Confronting the fear of intimacy that causes marriage problems

Underneath so many of our marriage problems is an unconscious fear of intimacy?

‘But,’ you say, ‘I don’t have a fear of intimacy.’ 

Did I mention this fear is unconscious?

Could it be that all this extra time together is forcing you to confront your fear of intimacy?

Let’s not miss this opportunity! Let’s talk about  how to identify and disarm the fear of intimacy that causes marriage problems.

According to Imago Relationship Theory, a universal human longing is to be in connection and at the same time feel safe. 

The longing for intimacy is evident in the Romantic Stage of our relationship. 

When we start out we want to know everything about our partner, and we want our partner to know everything about us. 

During the Romantic Stage, information and energy flows into the relationship and it feels full and alive and exciting. 

But soon, intimacy requires an openness and vulnerability we’ve never experienced.

That’s when we move into the Power Struggle Stage. The power struggle happens in part because we are unwilling to be open and vulnerable with our partner. 

Deepening intimacy in a relationship takes us to an increasingly vulnerable place. That can be terrifying (that’s not too strong a word).

Because our brains are hardwired for survival, intimacy terrifies us.

I’m terrified that if I share a certain part of myself it will be rejected. So I avoid the opportunity for intimacy.

This fear comes from early childhood where we were wounded in our first experiences of connection.  As good as the best parents are, wounding still happens to all of us to some degree. 

In response to this wounding, we create certain character adaptations based on the unconscious triggered responses of fight, flight, freeze, or submit.

Then in our adult relationship, when we feel vulnerable, we use these same behaviors we learned in childhood to take ‘exits’ from the relationship.

We create ways to have a sense of ‘staying in connection’ without having to risk the danger or pain of real connection. 

That’s when the movement of energy and information that made the relationship so full and alive and exciting starts to flow away from the relationship. 

It’s also when you hear couples say things like, ‘We’re so busy with the kids, and work, and all our activities, we just don’t have time for each other any more.’ 

I don’t want to minimize stressors from the outside. There’s a reality there. Our relationship is an open system that is always being affected by outside forces.

But the real issue is not stress from the outside. It’s the fear of intimacy on the inside. 

Although we long for intimate connection, the exits we take are a result of an unconscious collusion we create with our partner to actually avoid intimacy. 

In Imago Relationship Theory we define collusion as ‘two people partnering together to create something that neither of them wants’. 

What?! That doesn’t make any sense!

Well, consider my own example.

During this crisis my wife Sandy and I  have discovered that we have ways of working together to maintain the illusion of closeness while at the same time keeping a comfortable distance in order to avoid intimacy.

We use our learned childhood attachment behaviors to be able to feel relatively safe.

I’ll get upset at Sandy, but I don’t want to talk about it.  Sandy senses the tension, and also wants to avoid it. So we decide to watch a movie.

With the help of Netflix we can go into a state of mindlessness and never bring up the thing we need to talk about.

We give each other the experience like everything’s OK, because we now have a comfortable distance between us. 

We long for a deeper sense of intimacy, but because we’re afraid…

We collude together to prevent ourselves from getting what we really want while giving ourselves what we really don’t want – a comfortable distance.

And what happens with that thing I need to talk about? Nothing. It’s stuffed where it will simmer. It stays there unresolved and it will continue to grow inside of me.

And things will get worse between us, unless we decide to deal with our fear of intimacy, close the exits, and find the deeper intimate connection we long for.

What about you? What are your exits? 

Work? Netflix?  Hobbies? The children? All exits rob your relationship. Some exits, like affairs or pornography are even more destructive.

So what do we do?

Let’s close the exits, be brave, make ourselves vulnerable and reconnect in deeper intimacy!

Imago Relationship Therapy has a wonderful tool that will help us do that. It’s called the Commitment Dialogue. Click on the link to print it out.

The Commitment Dialogue is used to identify and close ‘exits’, i.e. places where you are getting your needs met outside your relationship. 

By closing exits you make more time and energy available for your relationship. 

The Commitment Dialogue takes you through the Imago steps of Mirroring, Validating, and Empathizing which are essential to create safety where vulnerability can happen.

Then it ends with a commitment to talk your frustrations out rather than acting them out in ways that avoid intimacy and connection with your partner.

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    What to do when your marriage partner keeps “leaving the relationship”

    I’m not talking about moving out. I’m talking about taking  seemingly innocent “exits” that rob your relationship. 

    ‘Exits’ are places where you go to get your needs met outside your relationship.

    Things like hobbies, sports, computer games, the kids, work…

    or pornography, an affair, etc.

    Some ‘legitimate’, some not so.

    Whenever anything becomes a substitute for intimacy with your partner, it can drain your relationship of the energy it needs to flourish.

    Does this touch a nerve? Please read on.

    In last week’s post, Katie felt like her husband, Frank, was playing way too much golf.

    But through the Couples Dialogue, they got to the real issue in their relationship.

    Golf wasn’t the problem it was Katie’s hidden fear.

    Katie’s hidden fear was  that something would always take her place in Frank’s life.

    Their marriage experienced a breakthrough when Frank began to understand this.

    Frank began to see all Katie’s ‘nagging’ as simply a hidden desire for more closeness with him. When he finally got that, Katie’s nagging stopped. Fantastic!

    But what about Frank? What was Frank’s issue, and how did he contribute to this relationship problem?

    Turns out, playing golf was an ‘exit’ from the relationship. It was one of many ways Frank would “leave” Katie when he felt unsafe.

    In the counseling process, while Katie learned to turn her criticism into a spoken desire, Frank learned to close the exits that were robbing their relationship.

    He began to channel that energy into building an intimate partnership with Katie.

    And you can do that too.

    Here’s how  to close the ‘exits’ that are robbing your marriage.

    1. Identify your unconscious defenses

    If you met Frank you would not see any indication there was a problem. He is funny, and outgoing, and well-loved by all their friends.

    But as the Dialogue process went deeper, Frank discovered a secret about himself.

    Although Frank was super outgoing and a real ‘people person’, he was terrified of intimacy.

    Abuse suffered early in life from his father, and neglect from his mother led to a deeply ingrained belief that intimacy is painful.

    The message was, ‘If you get close to someone, you’ll end up getting hurt.’

    Frank learned to survive childhood by keeping a safe distance from everyone.

    The first step for Frank was to identify his unconscious defense strategy:

    Frank was an ‘isolator’ who would take a convenient “exit” anytime Katie would get ‘too close’.

    2. Identify ways you avoid your relationship

    Katie complained that ‘golf was the problem’, but we saw that golf wasn’t really the problem.

    It was that Katie felt like Frank was ‘leaving the relationship’. Golf was one way he did that.

    When Frank quit playing golf on the weekends, Katie was still not happy. Why?

    Frank’s ‘exit’ switched to computer games. Again, Katie felt him leaving her.

    It wasn’t until these exits were identified that a plan for change could happen.

    Katie longed for closeness, but from the very beginning of their relationship whenever she would get too close, Frank would exit.

    It was Frank’s  fear of intimacy that kept him on the run.

    And there was always an exit to be found!

    What about you? What are your exits?

    Take time to look at your activities and ask yourself, ‘Am I doing any of these things in order to avoid my relationship?’

    One husband realized that he was staying late at work, because when he would walk through the front door, a wave of depression would come over him. It was real easy to stay at work.

    When we are disconnected from our partner, anxiety can make our relationship a real downer. That’s when it’s easy to exit.

    So take time to identify your exits.

    3. Redirect energy into your relationship

    It’s important to not just close the exit. We must also find a way to redirect that energy into the relationship.

    The best way I’ve found to do that is by using ‘Caring Behaviors‘.

    A ‘Caring Behavior’ is something your partner has expressed to you that makes her or him feel loved.

    In last week’s post, Katie made a ‘Behavior Change Request’ of Frank. That request  pointed to a “Caring Behavior” – something that, when done, makes Katie feel loved.

    Her request was, ‘Next month, will you choose one weekend and plan something for us to do together?’

    When Frank gave up his weekend golf to plan a suprise weekend with Katie, it was a positive experience for them both.

    Katie felt loved, and her response made Frank feel like he could move closer to her.

    It doesn’t help to just close your exits. You must redirect that energy into the relationship in a way that works for you both. That’s when reconnection can occur.

    How about you in your relationship? Perhaps you can relate to Frank?

    Is it scary for you to think about giving up something you love on a slim chance that you might be able to make your partner feel loved?

    I can relate!

    So begin with small steps.

    There was wife who would go jogging every day at lunch, and then again after work. She learned that jogging was an exit – a way she was avoiding intimacy.

    A small step for her was to continue jogging during her lunch break, but stop jogging in the evening in order to spend that time with her husband. 

    She didn’t give up jogging altogether. She just turned some of that energy back into the relationship. They spent time using some of the Dialogue tools they were learning in therapy. It was a step in the right direction.

    Small steps…

    So closing the exits is not about giving up something. It’s about getting the love you’ve always wanted!

    Instead of leaving the relationship, identify your defenses, call your exits what they are, close them, and redirect all that good energy into your relationship.

    You’ll be glad you did!

    Need help? Reach out to me. I do coaching with couples all over the world through video conferencing.


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