NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Connection Between Fear of Intimacy and Unresolved Trauma

People who are afraid of being emotionally intimate in relationships often avoid placing themselves in situations where they're fearful of getting hurt.  This fear can take many different forms (see my articles: Relationships: Fear of Being Emotionally VulnerableAn Emotional Dilemma: Wanting and Dreading Love, How Ongoing Ambivalence Can Ruin Your Relationship and Overcoming the Fear of Falling In Love and Getting Hurt).

Are You Afraid of Being Emotionally Intimate in Relationships?

Many people, who tend to fear emotional intimacy in relationships, do well during the initial stage of the relationship--until the relationship becomes more emotionally and sexually intimate.  Once the relationship becomes more intimate, their core fears, which are often based on earlier childhood experiences, get triggered.

For people who become fearful in an intimate relationship, the discomfort often involves fear of loss or fear of getting hurt: Their partner might leave them, the partner might cheat or the partner might hurt them in some way that will be emotionally devastating for them.

If the fear is overwhelming, these people often lose perspective and leave the relationship abruptly before they've had a chance to try to be objective about their fears and before their partner can address their concerns (see my article: Fear of Abandonment: Leaving Your Relationship Abruptly Because You're Afraid of Being Abandoned and How Your Shifting Self States Affect You For Better or Worse).

Some people who are especially fearful avoid being in relationships altogether.  After a few hurtful experiences, they rationalize their avoidance of relationships by projecting their fears onto others (see my article: Discovering That Your Feelings Aren't Facts).

Examples of this are women who say, "All men are dogs who cheat, so why should I even bother to get into another relationship with a man?" or men who say, "Women can't be trusted. They're spiteful and vengeful.  That's why I don't want to be bothered with being in a relationship."

Often, these distorted beliefs are so firmly held and ingrained that it's hard to counter them.  People will often cite their experiences of one relationship after another where they were hurt by other people.  What's missing from these rationalizations is that they kept unconsciously choosing people who weren't trustworthy.

Fictional Vignette About Fear of Being Emotionally Intimate in Relationships
The following fictional vignette is an example of fear of being emotionally intimate in a relationship and how this issue can get resolved in psychotherapy:

Cassie, who was in her late 30s, came to therapy because she was becoming increasingly fearful of getting hurt in her relationship with Jim.

At the point when Cassie came to therapy, she and Jim were dating for about a year.

According to Cassie, things were going well during the first eight months or so.  But when Jim began talking about taking the relationship to the next level, moving in together, Cassie began feeling overwhelmed with fear.

During the times when Cassie could be more objective, she recognized that she was "looking for things" in terms of how Jim might hurt her.

When she could be more objective, she knew that she was overreacting to things that weren't really a big deal (e.g., Jim arrived 10 minutes late for their date because he was held up in traffic; he was moody with her after he had a tough day at work, and so on).

During her more objective moments, Cassie didn't think that Jim was cheating on her or that he wasn't trying to intentionally hurt her.  But when she was emotionally triggered, her fear was so great that all she could think about was getting out of the relationship to protect herself.

Sometimes, when she felt especially vulnerable, Cassie would tell Jim that she no longer wanted to be in a relationship with him.

After a few hours of feeling a sense of relief, Cassie would realize that she made a mistake, panic that she wouldn't be able to get Jim back and that she would be alone for the rest of her life, and then she would call Jim and ask him to forgive her.

The first few times that this happened, Jim was compassionate.  He understood that Cassie was afraid and he took her back.  But when this continued to happen, Jim was losing his patience.  He suggested that she get help in therapy or their relationship might not survive.

Cassie told her psychotherapist that she had a chaotic childhood with her parents constantly separating and getting back together.  

She described her father as an "alcoholic philanderer" and her mother as "a martyr" who kept taking the father back despite his many broken promises (see my articles: Adults Who Were Traumatized as Children Are Often Afraid to Feel All Their Feelings - Part 1 and Adults Who Were Traumatized as Children Are Often Afraid to Feel All Their Feelings - Part 2).

Cassie said that, from a young age, she vowed never to be like her mother and never to choose a man like her father.

Her first relationship at age 18 was with a man who was 10 years older than her.  Before she knew him well, she moved in with him so she could get out of her parents' home.

That relationship only lasted a few months because Cassie discovered that he was an active alcoholic and emotionally abusive.  Having no other choice, Cassie moved back in with her parents and she was miserable until she met the next man who became her boyfriend.

Cassie described one relationship after the other where she was with men who were emotionally abusive and untrustworthy.

In her more objective moments, Cassie recognized that Jim was the most stable man she had ever dated.  But her fears of getting hurt were so great that she would lose sight of this when she got emotionally triggered.

Cassie's therapist began by helping Cassie to learn how to recognize when she was getting triggered and how to calm herself before she took any action that she would regret.

Her therapist also helped Cassie to recognize that there was a more vulnerable part of her that took over when she felt afraid, but it was only one part of her (see my article: Understanding the Different Aspects of Yourself That Make You Who You Are).

They worked in therapy with this more vulnerable part, which stemmed from Cassie's chaotic childhood experiences by doing Ego States work.

Eventually, when Cassie was able to regulate her emotions more, they did EMDR therapy to work through the earlier trauma that was getting triggered (see my articles: What is EMDR Therapy? and EMDR Therapy: When Talk Therapy Isn't Enough).

The work in therapy was neither quick nor easy for Cassie, but she could see that she was making progress after a while and so could Jim.

Many people are fearful of being emotionally intimate in relationships primarily due to earlier childhood experiences and their unconscious choices of unhealthy relationship (see my article: Choosing Healthier Romantic Relationships).

The work in therapy usually starts by helping the client to regulate their emotions so they're able to calm themselves, get a more objective perspective and stop acting precipitously in their relationships (see my article: Developing Internal Resources and Coping Strategies).

This helps them to get off the emotional roller coaster where they are breaking up, regretting it and then asking to get back together again.

It's important for people who are afraid of being emotionally intimate to recognize that their fear, although overwhelming at the time, involves a part of them and not the whole (this applies when there is no objective reason to believe that the partner is untrustworthy).

Once the client recognizes that it's an aspect of him or herself that is getting triggered, the therapist can work with that part .

Along the way, if all is going well in therapy, the client becomes more emotionally stable and less likely to act on fearful emotions when there's no objective reason to do so.

At that point, assuming the client is emotionally ready to do so, the therapist can help the client to work through the core traumatic issues from the past that are getting triggered in the present (see my article: Overcoming Trauma: When the Past is in the Present).

One of the advantages of using EMDR therapy is that it has a three-pronged approach for dealing with trauma in the past, present and future.

Getting Help in Therapy
If this article resonates with you, you could benefit from getting help from a licensed mental health professional who has experience working with trauma (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

A skilled psychotherapist can help you to work through your fears so that you're able to have healthier relationships and a more meaningful life (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I have helped many clients to work through emotional trauma.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.