When You’re Terrified Of Intimacy

I have a soft spot in my heart for people who both crave and fear intimacy. And I especially feel tender towards couples or besties who have disparities in their tolerance for intimacy. It’s a simple fact that some people grow up with good enough parents in loving enough families and wind up wired for secure attachment, while others grow up terrified of the very people who are supposed to love them and struggle with insecure attachment.

Commonly, securely attached people seek out other securely attached people, and insecurely attached people find each other. But less commonly, someone with relatively secure attachment partners up with someone who is absolutely hell bent on pushing intimacy away at all costs. This can make for some confusing dynamics between two people- since deep down, we all want to be close, to be loved, to be unconditionally accepted in spite of all our flaws.

Severe trauma survivors tend to have upside down compasses when it comes to attracting the right people. They feel safe around unsafe, exploitative or abusive people (who feel safe because they’re not capable of intimacy but might be capable of all kinds of retraumatizing behaviors.) And they feel unsafe around safe people (because safe people tend to expect more intimacy and be capable of more love, which terrifies severe trauma survivors.) This makes for a confusing dance of intimacy, and tends to lead to one heartbreak after another, as the people capable of intimacy are pushed away and the people incapable of intimacy are kept safely at arm’s length.

The upcoming workshop my partner Jeffrey Rediger and I are teaching PREPARE YOUR HEART TO LOVE AGAIN touches up this issue and is something we struggle with personally.

Nervous System Privilege

I’m always hesitant to compare people’s trauma loads- because doing so gets slippery slope close to suggesting that those with higher trauma burdens might be in any way “less than” those with a less severe trauma history. So assuming I’m not suggesting that any human is in any way less than or more than anyone else, let’s unpack what happens when people with significant differences in their trauma burdens try to get close.

The person with the lower trauma burden, who might have had more securely attached, healthy intimate relationships and better boundaries growing up, is likely to be much more comfortable getting emotionally or physically close to someone else- and much more capable of both holding their own boundaries and containing themselves so they don’t inadvertently cross over the boundaries of others.

If someone had parents who shattered their boundaries, the child is the victim. It’s not their fault. But when they grow into adults who tend to perpetrate boundary violations against others (and invite in those who will violate their boundaries because of their confusion over who is safe vs. dangerous), it IS their responsibility to get help and learn better boundaries.

It can be a real challenge when one person in a relationship has relative “nervous system privilege” compared to the other. (Hat tip to Steph Jagger for coining that term.) When one person has an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) score of 8, for example, and the other has an ACE score of 1, there’s bound to be some challenges. Safe, healthy intimacy requires clear, intact boundaries and equally shared power dynamics. Without boundaries and healthy reciprocity, the only way two people grow close is to fuse or enmesh. Enmeshment is not intimacy; it’s boundaryless or it’s walled off- or both. Without good boundaries keeping two people separate enough to be safe, it is impossible to get close and still be safe enough to avoid controlling or being controlled.

Many boundary wounded people don’t realize that you can’t love safely, you can’t practice intimacy deeply, and you can’t assess compatibility accurately without clear, caring, flexible, but firm boundaries. If you don’t know where your “Hell yeah” and your “Fuck no” live- in your preferences, in the details of your life, in your passion and your wounds, and in your body- it’s hard to sustain real loving, safe, intimate relationships. If you’re clear on your non-negotiables, then you can be so much freer to negotiate all kinds of other more fluid boundaries that allow for deep, safe, trusting, loving intimacy, whether with a romantic partner, family members, friends, or even close colleagues.

But when you or your partner are boundaryless- or when you or your partner substitute walls for boundaries- getting close means getting all tied up in each other’s shoelaces. And especially if one of you had unsafe, intrusive, boundary-violating invasion during childhood- such as violent child abuse, sexual abuse, or a coercively controlling parent- enmeshment is going to feel legitimately terrifying. Because it was scary back then- and we were too little to protect ourselves. Our parts that are stuck in the past don’t realize things might be safer now, so we struggle with the adaptations that helped us survive but may now be sabotaging our relationships.

Without boundaries, real healthy intimacy- where there’s separateness but still with open-hearted closeness- is not on the menu. The best you’ll get is two people protecting themselves- with their adaptations fumbling around.

Prepare Your Heart To Love Again

The good news is that nervous systems are neuroplastic, which means you can heal from past wounds around attachment and intimacy. Whether you’re currently single and considering getting back out in the dating ring, or whether you’re in a relationship with a partner, family, or friends where attachment issues are keeping you from the healthy connection we all desire, healing trauma can help.

If you’re interested in exploring what it might take to heal attachment wounding and make it possible to be closer to safe attachments you might not yet trust, you’re invited to an online Zoom class PREPARE YOUR HEART TO LOVE AGAIN with me and my partner Jeffrey Rediger, MD, MDiv, a Harvard psychiatrist and author of CURED.

Learn more and register for Prepare Your Heart To Love Again

You can also learn more about your attachment styles and take free quizzes at The Attachment Project.