Fear of Intimacy/Commitment
- Do you struggle in relationships that are defined by drama, or by the pursuit/withdraw dynamic between partners?
- Do your relationships start with intense passion, then quickly end?
- Do your long-term relationships wear you out with never-ending emotional turmoil? Do you or your partner “stir the pot” whenever things start to feel settled or do you do lots of breaking up and making up?
- Are you an “active runner” in your relationships—someone who erects barriers that block emotional intimacy between yourself and your partner?
- Or are you a “passive runner”—someone who chooses (unconsciously or consciously) partners who are somehow unavailable?
The fear of intimacy in relationships is a highly salient issue for many people today. Many individuals and couples come to counseling to change their unhealthy, unfulfilling patterns in relationships. Typically, the fear of intimacy is paired with the fear of commitment, but there are some people who enjoy the safety of a committed relationship but begin to feel uncomfortable when “things get too close.” Many relationships in which the fear of intimacy plays a role are defined by a pattern in which one partner is an “active runner” and the other partner is a “passive runner.”
The active runner:
Is usually unavailable for intimacy because of some observable, concrete reason. They may be married to someone else. They may travel all the time or live out-of-state. They may verbally say, “I’m not ready for a relationship.” They may still be getting over their last relationship. They may have obvious issues such as an abusive or narcissistic personality, sex addiction, an inability to effectively manage life’s basics such as finances, or problems with drugs or alcohol that make them clearly unavailable for an intimate relationship. The active runner typically sets the hard boundaries in a relationship, either with their words, with obvious actions, or with their life circumstances. Active runners typically hold much of the control and overt power in their relationships, and they often covertly demand emotional adulation from their partners. They tend to be intolerant of “relationship rules,” requests for compromise, or anything that makes them feel tied down–such as making a joint purchase or planning a future vacation. Active runners typically do the breaking up, and they often return to partners they know they still have “on the hook” for another go-round. They sometimes have a string of failed relationships or angry ex-partners in their past.
The passive runner:
Often “finds them self” in relationships with people who are somehow unavailable. They are attracted (often unconsciously) to distant partners and may always feel like they are chasing unrequited love, or that if they just work harder their current partner will come around and deliver the love they know is there. Passive runners know what it feels like to have a broken heart, and have usually had this experience more than once. When offered real intimacy in relationships passive runners tend to lose the spark; they feel bored, uneasy, or turned-off; or they feel a sense of being entrapped and needing to escape. Partners who are emotionally available are often perceived as scary, needy, or too intense. From the outside—to friends and family—passive runners often appear to get the short end of the stick in their relationships. “They try so hard and they were so good to their partner, but it just never seems to work out.” Passive runners often feel most free to be emotionally vulnerable and to shower their partners with love when they know on some level that the relationship will not result in emotional intimacy.
What really defines people with passive conflicts is that they say (and believe) they want a close relationship, but they consistently pick unavailable partners and are often excruciatingly disappointed when things don’t work out. While active runners rarely say that they want a committed, intimate relationship, their actions are often seductive and they tend to start relationships with a guns-blazing, highly charismatic, take-no-prisoners style. They also tend to end relationships as soon as things get “too close” or “too messy.”
Most people who have some fear of intimacy have both active and passive conflicts. In one relationship you may be the active runner—running from your partners availability—while in the next you may be a passive runner—chasing someone you feel confident will never really turn toward you. In a long-term relationship partners may eventually switch roles or they may oscillate back and forth.
These patterns wear people out, and they can be incredibly painful. Relationships in which the fear of intimacy or commitment plays a major role tend to end badly. Often, one partner will simply give up without much communication, usually at a time when the relationship seemed to be heading toward the “next level.” This is because intimate/commitment-phobic relationships are all about Act I. They are about the passion, the romance, and the veneer of something special—but the fear of closeness prevents them from having much substance under this initial addictive layer. Sometimes couples can drag Act I out for years—with drama, breakups and makeups, and pursuit and withdrawal–they manage to keep the emotional intensity high enough to stave off both boredom and intimacy. This rollercoaster ride comes at a high price though, and people exiting these relationships typically report that the relationship had sapped most of their energy and had overwhelmed the rest of their life. People leaving these relationships may move directly on to another partner with no shared grieving. They may attempt to rewrite the history of their relationship to justify their actions.
If you have begun to recognize your patterns in relationships and would like to change them, I can help you to stand on your own two feet and make better relationship choices in the future. In counseling we can explore your patterns and how these are connected to your history. We can also explore what you want in a relationship that you’re not getting, and I can help you to pay better attention to your own internal warning system when you are in the initial stages of considering a relationship. I will encourage you to gather as much information as you can about your patterns and bring this information to discuss in therapy. There are several good books out there about the pursuit/withdraw dynamic and the fear of intimacy and commitment in relationships.
If you’d like reading recommendations or would like to work together on these issues in therapy, email me or give me a call.
Phone: (503) 757-6259
3050 SE Division, Suite 260, Portland, OR (In the ‘D Street’ building.)