Fear of Intimacy in Men

Fear of intimacy in men

In every loving, intimate marriage or relationship, the potential for damaging shame is close at hand.

Why is this?

It’s been said that of all emotions—including love, hate, fear, happiness, grief—there is only one so powerful that the passage of time cannot dilute the feeling. That is shame. In other words, recalling the specific circumstance that brought about the shame will also bring about a fresh wave of shame, as intensely felt as the original…it is just as if you were reliving the experience, instead of merely remembering it.

And whenever there is the potential for vulnerability, there is necessarily the potential for shame. The very nature of intimate relationships is such that we are called upon to share our true selves with our partner: this is the essence of vulnerability, and this means that we need to be aware of the possible lashing out of shame, rather than allowing shame to remain underground (where it is no less destructive).

We all hide from others (and ourselves) at times—hiding in this case means walling off the memories and emotional parts of ourselves we wish didn’t exist or that cause us distress. This process of self-segregation starts early in life. Often when the child’s emerging needs meet with indifference or some form of rejection, the child is faced with an enormous dilemma:

Do I continue to ask for what I want, only to upset the people I rely on? Or do I try to ignore what I need?

Of course children do not consciously ask these questions; instead our automatic, innate adaptive capacities take over by subtly molding how we relate to ourselves and others—with the goal of maintaining our primary relationships even at the expense of our emerging self.

Fear of Intimacy in Men? There’s Probably Hidden Shame Involved

“I remember my father’s face when I started crying after I struck out during my first at-bat at a little league game. He looked horrified and embarrassed by me, like a dirty little family secret had been revealed to the entire neighborhood—his son was a ‘sissy’… On the drive home I felt his cold silence. The silence was punishing. I knew in that moment that not only did I do something wrong, I learned that I was somehow wrong if I continued to experience emotional vulnerability.” ~(Jonathan, a 47-year-old husband discussing how feelings of shame shaped his self-image).

In his informative book, Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love, psychologist Robert Karen describes how the emergence of shame is connected to the child receiving parental messages that his or her needs are somehow wrong. Shame always arises within the context of a relationship where the child internalizes a shame-based experience that s/he is somehow broken or defective. This can cause children to hide certain experiences from others as a way to avoid further humiliation.

Think of shame as the duck-and-hide emotion—it propels us to emotionally move away from others rather than open ourselves up (which is required for meaningful connection with others).

Johnathan learned he couldn’t bring his vulnerabilities to his father; the danger of further humiliation was too close at hand whenever Johnathan expressed what his father deemed as “weakness.” So, despite being a sensitive and emotionally expressive child, Jonathan began to lock away the self-experiences that would evoke his father’s wrath. He learned to hide the parts of himself that led to disconnection from the man he adored. It was as if Johnathan created a different version of himself, one more in line with the masculine son his father wanted.

But this wasn’t easy for Johnathan, and his “softer feelings” would leak out when the emotional bumps and bruises of childhood felt too overwhelming. Over time, Johnathan would become increasingly anxious, fearful of what he called “emotional spillage.” Sometimes his best efforts would fail to contain his feelings, and even when his father didn’t overtly react, Johnathan could sense his disapproval. In one of our therapy sessions, Johnathan poignantly recalled how he was relieved to discover at a young age that by tensing his entire body he could short-circuit his feelings, thereby hiding them more effectively from others.

In our work together, Johnathan would discover that hiding the vulnerable parts of himself had became so automated that he was often unaware it was happening. The long arm of his childhood shame would be far-reaching, negatively impacting his ability to emotionally connect with loved ones as an adult, especially his wife.

Shaming events cause men to hide their vulnerabilities from others. But to be most effective at reducing the toxic nature of shame, we must, at some point in our development, learn to hide our vulnerabilities from ourselves as well. This is accomplished by denying the parts of ourselves that once led our caregivers and important others (like peers) to react so negatively toward us. This helps men avoid the chronic self-loathing that would arise if we remained connected to what would be perceived as our own inherent weaknesses.

But to “win” at this un-winnable emotional shell game, we must ultimately turn against ourselves, betraying the very need we so desperately wanted met by our loved ones, the need to be seen and accepted for who we are. But these needs never vanish. They exist whether they’re tended to or not, and when we deny them, they get locked away in the crawl spaces of our psyche where they hunger for the recognition and validation that was never realized.

By the time that Johnathan reached my office, he was tense, quick to anger and emotionally closed off. When I asked about his “emotional needs,” Johnathan stared blankly, as though I was speaking a foreign language. Any remnants of vulnerability were nowhere to be found. His shame and subsequent anger had made sure of this.

Fear of Intimacy in Men: The Re-emergence of Shame in Your Relationship

Often, within the context of a loving and emotionally secure marriage or relationship, the vulnerable parts of our personalities that were shut down by shame slowly reawaken. Love and emotional safety stir our deepest yearnings to be seen and made whole through contact with another.

The awakening of the hidden, shame-based parts of ourselves is complicated, however (and inadvertently may lead to greater relationship upheaval), since all of our fears and defensive habits may also reawaken. Often when shame is involved, there is a merging of emotional vulnerability with the perception of danger.

This is why so many men who have struggled with shame as children react with anger when their spouses/partners appear vulnerable in some way—it’s as if our loved one’s vulnerability triggers our own vulnerability-equals-threat reaction. So rather than open our hearts and meet vulnerability with vulnerability, we attack the threat and shut down our loved one’s vulnerability (often by inadvertently shaming her/him in ways that parallel our original shame-based traumas). This process often unfolds so unconsciously and automatically that men tend to be completely unaware of what is underlying this reaction.

This dynamic led to great confusion for Johnathan and his wife Karianne, who finally gave her husband an ultimatum that if he didn’t start therapy she was going to leave him. It appeared that the more emotionally safe Johnathan felt with his wife, the more vulnerable he would become (i.e., talking about his painful childhood, expressing his insecurities). But alongside his renewed desire to openly share in this way was the deep-seated fear that he would be shamed all over again (though rationally he knew this was highly unlikely with Karianne).

It was as if his mind and body were simultaneously expressing the need for emotional connection with Karianne alongside the expectation that further humiliation was inevitable. Like so many men, Johnathan was trapped in a prison of shame where he was now the captor and captive.

Weaken Shame’s Grip by Uncovering Shame

Johnathan’s emotional healing occurred slowly as he started to grasp the reasons why he pushed his wife away at times. Central to his understanding was that behind each defensive-protective behavior, there was a part of him that yearned for connection through acceptance. His ability to be vulnerable with Karianne was the pathway to this level of connection. He slowly started communicating more openly about the different ways in which he covered up his vulnerabilities: “I’m likely to get angry and strike out verbally”; “I tense my body without even realizing it”; “I tend to drink a little too much”; “I’ll find things to do around the house to distract myself.”

These discussions shed light on the important function of his defensive-protective behaviors, a function that arose out of the shame he experienced whenever he was vulnerable as a child. A mutual understanding of why Johnathan protects himself highlights that he is indeed vulnerable (if not, why would there be any need for protection?). This understanding was vital for Karianne, who often felt baffled and wounded by her husband’s defensiveness. She now could visualize the anxious little kid anticipating humiliating rejection.

Sharing in this way also gave Johnathan other options of protection that weren’t damaging to his relationship yet allowed him the safety and emotional distance he still needed at times (for instance, communicating that a particular topic is feeling too overwhelming; finding healthy ways to become more emotionally grounded, like going for a walk or gardening).

It’s important to remember that our most shaping shame-based experiences occurred when we were very young and unable to protect ourselves emotionally. Sometimes these developmentally-stuck parts of us anticipate the same level of danger and humiliation that existed in our childhood. This can prevent us from accurately assessing the current conditions of our relationship and accurately seeing our partner (e.g., we may automatically believe that our partner intentionally hurt us—just like a parent may have—rather than mistakenly hurt us). As a result, we react to our partner/spouse with intensity and force, as if they wronged us in the most profound way possible. So instead of allowing shame to negatively shape your relationship, unmask this powerful emotion by discussing it openly with your spouse/partner.

Johnathan has come a long way since we’ve started working together. His healing hasn’t been without its challenges and setbacks, but despite these ups and downs, he now has the tools to more directly express his emotional needs and become more vulnerable with his wife—this has led to a deepening of emotional as well as sexual intimacy. As he said in one of our sessions, “I have a feeling my healing is going to be an ongoing work-in-progress, but it’s well worth it. And Karianne agrees!”

Until next time,

Dr. Rich Nicastro

(Featured image courtesy of Sira Anamwong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)