Fear of intimacy

A young Christian woman complained to me recently “What is it about young Christian men – why won’t they step up. Are they frightened or something?”

The fear of intimacy or commitment is a common relationship pattern in both women and men where someone is only able to allow themselves to release into loving when there is no danger that increasing intimacy and commitment might become part of the relationship.

It may show up in clients may come complaining of a series of unsuitable relationships over years which have never worked out. Examination of many of these disastrous relationships reveals a pattern of becoming involved with someone who is never going to be available for relationship: they’re married, an alcoholic, divorced but still entangled with their ex spouse, living in another city, completely committed to completing their PhD, or are highly conflictual etc. 

Alternatively, they are social people, but end up flitting around like a social butterfly from one short term relationship to another. If they are able to own that their failure in relationships is something to do with them, they often discover that they are baulking at taking relationship beyond a social level that connects around activities and information, and they shy away from sharing more deeply with the other person.  They are unable to share more personal information, and may prevent the other person from taking the relationship to a deeper level. It is not intimacy itself that they fear, but the possibility of getting hurt if they allow someone to get close to them.

John Powell’s classic “Why am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am?” gives an initial answer to his title question of "because if I tell you who I am, you may not like who I am, and it's all that I have." We see hints of this in Adam and Eve’s behaviour in Genesis in their hiding from God.  Their fear also drives them to hide themselves from each other. The difference in their case in relation to God, is that they knew that they had been disobedient.

However for many who fear intimacy, it is a false fear and shame, not based in reality, which keeps them from being close and intimate with others. They fear being rejected for who they are: often this fear is unconsciously based on some historical context where they were rejected (or perceived that they were rejected). Children in large families can come to believe that they are being rejected by one or both parents if they get less attention than their siblings. Others may have experienced actual rejection in their growing up years through bullying, emotional abuse in their family or the loss of a significant relationship.

Another aspect of fear of intimacy is the fear of engulfment by the other: that in allowing themselves to get too close and open with another that they might lose their ability to be themselves, to retain their independence. People who have experienced controlling relationships in the past ranging from judgemental ones to loving smothering, fear getting too close to another for fear of losing themselves.

Finally, fear of intimacy may arise from avoidance of the possibility of a relationship breaking down. Seen in those who may have lost a parent through death or divorce, they avoid forming intimate relationships in order to avoid having the deal with the pain and hurt of an ended relationship. 

The remedy? Becoming fully aware of what the problem is and taking steps towards healing the fear and self doubt, most fully realised in a deep understanding of the Gospel message. Sounds easy, but undoing years of living with, and reacting out of, fear is never easy. 

Nicky Lock, BSc(hons) Grad Dip EFT PACFA reg., Senior Counsellor and Clinical Consultant, and a lecturer and author of counselling courses.

Comments (17)

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  • Andrew Mackinnon
    July 20, 11 - 1:59am
    I don't think relationships are important at all. Jesus is all we need.
  • Ron J Bennett
    July 20, 11 - 2:43am
    Hi Nicky,

    good article. I think our initial step should always be through prayer. Devoting any possible relationship to God is something that cannot be emphasised enough. One of the hard things regarding this is setting a neutral place to meet where the barriers of fear can be broken down.
    One thing I struggle to agree with is independance. I am married and it is the one thing that does not exist. Not because we are in each others ear but because we are a couple and your lifes are forever intwined. Once we forget about "ourself" and focus on developing "us", you only enrich your life.
    Self doubt is always going to be there but if we go in confidence that God has us then the result is not an issue.
  • Nicky Lock
    July 20, 11 - 2:44am
    Andrew, about "Jesus being all we need": this raises the question, is all we need for what? Salvation, yes. But in Genesis we read "it is not good for man to be alone". However, in this post i am not really arguing about our need for relationship, but what gets in the way of deepening relationships to an intimate level. For many, a problem with intimacy extends into their relationship with God, along with human relationships.
  • Nicky Lock
    July 20, 11 - 2:58am
    Rod, yes, dealing with our individuality within a relationship, especially a marriage relationship which has a special quality of being interwoven, is hard to work out. However, if we look at the relationships within the Trinity we get some clues about the tension between the individuality and relationships within the Godhead. The early Greek fathers purported that the individual persons of the Godhead only exist in the relations that exist between them. They propose that the individual hypostases of the Godhead are formed both through communion with the other members of the Trinity and through the ways in which the other members relate to the individual member. This helps us to see how we as individuals also only exist as the result of the interwoven of relationships that we exist in our lives: hence we end up with individuality that is dependant on our relationality. This concept fits well with what we observe through social science about how our lives are shaped by our environment, but some would argue is an extreme position.
  • Andrew Mackinnon
    July 20, 11 - 3:03am
    Hi Nicky

    I was being sarcastic.

    It has become very fashionable to quote from Genesis and reference Adam and Eve. Do you believe that Adam and Eve were real, historical people?
  • Grant Hayes
    July 20, 11 - 3:21am
    The Witchfinder General is angling for "Satanists" again, his hook well baited with shibboleths...
  • Nicky Lock
    July 20, 11 - 3:56am
    Andrew, sarcasm is always hard to spot in electronic communication, so thanks for the illumination. Concerning my personal beliefs about Adam and Eve, I don't intend to discuss that in this forum.
  • Andrew Mackinnon
    July 20, 11 - 4:30am
    Yeah, I should apologise for being sarcastic.

    Last line:
    "Sounds easy, but undoing years of living with, and reacting out of, fear is never easy."

    This is why kids need to grow up the right way in preparation for adulthood, whch is in co-education rather than single-sex education. Doing the bulk of one's preparation for adulthood after reaching the age of eighteen is just stupid and any person faced with this prospect is going to question whether they will even bother trying.
  • Robert James Elliott
    July 21, 11 - 5:33am

    Provocative and well written article, as always. Well done.

    In defence of Christian men, the same questions could be asked about Christian women. Sure, some Christian men may fear commitment – but ask yourself first just who they are being asked to commit to, ie who is the female really and how stable or accommodating is she to a guy’s needs? I do not mean sex here but instead guy’s stuff. It cannot just be all on the man to give and endlessly accommodate.

    Even the best Christian men can find Christian women to be high maintenance and suffocating. I have known at least two Christian guys who have dated Christian women and ended up marrying secular women simply on grounds of happiness and less maintenance (or as one guy said of his new wife, “she may have a chequered past but at least she is sane, friendly and lets me watch my ultimate fighting”). Christian women too often want guys to be guitar-strumming pounces, or the male version of their gal-pals. Instead of worrying needlessly about whether guys want submissive women, just be normal and stop trying to suffocate our lives.

    Similarly, one problem many Christian women pose to Christian (or indeed any) men is that they are not clear in what they want, and expect the male to be a mind-reader. Men do not fear intimacy but they do fear chaos and unpredictability. If there was more clarity and less volatility, perhaps the guy would not run away?

    Just my view as a Christian guy.

  • Nicky Lock
    July 21, 11 - 10:26pm
    Robert - you raise some interesting questions here about our culture of masculinity and femininity in the church today. I was particularly struck with this comment:
    Christian women too often want guys to be guitar-strumming pounces

    I think we have moved on beyond the "wet fish handshake" type of guy in the church, but some of the men I speak with are uncertain how to be men in the Christian culture, particularly when set against the Aussie male culture which can be seen as a monochrome ideal. Maybe this is food for a future blog?
  • Robert James Elliott
    July 22, 11 - 4:13am

    Indeed. I suspect such a blog would have many commenters as well.

    However, I hold to the views I expressed. There is a segment of Christian women who seem to want men to be like their gal-pals. Men are always told to appreciate the uniqueness of women, which I agree with. However men also have their unique quirks as well.

    I do know two Christian guys who married not particularly Christian girls, who had previously dated Christian women. Both had similar tales regarding the maintenance issues for a Christian woman. If Christian women could just understand Christian men, rather than seek to change them, there might be some peace for both genders.

    Best wishes,

  • Ron Bennett
    July 22, 11 - 5:06am
    Hi Everyone,

    just adding a bit to my personnel experience on this matter. I think we have a problem of making relationships an idol in our lives (both men and women!). I used to listen to people on the pulpit talking about how they came to meet their respective spouses - through almost not pursing it. The respective person was focused on a ministry at the time and someone "popped up" and next thing you know they are married (very simplified version obviously).

    When we do focus on glorifying God we can see past some of the earthly issues that hold us back from a prospective partner. Some issues do require focus like whether they are saved, direction in life and children but generally most are worked out as the relationship develops.

    I find it scary that Christian men are marrying women who are not "particularly Christian" because they are worried about maintenance. The one thing we should never sacrifice in a prospective partner is salvation.
  • Robert James Elliott
    July 22, 11 - 6:11am
    Ron, I understand what you say. I cannot speak for either of the two Christian men I know except that they remain Christians and their (formerly not so Christian) wives have joined them as Churchgoers. They are also both very happily married. This is in stark contrast to their dating experiences with Christian women who drove one of them to the point of a breakdown. I guess what I am saying is that relationships are more complex than just "what is your favourite verse of Scripture?" or "how did you get saved?" etc. Not everyone has a happy experience in this department. I was merely trying to help Nicky answer her question and, as well, defend my own gender for the customary jabs by Christian women that we apparently are all pathetic and commitment-phobic. That is absurd.
  • Nicky Lock
    July 22, 11 - 7:42am
    Robert - whilst you could argue that my opening paragraph was a cheap shot at men, I hope you noticed that I corrected the gender bias in my next paragraph. I truly believe it is a problem for both genders, sometimes coming from different perspectives. There is an anxiety for both genders thinking about lifelong Christian marriage these days when decisions are being made against a historically high divorce rates. It can show up in different ways - like the long list of "essential qualities in my spouse" that was read out by a bride at a wedding I went to a few years back. Thankfully for the groom he met all 3 pages of the requirements. And maybe the two cases you are talking about, there are other issues as well with the "high maintenance women" that has nothing to do with them being Christian - they would be demanding even if they weren't? A vexed and difficult subject, but I have to agree with Rod that seeking a partner who shares one's faith is the best place to start.
  • Ron Bennett
    July 22, 11 - 8:21am
    Hi Nicky,

    it is RON by the way, not Rod :-)
  • Robert James Elliott
    July 25, 11 - 10:25pm
    Nicky, I am always sceptical of the claim of high-divorce rates, when I often wonder whether the divorces are the second and third divorces of people who quit easily on marriages. I think these statistics need to be tested. It could be that that the 1 in 3 marriages that end in divorce statistic is actually inflated because some people marry multiple times.

    As for my comments re Christian women, I know there is something to what I say, because I know Christian men who faced this quandry - do I marry a difficult Christian woman (with absurd list of 3 pages) or an easier non-Christian who loves me as I am. How would the bride feel if the man got up and discussed his 3 pages to a wedding reception and evaluated whether or not she met all his requirements? It sounds less like a love-match than buying a car or a house. The poor guy must have felt humiliated. The current dilemmas of single Christian women are NOT the fault of Christian men and it is very easy for women to run down men, knowing that most Christian men are chivalrous types who will not as easily put down the women. For some reason, men are supposed to break themselves to be all thing she wants, toil unceasingly etc, when if a man did the reverse to the woman and demanded she fit his wants/needs list, she would cry out that she is being “objectified” or whatever. Seriously, single Christian women need to reflect on their true wants, maturity and understanding of men. Best wishes, Robert
  • Nicky Lock
    July 27, 11 - 4:05am
    Amen to that, for both genders!