[Not sure you do or don’t have a fear of intimacy? Read our popular article, “7 Surprising Reasons You Fear Intimacy”.]
Where does a fear of relationships come from?
It’s rarely our well-thought out explanations for avoiding relationships that are our true reasons. For these you need to dive into your unconscious mind, where you will find the set of assumptions you have made about yourself, others, and the world known as your core beliefs.
Unless we take the time to discover and change these hidden beliefs, they quietly dictate the way we live our lives and each decision we make. If you avoid relationships or sabotage any you attempt, your core beliefs might sound something like:
love is dangerous
I don’t need anybody
It’s better to avoid love because it hurts
I don’t deserve love.
But how did you end up with a set of core beliefs like this?
We are not born terrified of love. You don’t see a newborn baby backing off when it is put into a mother’s arms.
A fear of connection, care, and love is something we learned. And it tends to goes back to childhood experiences that essentially programmed us to shut down to such things.
Yes, in some cases, it might just be a recent bad breakup that has you afraid of letting someone else in. We do need time to heal. But if this is a pattern in your life, with relationships always going wrong and leaving you shattered, then it is still likely childhood issues at play.
How do past experiences lead to fear of relationships?
Trauma causes a child to feel so unsafe in the world he or she learnsdefensive behaviours, like hiding their true thoughts and feelings and always being on the lookout for danger.
These defensive behaviours might help you survive the rest of your childhood. But unless you seek support to work through your trauma, they also leave you more likely to grow up to be an adult out of touch with yourself, who sees many things as ‘threats’ to protect yourself against. This includes love and intimacy.
But I didn’t experience trauma. So why am I afraid of relationships?
Attachment theory is an area of psychology that has found that for a child to grow up into a healthy adult, he or she needs to be able to trust at least one adult to love and care for them no matter what, helping them feel safe and comforted if they are distressed.
A lack of attachment means we don’t complete important parts of psychological development. These parts are known as bonding and separation.
Bonding is when as a child you develop a sense that you can trust others. It hopefully starts at birth, and involves being nurtured and held and encouraged.
Separation means that by about aged three you are ready to physically and emotionally separate from your primary caretaker with the confidence that the world is a safe place and you are strong enough to navigate it.
Without bonding or healthy separation, the child will grow up into an adult with troubles trusting other adults to love and care for them, called ‘attachment issues’. They are also more likely to develop a personality disorder.
What sorts of parenting leaves you with attachment issues?
Let’s look at a few examples of parenting that can leave a child with attachment issues.
Unreliable parenting happens when a parent is moody and inconsistent. Perhaps they were suffering from extreme stress, mental illness, or addiction, leaving them mentally and emotionally unavailable. The child does not know if or when a parent will be supportive. They often resort to taking care of and pleasing the parent, burying any of their emotions that are not peace-keeping.
Unreliable parenting can see you grow up to have ‘anxious attachment’ in relationships. You want love, but the anxiety it causes you results in things like a push-pull pattern or avoiding relationships entirely.
Critical, controlling, and shaming parents can be very intolerant of their children having different ideas and feelings than them. This can look like such feedback as ‘don’t be a baby’, ‘big boys don’t cry’, ‘only bad children get angry’, ‘it’s hard for me to love you when you behave so badly’. You might learn to hide anything you perceive as ‘weak’ within yourself.
Critical and controlling parenting can leave you an adult keeping everyone at arm’s length over allowing them close enough to see that you are not perfect. Or perhaps you have become the criticiser, so hard on yourself and others nobody can get close. This is called the ‘avoidant attachment’.
As you can see, parenting that leads to attachment issues rotates around a child feeling rejected or punished for wanting love and attention, instead of accepted and loved no matter what they think and feel.
I understand now why I have a fear of relationships. But what do I do?
A fear of relationships and love tends to be deep-rooted, so there is no ‘quick fix’ to changing it. On the other hand, with a commitment to self-development and leaving your comfort zone, you can and will see real improvements.
Self-help can be a great start. Reading articles like this, books about love and intimacy, or going to workshops and support groups is useful. But many people find that to break their deeply entrenched patterns of pushing others away they need professional support.