Understanding Fear of Intimacy

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For centuries, authors, poets, playwrights and screenwriters have written its story a million ways, but the reasons behind the suffering associated with love often fail to be fully explained. Many will be surprised to learn that the real resistance to intimacy often doesn’t come from the acts of your partner, but from a lurking enemy within.

In the film “As Good As It Gets,” Melvin, a 50-something reclusive romance novelist with a bitter and hateful view of the world falls for a waitress named Carol, a cynical, yet spirited single-mother. When Melvin fumbles his first romantic encounter with Carol, the following scene ensues.

(Melvin sits alone, nursing a drink. He’s been talking to the bartender.)

MELVIN: So then, the next thing I know, she’s sitting right next to me, and then, well, it’s not right to go into the details, but I screwed up. I got nervous. I said the wrong thing and if I hadn’t, I could be in bed now with a woman who if you could make her smile you got a life. Instead, I’m here with you, no offense, a moron pushing the last legal drug.

(He sits there, just another Joe on a bar stool with his heart breaking.)

In the movie, both main characters (in Academy Award-winning performances from Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt) are defended and self-protective. This true-to-life enactment of two people sabotaging their chances to have a relationship comically exemplifies the all-too unconscious tendency many of us have to resist intimacy. As one moves closer, the other pushes away. As one reaches out, the other strikes back. At different times, each drops their guard, only to put it back up immediately. Over and over again, each character systematically destroys any opportunities to be close.

What is the explanation for such irrational behavior? Why would we get in our own way of experiencing such a gratifying and meaningful aspect of life? While many of us periodically recognize our own apprehensions and distrust of love, we are more likely to identify these fears as concern over potentially negative outcomes: rejection, the deterioration of a relationship or feelings of affection that aren’t returned. It is much more difficult, however, to acknowledge that our deepest fears often arise from just the opposite: being chosen by someone we truly care for, maintaining a close relationship or experiencing another person’s loving feelings.

The problem is that the positive way a lover sees us often conflicts with the negative ways we view ourselves. Sadly, we hold on to our negative self-attitudes and are resistant to being seen differently. We won’t allow the reality of being loved to affect our basic image of ourselves.

These negative core beliefs are based on deep-seated feelings that we developed in early childhood of being essentially bad, unlovable or deficient. While these attitudes may be painful or unpleasant, on a deeper level they are familiar to us, and we are used to them lingering in our subconscious. As adults, we mistakenly assume that these beliefs are fundamental and therefore impossible to correct.

We don’t intentionally reject love to preserve a familiar identity. Instead, during times of closeness and intimacy, we react with behaviors that create tension in the relationship and push our loved one away. It is as though we sense that if we accepted love and the positive identity that comes with it, our conception of reality would be shattered, and we would not recognize ourselves. It is not surprising then that while we often react indifferently or adversely to positive approval, recognition and love, we latch on to anything that supports our negative identity. It is easy to believe criticism but it is difficult to accept praise. Rejection and failure are harmonious with our self-attacks; whereas positive reactions directly conflict with them. We find ourselves feeling guarded or resistant to being vulnerable. Challenging our negative self-image is anxiety provoking, as it debunks an identity in which we’ve grown comfortable. The source of this fear is hard to pinpoint, as we don’t tend to feel the full anxiety directly. Rather, when someone we love and admire sees us in a positive light, we tend to be distrustful and react with suspicion and paranoia. (In the final scene of the film:)

CAROL: “I’m sorry, Melvin — but whatever this is — is not going to work.” (Melvin takes this hard. It forces him to half-whisper something he hasn’t at all said to himself. Given his history, this is an extraordinary intimacy.) MELVIN: “I’m feeling…I’ve been feeling better.” CAROL: “Melvin, even though it may seem that way now, you don’t know me all that well… I’m not the answer for you. (She starts to turn. He tugs at her arm. She turns back to him.) MELVIN: “Hey, I’ve got a great compliment for you.” CAROL: “You know what? I…” MELVIN: “Just let me talk.”(gathers himself with uncertainty) “I’m the only one on the face of the earth who realizes that you’re the greatest woman on earth. I’m the only one who appreciates how amazing you are in every single thing you do — in every single thought you have… in how you are with Spencer (he has reached her) …in how you say what you mean and how you almost always mean something that’s all about being straight and good…” (Carol stands on the precipice of being transported away from the logic, which has been her lifeline.) MELVIN: “I think most people miss that about you and I watch wondering how they can watch you bring them food and clear their dishes and never get that they have just met the greatest woman alive… And the fact that I get it makes me feel great… about me!” (A real question filled with concern for her:) “You got a real good reason to walk out on that?” CAROL: “No! It’s certainly not. No — I don’t think so. No.”

It is possible to challenge our core resistance to love. We can confront our negative self-image and face the fear that will be aroused. If we persevere, we can eventually come to accept the positive view of ourselves that is scaring us. In the process, we can grow and increase our tolerance for a loving relationship. We can take a chance on love and not punish those who care for and respect us. And in perhaps the most loving act of all, we can come to accept the love that is directed toward us.

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