We often think — or like to think — that love happens naturally, organically — effortlessly.
In some ways, this is true. We don’t always have agency over whom we fall for. The object of your affections may even surprise you — I swear this person is the opposite of everything I’ve ever wanted in a partner, yet I am insanely attracted to them!
But in order to reach a place where you’re ready to give in to these feelings, you first need to be secure in yourself. A fear of intimacy is often the primary factor obstructing people from finding happiness. Where does it stem from?
The way that adults relate to their romantic relationships is highly contingent on their attachment style. This is often grounded in the kind of relationships we witnessed — and experienced — during our formative years.
John Bowlby, one of the so-called fathers of psychoanalysis, conducted seminal research in the 1970s into childhood behaviours, such as crying, screaming and clinging, which related to what he termed their attachment behavioural style. Our attachment style guides us in our patterns and habits of forming and maintaining relationships. Bowlby’s work is still of great validity and usefulness to therapists and counsellors today.
So how exactly does attachment theory manifest in our adult lives? A commonly observed phenomenon is that people frequently set themselves up to find partners whose characteristics and actions only further confirm the subjective truth of their own internal attachment model. Sometimes, we project or seek to emulate those actions we experienced when we were young when we ourselves become adults — even if these serve only to hurt us.
In the 1980s, psychologists Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver furthered Bowlby’s work by suggesting 4 attachment styles. They found that 56% of people have a secure attachment style, 19% have an anxious-preoccupied style and 25% have an avoidant attachment style. Avoidant attachment models are further subdivided into dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant. It is the fearful-avoidant attachment style which leads to a fear of intimacy. But what does each model of attachment actually entail?
Secure attachment style
Individuals with a secure attachment style generally have more satisfying relationships. Their model of attachment stems from a solid, happy upbringing. Throughout childhood, they perceived their caregiver as a secure base, from which they could venture out into the world independently. They could explore, safe in the knowledge that their caregiver would still be there for them upon return.
In adult relationships, a secure attachment style translates into a person not being overly reliant on another for their happiness. Being in a relationship immeasurably improves their life, sure, but they’re also self-sufficient and content. They can ‘venture out’; they know their partner is there for them, even if not physically. These relationships are characterised by honesty, openness and equality. Both partners feel independent, but are also deeply in love. The two states of being are not mutually exclusive for securely attached individuals.
Anxious-preoccupied attachment style
People with an anxious preoccupied attachment style are often desperate to form what psychologist Robert Firestone terms a fantasy bond; that is, the illusion of a connection. This provides a false sense of security. The couple might forego real acts of love, opting instead merely for a routine, generic form of relating. Despite being in a relationship, they don’t feel love; they don’t even feel trust. They feel a hunger for emotional connection and it’s just not being satiated. They might look to their partner to complete them, rescue them even — then push them away again. This creates a cycle that exacerbates the underlying issues.
Dismissive avoidant attachment style
Those with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style are often emotionally distant, even when they are in a relationship. They may seek isolation and have an overarching sense of what psychologists term pseudo-independence, so called because they still secretly desire human contact, in spite of their appearance of isolation. These people may lead more insular lives, shutting off emotionally and denying the importance of their loved ones. This leads to them detaching from those who should be most important to them with ease.
Fearful-avoidant attachment style
Individuals with a fearful-avoidant attachment style frequently live in a state of ambivalence, afraid of closeness but also of distance. They cannot outrun their anxieties and instead become overwhelmed by their own emotions. This can lead to unpredictable moods and turbulent relationships, wrought with the highs of reconciliation and the lows of perpetual insecurity. These individuals often believe that the very same people who can meet their emotional needs will only hurt them further — and are not to be trusted. Therefore, they cling when they feel rejected — then feel trapped when they are close.
Fear of intimacy
If an infant or young child cries, they are explicitly seeking support and comfort from their primary attachment figure, usually their mother. If this bid for attention is chronically and systematically denied or ignored, the child learns to distance themselves from their caregiver in order to protect themselves from rejection trauma. They learn instead to rely on their own resources. This leads to an avoidant attachment style, characterised by a firm belief that intimacy invariably leads to the pain of rejection. This is the fear of intimacy.
Do I have a fearful-avoidant attachment style?
It isn’t only those individuals who sadly experienced neglectful childhoods who will have developed a fear of intimacy. You may even believe you had a loving, supportive upbringing — but our brains do make a habit of blocking out moments of rejection if the existence of said memories serves no purpose or could even damage us as we move forward into our adult relationships. Furthermore, it isn’t only rejection per se that might have caused you to perceive rejection; growing up feeling fundamentally misunderstood as a person can also have a massive impact on how you believe others see you.
If you’ve convinced yourself over the years that you don’t have a fear of intimacy, it can seem a tall order to suddenly reevaluate your very state of mind and try to work out whether you actually do have something of an avoidant attachment style. What signs point towards this?
When someone wonderful enters your life ready to give you all their love, does it not sit right? Notwithstanding their kindness, their beauty, their sense of humour, does it still just seem somehow wrong, not quite right in some utterly intangible sense? It may be that their love for you contradicts your deeply rooted belief about whom you truly are. I’m not lovable! screams your subconscious. When your lover is gazing at you in adoration, can you not shake the feeling that they’re simply mistaken and that they’ll run a mile as soon as they find out what you’re ‘really like’?
If this is you, you may have an avoidant attachment style. You may have a fear of intimacy without even having realised it. But you know what? Recognition and acceptance are where progress begins.
Overcoming subconscious sabotage
Our negative reaction to the love of another person is a complicated beast. It isn’t so much a conscious rejection as it is an unintentional repudiation of their attempts to get close to us and give us affection. But these issues can be overcome.
Understanding the historical causes of your self-doubt is paramount to establishing a strong, mutually trusting romantic relationship with that special someone. Train yourself to accept your own flaws and believe that this person’s love for you is genuine. Remember, they’re not stupid; they see your flaws, yet they still want you. That’s got to tell you something. No-one’s perfect; people generally don’t even seek perfection. They want a fully rounded character. None of us has escaped trauma or damaging events in our lives, but it’s the manner in which we learn from those events that shapes us as a human being.
Challenge your beliefs about yourself. Speak openly and frankly with your partner about your concerns and anxieties. Not only will they respect you more as a person for your honesty, they’ll also have a far more salient comprehension of how they can approach the relationship and how they can help you overcome your fear of intimacy.
What does all this mean? Well, as a relationship psychologist based at an elite matchmaking consultancy, I can tell you one thing for sure – your past experiences do not have to shape your future. You can change. It can be tough – but who said love doesn’t come with hurdles? If you know and understand your own attachment style, you can work towards what we call an ‘earned secure attachment’. Becoming self-aware means you – and your partner, if you are already in a relationship – can challenge your fears by undoing the damage caused by your age-old working model. Through this, you too can development a far healthier attachment style – and, thus, a more profound and loving relationship.
Many people believe that, once your attachment style has been ‘programmed’ into your unconscious, that’s it, there’s no escaping it. This isn’t entirely true. It’s tough, but, with love and support, you too can learn how to undo the hurt from past experiences and learn to have more fulfilling, satisfying romantic relationships. By recognising our own strengths and vulnerabilities in a relationship, we can begin to unshape our future — by reconsidering our past.