Does fear of intimacy require therapy?
September 8, 2008 1:45 PM   Subscribe

Is it possible to overcome a fear of intimacy without therapy?

My best friend and I recently slept together. We've been friends for 10 years and he has always had feelings for me, but I never felt them in return until now. He's been there for me through everything and we have an amazingly open relationship.

I've dealt with my own intimacy issues for years and I feel I am finally in a place where I can have a healthy loving relationship. I've always felt that he would be the right guy for me, but I've now learned that he has an intense fear of intimacy. He is freaking out at the prospect of us being together right now. It's as if a switch was flipped and our roles have reversed.

He still loves me, but is incapable of having a relationship, it seems with anyone. We are both in our late 20's and I don't want to get to the point in our lives where it is too late. I'm more experienced than he is, he's really only dated a few girls. My question is, do you think it is possible for someone to overcome these types of fears without therapy and simply through personal experience? Do you think him dating other people and learning how to deal with his issue with them, not me, will help ready him for me?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Why do you have a fear of therapy?

Seriously, therapy is a really good way of dealing with issues like fears of intimacy.

And for Christ's sake, this:

Do you think him dating other people and learning how to deal with his issue with them, not me, will help ready him for me?

is one of the most bizarrely solipsistic statements I've ever seen.

Please get help from a professional therapist. Your code is all buggy.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:52 PM on September 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Do you think him dating other people and learning how to deal with his issue with them, not me, will help ready him for me?

I'm not sure that would be completely fair to the third parties involved , so I don't think that would be the best solution to the problem. Does he know WHY he's scared of intimacy? Start there. If it's something serious, like being abused as a kid, you probably need to call in the professionals.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 1:55 PM on September 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm sure lots of other people are going to say this, but there is nothing YOU can do to make him change. When he's ready to deal with his intimacy issues - whether through therapy or some other means, although I'm not sure what "other means" would be - he will. In the meantime, nothing you say or suggest to him will make any difference.
posted by arianell at 2:18 PM on September 8, 2008

Do you think him dating other people and learning how to deal with his issue with them, not me, will help ready him for me?

No. But it might make him happy, and it will give you lots of exciting drama to fill your life while you enjoy the to-ings and fro-ings of this sort of thing.

Therapy really helps a lot of people; many others manage to do the "up by your own bootstraps" solo approach. But a lot more avoid both the therapy and the self-improvement — what's his track record on this stuff? Has he ever fixed some other big problem on his own?

And what arianell says is true — you can't make him change; he will chance, if he ever does, when he is good and ready to do so.

I've now learned that he has an intense fear of intimacy

Wait — he's your best friend? You've had an amazingly open relationship for ten years? And you are just now learning that he has an "intense fear of intimacy"? Something in this does not compute.

My guess is that he doesn't so much have a fear of intimacy per se, but rather something about intimacy with you isn't working for him. But you know him, and your situation, better than any of us, so take this with a mountain of salt. The point remains, though, that "fear of intimacy" doesn't come out of nowhere; if it appears to have, you might want to consider whether it's a way to let you down gently. You know, "it's not you, it's me" and all that.
posted by Forktine at 2:29 PM on September 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

You haven't given us a whole lot of the details (it'd be interesting, at least, to know what "freaking out" means) but here are some aphorisms that I've found useful in my own life:

Dating other people in order to get ready to date you is like building a shoddy house to practice for when you're ready to tear it down and build the one you actually want.

Therapy is personal experience.

When you see the problems you've faced in the affairs of other people, they are often colored by your own perspective. This is even more true when you have something at stake. My experience is that, in this situation, people often psychologize the attitudes and reactions of other people in order to blunt what might be harsher realities. For example, when a person acts as though they don't want a piece of cake, the person who'd baked the cake for them might say that the other person has "an intense fear of cake" and "is incapable of enjoying sweet baked goods altogether, it seems." I've also observed that people who really just would rather not have a piece of cake right now tend to find this psychologizing unnerving and aggravating.

It is almost impossible for a person who has problems to desire a strong and lasting relationship with a person who knows it and knows how to fix them.

Human beings don't have spiritual playlists or queues that can be paused and resumed. When love goes on hold, that is almost invariably the end of it. This implies that those who would like to have love with certain people in the future are advised to pursue that love with those people in the here and now.
posted by koeselitz at 2:41 PM on September 8, 2008 [5 favorites]

About a year and a half ago, and old and close friend of mine and I realized that romantic feelings were starting to bud between us. We've always tried to be as open as possible and were pretty forthright about this. She moved to a different city shortly after this realization was made, so any sort of real romantic relationship was out of the question. But we started talking on the phone incessantly and became extremely emotionally close. The specter of a possible romantic relationship loomed, and we didn't really know how to deal with it. We were both seeing other people -- she more seriously than I -- and the jealousy was sickening and horrific.

I started getting anxiety attacks about the whole thing. I couldn't deal with the jealousy. I couldn't deal with loving this person so much, knowing she loved me back, but having to just keep things at "well, maybe things will work out in a year or five and we'll be together." Twice we made the emotionally cataclysmic decision not to speak to each other anymore, since that seemed better than dealing with the constant heartache of not knowing where this was going, and being dreadfully afraid that we'd make the wrong decision and lose everything -- the potential for a relationship, our friendship, our closeness, everything. I've since moved thousands of miles away, and have realized that there were a ton of other things going on in my life contributing to my anxiety that I needed to deal with (work, living situation, relationship with family, etc.) that I've been concentrating on. My friend and I are still talking often and are very close but aren't too anxious about our friendship/relationship all the time. It's by no means "worked out," but it's much healthier than it was in the thick of the drama.

I guess the reason I bring this all up is because your friend sounds like he might be going through what I remember going through. You guys are already very close emotionally, meaning that he has a ton to lose -- his best friend, to be specific. And if he's had romantic feelings for you that he's been nursing for a while, he's probably built this relationship up in his mind to mythic proportions. All the sudden bam, things are happening between you two, and he's probably deathly afraid of fucking it up and losing not only his dreams but also a friend. If it doesn't work out between you two, it's not like you go back to how things were before you slept together. This is going to be a horrible analogy, but it's like that one-of-a-kind vintage Impala he's always wanted just appeared on his driveway with a bow on top, and he's terrified of taking it out on the streets for fear that something will happen to it.

I was totally paralyzed not being able to decide what the best thing to do was -- do I risk it all and take the plunge? Do I play it safe and pass up on something I'd desperately wanted for years? The thing about anxiety is that you HAVE to talk it out. And therapists are good at getting you to talk about the right things, working things out, bouncing ideas off of people and being able to get to the place where you can take action without having a million reasons pop up why that's a bad idea. There is NO WAY I would have been able to make a decent decision and take action without seeing a therapist once a week. So I am STRONGLY recommending that you that your friend see someone.

If he's worried about the cost, there are therapists that work with young(er) adults and people without healthcare that don't charge as much. If he's worried that it's an admission of being a weak, sick person, he can go in saying he just wants talk therapy, not psychiatry -- there's absolutely nothing "weak" about talking about things that are bothering you, and in fact is rather a sign of courage, I think, that you're willing to face them. And if he's scared that he can't or won't want to deal with the worms under the rocks, let me assure you that just being honest with yourself and being able to put words to your feelings is a balm to the chafed soul -- during the hard times, I walked out my therapy sessions feeling stronger, wiser and more of a decent human being than when I walked it. Every single time. Even -- especially -- the sessions when I realized "wow, I have a lot of work to do."

Dating other people "for practice" is a horrible idea. As has been mentioned above, it's selfish and inconsiderate to the other people involved. If he wants this relationship to happen, and if you want it to happen, and if you both recognize that his fear of intimacy is something preventing that from happening, then face the problem and deal with it directly.

Finally, if you're serious about this, you might want to look into therapy as well. You say you've dealt with intimacy issues as well, so maybe you already are. But if he's really got important things he needs to work through, then it's not going to be painless or easy for either of you, and for both of your sakes you need to be doing your best to be in touch with your feelings and otherwise be a sane partner.

Good luck.
posted by DLWM at 4:24 PM on September 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

If he's worried that it's an admission of being a weak, sick person, he can go in saying he just wants talk therapy, not psychiatry -- there's absolutely nothing "weak" about talking about things that are bothering you


Sorry for the shoutyface, but this kind of thing makes me a very cross Sidhedevil.

Psychiatrists help you with the hardware problems, therapists with the software problems. Quite often, people have both things going on at the same time. Neither is "better" or "worse" or "stronger" or "weaker".
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:45 PM on September 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Why are you asking? I mean that seriously.... you want an action plan so that you can make a man who "is freaking out at the prospect of us being together" able to be with you? Do you see how weird that sounds? You can't do anything about him. Maybe he does love you and wants to be with you but can't handle it because of his own stuff.... but there is nothing you can do about that. Or maybe he loves you but doesn't want to be with you and is attributing that to his own stuff.... but you can't do anything about that either. It seems like you've decided that he's perfect for you and you know that he loves you and I understand how crazy-making it is to be in those shoes - but once you start thinking "wow - this would be a perfect relationship if he'd just stop not wanting it" - you've already gone around the bend. It's ok - happens to the best of us - but taking on his "fear of intimacy" like it's a problem you can help him solve is madness.
posted by moxiedoll at 5:05 PM on September 8, 2008

Sidhedevil: I didn't at all mean to imply that seeing a psychiatrist or being on psychiatric medication is, in fact, "weak." It's helped me personally a great deal.

But I don't think it's uncommon for people who've never had any sort of therapy to be initially averse to the idea of "taking a happy pill." Of course that's the not the way responsible psychiatry works, but that's the stigma it seems to get from many people.

What I meant with my comment above was that IF the OP's friend DID have some sort of aversion to the idea of psychiatry, he would still be able to get a great deal from talk-only therapy. Reassurances that it's possible and okay to go in saying "no meds, please" can help those who might not otherwise consider therapy to, well, consider it.
posted by DLWM at 5:05 PM on September 8, 2008

Fair enough, DLWM, and thanks for unpacking the comment further.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:26 PM on September 8, 2008

He still loves me, but is incapable of having a relationship, it seems with anyone.

I'm sorry, but there's your answer.

Especially beware the man who waves this around as a flirtation or a challenge: "But you could be The One whose love will change me!"

Odds are, you won't be.
posted by availablelight at 6:29 PM on September 8, 2008

Oh man, please please PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE do not keep waiting for this guy to fix himself. There are SO SO SO SO SO SO MANY amazing, deserving men out there wanting to date you RIGHT NOW.

There's so much I could say, but it really boils down to that. There are wonderful, amazing people out there, tons of them. PLEASE do not ignore them so that you can spend your life waiting for someone else.

Do you think him dating other people and learning how to deal with his issue with them, not me, will help ready him for me?

IRRELEVANT!!!! Why on Earth do you want to wait for him at all? What does he possess that no other man does that makes up for the wasted time and heartbreak that you will endure between now and the hypothetical time when he might be ready?

I'm sorry, because I'm sure that this comes across as me yelling at you, but I have so many friends who play this waiting game, and it's really sad for me to watch them alone and unsatisfied because their perfect match is not quite ready yet. You deserve an amazing man who will appreciate you NOW.

Also, to answer the actual question, because you probably really are wondering, no getting over your intimacy issues does not require therapy. It does however, require commitment and a lot of work and hard introspection. Most likely if he dates other people, he will continue to do the exact same thing he's always done and get nowhere. It's fairly likely he will eventually change, because he'll get older and start thinking more about what he wants, and so on, but why do you want to wait for that? If he really was committed to changing now, and so on, there isn't any reason I can see that he couldn't do that with you.
posted by !Jim at 9:58 PM on September 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Usually, the "person in love with their best opposite-sex friend" is deeply afraid of intimacy, because that type of relationship allows them to express feelings they otherwise can't

As for avoiding therapy--how about therapy in a box? There's a great book entitled "Intimate Connections" by Dr. David Burns that you can use to work with these feelings. It has the same exercises you'd get if you went to a real professional. The catch is you have to do all of the exercises.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:03 AM on September 9, 2008 [3 favorites]

Why should he be more afraid of you, his best friend for 10 years, then any other woman he could date? That's just illogical.

Welcome to the human heart.Logic not included.

For the first time ever, I'm disagreeing with TPS. It is quite common for people who have suffered emotional trauma to be like this. Here's your problem--he goes from being a close friend to being "in love" in one second. There's no normal "getting to know you" process.There's a big difference between the person who allows themselves year after year to fall in and out of dating because of these issues and the person who doesn't date at all. One is taking advantage, the other has no idea what's going on. Whatever happens, have sympathy for your best friend. Good luck! I hope he gets better.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:14 AM on September 9, 2008

Seconding "Intimate Connections" by Burns. It's a great primer. And yes, do the exercises.
posted by willmize at 8:06 AM on September 9, 2008

« Older Help me pick out a cell phone repeater?   |   Pimp My Soon-to-be-Married Feet. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.