and easier to come close to. As we find the courage to expose, we invite the other person to do the same and most of the time, we discover that he or she has just as much shame as we do. However, it is important to notice the motivation of our sharing. If the motivation is for the shame to go away, that means we are not accepting and loving it, and it’s not the time to share. This can sometimes be very tricky. If we share from shame fully believing in the shame we may perpetuate the shame.
- The Fear of Invasion
Most of us experienced different forms of boundary invasions in our childhood and the memory of these events can cause us to be highly mistrustful of letting someone close to us today. We may deal with our history of boundary invasion by setting global limits and avoiding closeness altogether or by being oblivious of what we need once we enter a relationship.
Julian, an attractive and sensitive physician, was raised by a mother who was highly intrusive with advice, judgments, and punishment when he didn’t follow her wishes. He has limited his relationships with women to short affairs without any commitment. Andrea, his most recent girlfriend, was convinced that she could change him but the relationship ended with his feeling that she was no different than his mother by quickly assuming she was disregarding his needs or feelings.
Our fears of being invaded may not fully surface until we are in a relationship and when these fears get provoked, we may react with attack or collapse further justifying our fixed belief that a love relationship is not safe.
When Alex fell in love with Marcia, he was not aware how incapable he was of protecting his boundaries until they began living together. He found himself acquiescing to her ways of decorating their home and raising their child just to avoid conflict. He felt too frightened to confront her but at the same time, began building resentment. His collapse only triggered Marcia’s rage because she felt that he was not present and she wanted him to stand up to her and “be a man”. That only caused him to collapse even further and reminded him of the beatings he received as a child from his father.
We cannot recover our boundaries unless they are being challenged and that happens when we decide to open to someone. Then slowly when we experience the boundary invasion, we can learn to be with the inner experience, feel our needs, and express ourselves. It is a learning process and at first may be difficult, particularly if we go into shock when a boundary invasion happens. Then we may not know what happened and start to build resentment and anger. Part of the growth process is learning to recognize the invasion when it happens and to respect ourselves enough to feel and honor our feelings by eventually saying something to the other person.
- The Fear of Losing Ourselves
The fourth fear, that of losing ourselves, goes to the very depth of our sense of self. Many of us in different ways were not supported to develop a strong experience and confidence in our feelings, thoughts, intuitions, and place in the world. Instead, we may have been conditioned to listen to and be guided by others’ opinions and beliefs from our childhood. Plus, because of our profound longing for love, we may make greater and greater compromises once we find ourselves in a deep relationship in order not to feel the threat of rejection, criticism, judgment, or punishment. We may not even realize we are giving up more and more aspects of ourselves.
Catherine fell in love with Matthew and after dating for several months, she moved in with him. She began to feel intimidated by his confident and forceful personality, and began to feel less and less sure of her own opinions, feelings, and needs. She gave up staying in contact with most of her friends and gave up many of her hobbies so she could be available whenever he wanted to be with her.
Intimate relating tests us to find ourselves because we are challenged to find our truth when our energy merges with another person. It is a delicate dance to stay true and at the same time to allow ourselves to deeply melt.
- The Fear of Boredom
The fear of boredom can hold us back from entering a relationship or questioning one we are already in. Many couples may lose passion, intensity, freshness, growth, and general aliveness after they have been together for some time. Unless the original excitement, fascination, and anticipation of a new relationship is replaced with continual self-growth, deep inner fulfillment for both people, deepening connection and communication, and new shared experiences, it is easy for the relationship to descend into mundane tedium.
It takes effort and awareness not to let everyday life concerns and familiarity take the love and the other person for granted. But it is possible to keep our committed relationship alive and fresh by growing together, learning to communicate, staying connected, and sharing new adventures.
Intimate relating gives us an opportunity to become conscious and deal with these five fears in a healthy way. It is vital for our maturity to confront rather than avoid our wound of abandonment and shame, to learn to retrieve our boundaries and learn to stand up for ourselves, and crystalize our sense of self.
Letting ourselves come close to someone and allowing them to truly matter to us is the way to do that; whether it be in deep friendships or in an intimate relationship.