Tackling Fears of Intimacy
Though the breadth of client populations I work with is wide, I take a particular interest in individuals in early adulthood. The developmental stage of early adulthood spans from age 24 to 34. Prior to early adulthood, those in late adolescence take on the developmental task of individuation. Developing an identity separate from their primary caregivers and based fundamentally on their personal values. Once this task is met people in early adulthood can begin to shift their focus from self to others. The development of intimacy becomes the primary developmental task of this phase of life. In order to move forward to future phases it is essential that clients learn how to acquire and maintain closeness with others. The skills involved in developing intimacy will become useful for overcoming obstacles and life tasks at future phases such as building familial relationships and caring for others. I see often, however, in my work with people in this age group a variety of barriers to intimacy that are important to address.
For the purposes of this post, the term relationship refers to any form of connection between two or more people, romantic, familial, platonic, or otherwise. I am in a relationship with any person or people I have regular interactions with. Intimacy refers to the experience of honesty, vulnerability, and closeness within a relationship. The development of intimacy is necessary for fulfillment in any number and type of relationship.
This first and often most pronounced barrier stems from a person's development in childhood through late adolescence. Many times our ability to form secure attachments and develop the quality of vulnerability and intimacy needed for successful relationships is built on foundational relationships during youth. With roughly half of marriages leading to divorce and an increased prevalence of single-parent households, it stands to reason that many children and adolescents didn't have healthy intimacy modeled for them. When unhealthy relationships are the cornerstone of a person's development it becomes difficult to learn adaptive relationship skills. I have worked with, for example, a young woman whose mother frequently chose male romantic interests over the needs of her child. In early adulthood, this client of mine struggles to prioritize any needs above those of people with whom she has relationships, a consequence of the behaviors modeled to her as a child.'
Another barrier to the development of healthy intimacy is the effect of emerging technologies. Namely, online dating and the use of social media in the development of friendships and romantic relationships. It is no longer necessary to meet someone in person prior to befriending or even dating them which makes it difficult to have building blocks in place for a healthy relationship. It is easier than ever to avoid vulnerability in our relationships opting instead to promote the highlight reels of our lives online. How then are we able to share our difficulties as well as our joys, our skill of intimacy, when the world appears to only acknowledge the good stuff?
The answer to both of these challenges likely lies with vulnerability and courage, perhaps best shared through the words of Brene Brown, "true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world". It is through honestly sharing ourselves, our experiences, our struggles, and our successes that we are able to develop real intimacy with others. A simple but not-so-easy solution. To be vulnerable and honest with others means risking rejection. If I tell you I am depressed you might tell me to get over it, which would be painful and disconnecting. If, however, I tell you I am depressed and you sit with me, making space for my feelings without judgment or shame, we build a meaningful connection right there at that moment. So often people avoid intimacy as a means of protection from shame, judgment, and rejection. That avoidance, however, also holds them back from the fulfillment that comes with intimate connection. When I work with folks struggling with intimacy and fears of commitment I often see some precipitating wound or wounds that taught them that truth and vulnerability were dangerous. Part of my job is to provide an emotionally corrective experience to those clients, modeling unconditional care for them no matter how they show up for session. And the other part of my job is to encourage informed risk-taking to begin developing the courage to be vulnerable and build intimacy.
Wherever you are on your journey of development is important. If taking steps to be more vulnerable and intimate were easy, I'd be out of a job. Sometimes the best first step we can take is simply admitting that we are not where we'd like to be and that we're willing to make some changes. If you find yourself needing support on this journey, please feel free to reach out.