One of the first questions I ask my clients is “What is it that stops you from getting what you want out of a relationship?” Notice I don’t ask them “What do you think your partner should do?” During this part of our conversation they often bring up societal standards or their family’s expectations. Surprisingly most of the individuals I counsel answer, “I’m not sure.” My response to that is that it’s time to examine their fear of intimacy and the ways they might be sabotaging their relationships.
So what can you do if you are paralyzed by fear or unable to risk being vulnerable with your partner? First, you need to acknowledge it. Fear doesn’t go away by itself – it tends to morph into something else. Do you sometimes find that you sabotage yourself in relationships?
Many people fear getting hurt emotionally and might flee a relationship or engage in some form of self-protective behavior. This reaction can limit them by fostering a pessimistic attitude about the future. For many of us, pain is what we know. Conflict is comfortable. Dealing with an unavailable man is our wheelhouse. A man who wants nothing more than to be with us and make us a top priority is alien.
The truth is that an unconscious fear of rejection and/or fear of engulfment can cause a person to sabotage a relationship – even though they believe they are available or engaged. Relationship expert Margaret Paul, Ph.D. writes “Since people attract each other at their common level of woundedness or their common level of health, an unavailable person’s fear of commitment likely mirrors your fear of commitment.” For many, a fear of intimacy may translate into testing a relationship by picking a partner who is wrong for you or playing it safe by distancing yourself.
Do you find yourself falling into one or all of the following relationship patterns?
- Avoiding confronting your partner about important issues or sharing negative feelings with him because you fear his disapproval?
- Ignoring red flags such as dishonesty, possessiveness, or jealous tendencies?
- Falling into the trap of people pleasing such as worrying more about your partner’s feelings than your own?
- Pursuing a partner who is distant even though you know deep down inside that they will never meet your emotional needs?
The vast majority of the women that I’ve interviewed for my book Love We Can Be Sure Of describe themselves as independent, steadfast, loyal and conscientious. They are hardworking, trustworthy, and self-reliant – and pride themselves on these traits. They may feel self-assured and autonomous – confident they can take care of themselves while others can’t. The truth is that self-reliance is a double-edged sword. While it has many virtues, extreme self-reliance can rob women of true intimacy and the type of partnerships they deserve.
A striking brunette in her late twenties, Rachel provides an example of a woman who learned to be self-reliant due to her family of origin. Crime, infidelity, and drug abuse broke apart Rachel’s family and robbed her of a father figure. With passion in her voice, Rachel says, “I still have to take care of me. I feel like I never want to depend on anyone because that’s what my mom did, and look what happened to her.” Rachel’s comments reflect her determination to succeed as well as her strong desire to protect herself from heartbreak. She expects to lose and had become accustomed to losing.
For a relationship to be balanced, partners must be able to depend on one another and feel they are needed and appreciated for support they give. If you have been let down in the past, the prospect of needing someone can be frightening. You may fear depending on your partner but may not be aware of the source of it. Achieving interdependence in a relationship is possible but takes time and intention.
It’s unfortunate that we often equate vulnerability with weakness. In her landmark book Daring Greatly, Dr. Brené Brown defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Given this definition, the act of falling in love is the ultimate risk. Love is uncertain. It’s inherently risky because our partner could leave us at a moment’s notice, betray us, or stop loving us.
Steps to Letting Love Into Your Life
While all relationships present us with risks, they are risks worth taking. The following steps will help you on your journey to being more open to letting love into your life:
- Visualize yourself in an honest and open relationship and work toward allowing yourself to be more vulnerable with a partner.
- Determine if your reaction to flee a relationship is grounded in reality. If it’s extreme, pinpoint the source of it and examine your thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs.
- Challenge your beliefs and self-defeating thoughts about your self-worth. You don’t need to prove anything to another person about your worth.
- Notice your self-judgments because they are a main source of self-sabotage. Be kind and compassionate toward yourself.
- Remind yourself daily that it’s healthy to accept help from others and a sign of strength rather than weakness. Developing interdependence with a partner will allow you to become more intimate with them.
- Don’t let your fear of rejection stop you from achieving trusting, intimate relationships. Surrender your shield and let others in.
Take a moment to consider that you might be sabotaging relationship after relationship if you don’t get beyond your fear of being vulnerable. Your fear of showing weakness or exposing yourself to others, for instance, might be preventing you from being totally engaged in an intimate relationship. You may be freezing out the opportunity for love because you are fearful of sharing your inner most thoughts, feelings, and wishes.