Intimacy Avoidance 101 (or 8 signs that you may be secretly sabotaging intimacy in order to avoid it)
I hear it all the time from my single friends; I used to hear it from myself too until I finally figured out what was going on with me. It’s part of what makes us human – we’re wired for connection, after all - and it’s why we’re here. It’s what drives the growth of internet dating, and meet ups, and matchmaking and blind dates.
“I just really want a relationship”
But do you?
There is a real pattern of behaviour that suggests that whilst people may want a ‘relationship’, what they most certainly do not want is intimacy. Despite dating, and having ‘relationships’, there is certain behaviour that sabotages this and prevents any real hope of being known and knowing someone else.
I define intimacy as ‘truly knowing someone, and allowing them to know you’. You can be intimate with others, with yourself (how well do you really know yourself?) and also with God or a higher power if that’s your thing. To know and be known requires openness and vulnerability – but at the same time appropriate boundaries. It is a dance to decide when and what to let in and out. It is of course shades of grey (pun definitely intended), and not always obvious. According to Pia Mellody, there is physical intimacy, both sexual and affectionate, as well as emotional and intellectual. How we listen and talk about ourselves and our needs are critical in developing intimacy. It doesn’t just apply to romantic relationships either. If you are single, you can start cultivating a habit of intimacy with friends and relations, learning when to talk, to listen; when to touch; how to share your story and your needs. Some of my best friendships, both male and female, are because we created a safe space in which we could intimately share our needs and desires, our fears. Whereas I have been in many romantic relationships which were based on banter, sex and drinking. Fun maybe, but not remotely intimate. Plus of course, there are very many long term relationships out there, which are completely free of intimacy, where one or both parties are incredibly lonely. There is no lonelier place than not being known in a relationship.
So what might you be doing to prevent intimacy from developing? Well, it happens even before you’ve started dating:-
The One - This is where it starts, this pernicious, nonsensical delusion that out there in the universe lies our one and only true soulmate. I’m going to say this in big letters now in case of any mis-understandings:
‘THE ONE’ DOES NOT EXIST.
Going through life looking for ‘The One’ pretty much stops any intimacy in its tracks. There is only ever ‘The One Right Now’. That girl you’re dating, who you tell all your friends “She’s not the one, but she’ll do for now”? Well, she is The One because that’s the one you are with right now. When we believe we’re not with the The One, we think “why bother getting to know him”. We prevent intimacy from developing by not allowing them to know us, or us them. We either continue seeing them (we don’t want to be alone, or it’s convenient sex, or whatever) or we break up with them. We have never developed any intimacy and we do not truly know this person. And without allowing intimacy to develop, without knowing them, or them knowing you, you really are in no position to judge if someone is right for you. You know, of course, that throughout your life, you could be intimate with, and in relationship with, many lovely, wonderful, beautiful people. How fabulous is that? Why limit yourself to The One? How about The Many?
The Checklist – Let’s be honest here. Who has a type? Blonde? Athletic? Must be good at banter? I used to have a ridiculously long list of things “I was looking for in a man” (the word ‘kind’ appeared an embarrassingly long way down the list). So what’s wrong with criteria or being specific in the kind of people we want to be in a relationship with? Well, everyone you meet you are judging according to these criteria. It might not be conscious, but comparing and judging is what you are doing. When we judge, we don’t give the other person the chance to be known, as they are. Intimacy cannot develop if we do not allow ourselves to be known – and to know others. This is the cornerstone of intimacy, and in checking off against a list, you have already sabotaged it. It feeds into the ‘why bother’ scenario similar to The One (you also cannot believe in The One and not have some kind of sub conscious checklist hidden away). Like belief in The One, checklists keep our hearts closed and our walls up; we are not open to getting to know people who don’t come up to measure. Not only does this prevent intimacy, it can also prevent a very real lovely relationship right now with someone you may have written off. Put the checklist in the trash RIGHT NOW and never look at it again. Practice talking to and meeting people you would never normally consider; maybe even go on a date with some of them. I am not saying sleep with them, or have a long term relationship with them, but perhaps just start to open your heart with a conversation.
(N.B A checklist is NOT the same as Angry’s Non Negotiables. Not wanting a partner who hits you, or wanting a relationship with a partner who is open to intimacy, are healthy, boundaried, requirements for yourself to grow and be safe. See my forthcoming article on Likes v Wants in a couple of weeks)
The Knight in Shining Armour – A friend of mine regularly utters sentences such as ‘my life will be so much better when I have a girlfriend”. As I discussed in the article on Power and Responsibility, when you believe such statements, when you think that someone is going to ride magically into your life and rescue you, you give up a lot of personal power to this person. Whilst this is unhelpful in itself, it also prevents intimacy through not allowing you to be known. When you relinquish power, you operate from a position of fear: what if they go off me? What if they don’t like what I’m wearing? What if we don’t agree on everything? You then start to control how far you’re willing to let them know you, you start to hide things. This smacks intimacy right in the face with a boundary like a wall. At the same time, you may also cling to your partner. Your reliance on them, now that you’ve given them all your power, means that you now communicate your needs with no thought of boundaries. No consideration for how they may not want to, or be able to, take on all your needs. This destroys intimacy by pushing your partner away. Belief in the Knight in Shining Armour is a contract you make with the partner who plays this role: I need you to look after me and all will be well. Love and intimacy are not about contracts. They are about knowing and nothing prevents knowing like fear and powerlessness. Pia Mellody calls this belief in being rescued ‘Love Addiction’; it is a “dis-ease” stemming from childhood trauma and it precludes any attempt at real intimacy.
The Serial Dater – if intimacy is knowing others and being known, then it makes sense that this takes time to develop. It requires an intention to know someone. This means you have to spend considerable time with someone, to allow trust to build up, to be able to open up and be vulnerable. This is very unlikely to happen in 3-4 dates’ time, which is often the point when infant relationships start to become more serious, or end. Three to four dates! How on earth can you know someone in that time? You may not even have been physical by this point (and in fact almost every dating advisor, psychologist and spiritual guide has said, if you are looking for long term love and intimacy, do NOT sleep with a date for 4-6 weeks. I’ll leave that there for discussion!).
Obviously, you can’t really know someone after this short period of time. You can know if you would like to spend more time with them. I am not saying stick it out with someone you’re dating if you really don’t like them. What I am saying, is not to become a serial dater, whereby you do 3-4 dates, you decide they’re not The One, or they don’t meet The Checklist, or they’re not your Knight in Shining Armour – and then move onto the next person on Tindr, or that girl you chat to at the gym. I am saying to always do a second date unless the first one was really horrific. If you’re ‘not sure’ (and we all know the ‘not sure’ feeling), then see the person again. And then again if you have to. It will become clear as you get to know them, and them you, if this thing is going to work out.
Internet dating is particularly good at allowing intimacy avoidance. First off, it even has a Checklist that you fill in, which it then runs through its algorithm! Great! Only people who meet the criteria are selected for you (thereby proving what a load of crap The Checklist is, when you finally meet one of these carefully selected people only to discover that whilst they may be athletic, blonde, good at banter, love yoga and are a lawyer, they are also narrow minded, have terrible energy, live miles away and drink too much - and they checked the ‘drink rarely’ box; annoying). Second, the sheer number of those who meet The Checklist criteria cultivates a really bad case of ‘Plenty More Fish in the Sea’ (and yes, there is actually a dating app called this). Why bother being intentional towards your date, to get to know them, to invest time in them, when if they don’t immediately set your heart racing, you can bin them and move onto Joe from Clapham. Or Mark from Earls Court. Or Greg from Islington (actually, no, not him, Islington is miles away).
Internet dating, like rock climbing, clubbing at Pacha, yoga retreats, cycling and running clubs, the local pub, AA meetings (not kidding), meetup.com, night school, Sunday soccer leagues, church and temple, the workplace, the supermarket, is just another place to meet people. And it’s really good at that. But it’s got a built in Intimacy Destroying Function that is all too easy to use if you’re not mindful and intentional about getting to know people – and being known. Proceed with caution and an open heart.
‘Bonding’ with Booze – In my article on drinking I spoke about a realisation I had about connection when I started to drink less: I learned that the thing we do to improve our connections to others actually doesn’t work. Unfortunately, we use alcohol to make dating tolerable, to help us through the vulnerability that is required to get to know someone – and be known. To help us lower those walls we’ve built up around us.
Being drunk destroys your ability to connect and relate with others, even if at the time you feel you’ve bonded over a big night out, or it’s enabled you to share parts of yourself that normally you wouldn’t. This is fake intimacy; it feels real, but it isn’t. In order to truly connect you have to be present, here in the moment, truly engaged in what the other person is saying to you. And if you are drunk, then by definition you are not present, you’re not even in the same room.
I’m not saying to not drink when dating. But if this is how you get to know someone, if this is your MO, if your usual pattern to go meet someone on a date, get plastered, say something you didn’t mean, or take them home and regret it the next day – and if this happens on a regular basis? Then it might be time for a second look. If your relationships revolve around booze, if drinking and partying are the main thing you and your partner have in common, then there is even less chance of intimacy developing in the long term. One day you’ll wake up cold sober and realise how little you really know about the person who has been lying next to you for the past two years.
Walls and Spewing – developing intimacy isn’t open heart surgery, despite all the calls for open heartedness. You are not required to lay yourself bare immediately, without an anaesthetic – although that may come with time, when trust and tolerance for vulnerability have been built up. Even then, intimacy absolutely requires boundaries. We use boundaries to keep us safe during the process of opening up to one another. How much to give, to let in, to share; about our body, our thoughts and feelings, at any given point in time. Boundaries will be different throughout the stages of a relationship and on any given day. Cultivation of your own boundaries is essential in letting people know you, and in knowing others; it builds your Safe Container, in Angry speak. As I was taught in Therapy School “the more boundaried the relationship, the greater freedom there is”.
However, get boundaries wrong and then it’s a sure fire way to sabotage intimacy. I’m sure we all know people who don’t have boundaries, who cannot moderate their behaviour, who let it all hang out regardless of the appropriateness of the moment or the person – who quite literally ‘spew’ out their stuff at you. Nothing will push someone away more than putting all your crap onto them, when it’s not right to do so, or without their permission. If your partner’s mother has died before her time, and they had a close relationship, you are going to have firm up your boundaries so they are rock solid so that you can help take on and support your partner in their grief; they could well spew all kinds of emotions all over you as they come to terms with what’s happened. That’s OK, this is a tough situation and it is an act of pure love to be there for them. But if you come home every night to your partner who is having usual office drama and politics at work, but whom spews out all their frustrations at you, makes it your problem to help them? This is likely to get old fast.
Similarly, we also know people who seem to live behind a wall. They may reside there permanently, or perhaps they withdraw behind it in time of conflict or difficulty. My tolerance of conflict is not great, and if someone comes at me I will withdraw, or run away. My dad was similar, and I know many men who operate in this way. Having someone leave the room physically or energetically when you are trying to communicate your needs makes intimacy very difficult. As the requestor, you can moderate how you ask your request so as not to scare off the conflict avoider. As conflict avoider, you need to work on increasing your tolerance of difficult situations. Intimacy will struggle to flourish without this work.
Banter – A friend who recently got married confided that one of the things he loved about his new wife was their banter; that when they were old aged pensioners, maybe in a home or sick, he was hopeful that at least they would be able to make each other laugh. And he’s right. Being able to laugh, share a sense of humour, flirt, and be playful and light with someone is an important element in a relationship.
However, banter is also a really useful device for hiding your true self. I cannot tell you the number of dates or dinners I’ve sat through where I have wanted to take the conversation in a different direction, to start to get under someone’s covers. Not so much with a serious discussion, but maybe encouraging them to tell me part of their story: college days, or travelling for example. Only to be met with a series of jokes or quips; or some sarcastic remark, have it thrown back in my face; to have my question made fun of or belittled. It’s does nothing to encourage me to get to know them, it is probably one of the biggest turn offs there is, especially in a group setting. Why make me look stupid because you can’t cope with being even the tiniest bit vulnerable? I know that this behaviour is because of fear: of being vulnerable, of opening up, of being known. So you can see how too much banter, or banter in the wrong place is pretty much going to shut down any who attempts at getting to know each other, of allowing intimacy to develop.
I dated a guy who batted away any attempt on my part to either open up to him or get him to open up. We were hilarious together and we made each other laugh a lot, and he would be great company in that old people’s home, but beyond that, there was nothing. He was recovering from a previous relationship and wasn’t in a position to open up as he was still healing.
The TLO - Now would probably be a good time to mention the concept of the Transitional Love Object (TLO), sometimes known as the Rebound, Getoverit Girl or Bounce Back Boy. In recovery from an expired relationship, it is common and sometimes useful to ‘get under someone to get over someone’, and this ‘getting under’ can often take the form of a relationship. Whilst it’s helpful for the person recovering, it can be devastating for the person being used as TLO. The use of the rather clinical term of TLO is deliberate as it is designed not to colour the relationship in anyway other than what it is – a useful device to help the other person feel better and move on. This relationship is not designed for intimacy, it is not designed to really get to know someone. The degree of vulnerability for this to happen is likely to be just too difficult for the recovering person right now. This is their training wheels. Why are they practising with you?
If you routinely find yourself being the TLO for someone else, having relationship after relationship where intimacy is impossible, you might want to look at what draws you towards these people who are, quite simply, unable to give you intimacy at this time. Is there something in your sub conscious which means you are attracted to emotionally unavailable people over and over again? Does intimacy frighten you? Do you not think you deserve it?
Full disclosure: I’ve been the TLO a couple of times, once willingly and once when I was too naïve to realise what was happening. However, I have since resolved not to be a TLO again, I want the real thing. I also dated one guy who was either behind a wall, or spewing his shit all over me, often when drunk; but he was also, occasionally, open, honest and vulnerable. It was these glimpses of knowing him that kept me hooked in for much longer than I should have been. He wanted me to help him, that was my job in our relationship, I was the Knight in Shining Armour, there to rescue him. We had a lot of fun partying, the banter was hilarious. There was no intimacy.
I left him.
For further reading on intimacy and boundaries, I recommend ‘The Intimacy Factor’ by Pia Mellody