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Intimacy in Relationships: Fear vs. Overload--Is there a balance?

You met someone. She's all you can think about. He's smart, funny, good-looking and kind. She is thoughtful and honest. He is the date of your dreams. But now what? Building and maintaining intimate relationships takes a lot of work both at the outset and throughout the relationship, and there are some common barriers to intimacy that can make it more difficult. Some people have a fear of intimacy which limits their ability to be close, while others may engage in intimacy overload and smother their partners. How can you avoid these barriers and be open and loving, trusting and intimate in a healthy way?

After that first date, you sense that your partner is hanging back a little, acting reserved. (S)he is quiet and not outwardly affectionate. Maybe (s)he doesn't like you as much as it seemed. . . or maybe your partner has a fear of intimacy. Many people are afraid to get really close to others due to worry about getting hurt, fear of rejection, and/or history of painful relationships. Often people who have a history of conflictual family connections and/or painful past romantic partnerships are, understandably, scared to open up to someone new out of fear that the new relationship will be as difficult as past ones. Out of a desire to protect themselves, they may limit how much they share, how much time they spend with a new partner and/or their outward display of affection. These signs of intimacy just feel too risky.

Other times, people who fear intimacy put up roadblocks to closeness without even realizing that they're doing it. This can take the form of working all the time so that there's no time left for your partner, spending all your free time with friends instead of having one on one time, or engaging in addictive behaviors (like drinking, using drugs, gambling, or using pornography) that leave you emotionally unavailable. People who block intimacy in these ways may not even be conscious of the ways in which their behaviors alienate their partners. If you find that you are in a relationship with someone who is doing these things, try talking to him/her about the ways that their behaviors affect you and your level of intimacy. Chances are, your partner is scared of getting close for some reason; the more that you and your partner can understand these fears the easier it will be for you to overcome them as a couple.

Just as having a fear of intimacy can limit your ability to be close to your partner, having the tendency to engage in intimacy overload can limit closeness as well. Intimacy overload arises when you want so much to be close to your partner and worry so much about whether or not you're close, that you spend almost all of your time focusing on your partner, touching your partner, thinking about your partner, and/or worrying that (s)he doesn't feel the same way that you do. You might regularly try to initiate relationship discussions and/or feel jealous of any time that your partner spends with other people. While these behaviors are usually done in an attempt to get closer, they actually serve to push him/her away. It's too much pressure! The effect of focusing so much on your partner is that (s)he ends up feeling controlled--as though you're trying to micromanage his/her life--and the effect is that (s)he wants to get away. This is where it can be helpful to remember the old saying: Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Or, more pointedly: I can't miss you if you don't go away. It sounds funny, but it's very true. The paradox is that taking care of yourself and focusing on what you want and need makes you more appealing to other people. It is certainly important to maintain closeness with your partner and to focus on relationship issues at times, but having this as your exclusive focus is a sure-fire way to kill your relationship passion and intimacy.

A healthy level of intimacy in relationships is fluid and not something that you achieve once and then maintain forever. It takes effort and adjusting depending on what is going on for each of you in your lives outside the relationship. In general though, it requires openness, honesty, willingness to listen, ability to be physically and emotionally available to your partner on a regular basis, ability to accept criticism and negotiate relationship rules, and ability to take care of yourself and get enough time alone (and with friends). It also generally includes a physical intimacy and willingness to talk about and explore sexuality, how/if it fits into your relationship, and what it means to you as a couple. In order to have this kind of closeness, you and/or your partner may need to take a look at the fears or tendency towards intimacy overload that stand in your way.

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