Over my last few posts I have been exploring attachment and emotional intimacy. Emotional intimacy is what brings couples together. We all want to feel loved and valued. We all want to be accepted for who we are, quirks and all.
In Building Closeness and Intimacy I looked at how emotional intimacy, or closeness is initially created. There really is no secret science to building closeness. It requires mutual self-disclosure (that’s a fancy term for sharing information about each other). It requires opening up and letting the other person in. That’s a simple fact, and at least on some level anyone who has been in a relationship know this.
I’m not sure if anyone ever lets the other person “fully in” to their world, but the degree to which we do determines the degree of satisfaction we can have in our relationships. So why is it so hard sometimes to let other people in? Why do we build walls, and hold back in a relationship?
When we are talking about dating, it’s understandable that we don’t let other people in. Trust takes time to build, and as the relationship develops the walls we build around ourselves should come down.
But what about marriages or other long term relationships? If you are able to commit to life with someone, should that mean you are able to let them in?
Impacts of “Holding Back”
Unfortunately that’s not always the case. Even in marriages and long term relationships, we don’t always let our partners in. We all have our secrets; moments in our lives that we aren’t proud of or moments that we wish we could forget. In some cases there are parts of our past that we have actually been able to block out, and convince ourselves never happened.
Allowing other people into access to our hearts and souls doesn’t require us to reveal every secret, but we do need to let our chosen partners in. As individuals we choose how close we are willing to let other people get to us, and how much of us we are willing to let them know.
Here’s the problem with holding back though. It limits the depth of emotional connection we are able to achieve and limits our ability to experience satisfaction in our relationships.
This is summed up in a great quote from this article:
Keeping your guard up in a relationship is guaranteed to keep the love out too.
This reminds me of Brene Browns thoughts on numbing behaviors (from “The Gifts of Imperfection”). She said that we can’t numb selectively. If we are numbing ourselves from negative emotions, we end up numbing ourselves to positive emotions as well. So if you are holding back in a relationship, you are effectively limiting your ability to love.
This makes absolutely no sense to me. If you love someone and want a life with them, why hold back? Why have a fraction of the happiness and joy in a relationship that you could potentially have? Holding back definitely limits the satisfaction we can have, so why do people do it?
Protection against Being hurt
The most common and obvious reason people hold back in relationships is to protect themselves from being hurt.
We’ve all been hurt, and the people we love are the ones who have the ability to hurt us the most. It’s a terrible feeling, and when hurt it’s understandable to want to protect ourselves from being hurt again.
One way to do this is not allowing yourself to get too attached. After all, if you never fully let go then you don’t allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to be hurt. It’s a form of self-protection. But it’s flawed, because it results in a self-fulfilling prophecy.
You aren’t letting people in because you are protecting yourself. But doing this means you are never able to develop strong emotional attachment. As a result your relationship ends up feeling lacking, as if something is missing. The distance that has been built in ends up acting as a barrier to love.
There are two main flavors of this:
- Broken trust in the existing relationship. Trust is a very fragile thing. Some of us find it easier to trust than other, but once trust is lost it is very hard to rebuild. It takes time, and while it is being rebuilt it is easy to become hyper-sensitive, seeing shadows in every corner. Here’s the thing though, if you are looking for reasons to not trust someone, you will always find them. It’s easy to read too much into things and misinterpret simple (positive) words and actions in a negative way.
- Baggage from prior relationship. To me this is a really unfortunate situation. I commonly hear stories where someone has been badly hurt in a prior relationship, and because of that they decide (normally at a subconscious level) to never let that happen again. They protect themselves by walling themselves off emotionally, never giving the next person a fair chance.
Issues with Identity
Holding back due to prior hurts makes sense. It’s unproductive and does more damage than good, but it’s understandable. As I looked into reasons why people hold back in relationships, one thing that surprised me is it can happen due to issues with identity.
If someone doesn’t have a strong sense of identity, they may hold back out of a belief that if they allow someone else to get too close they will become dependent, or they will “lose control”. They fear losing their own identity in the other person, so they hold back from the relationship in order to preserve their sense of self.
Another variation on this is a fear of acceptance for who you are. In discussing this, a buddy of mine related the following story:
I feared the other person wouldn’t accept me for who I am, so I suppressed myself and conformed to what the other person wanted. The phrase “everything to everybody” sums it up. The problem is that you don’t feel accepted for who you are, so you never feel comfortable around the other person. You never relax and just be yourself as you are always vigilant for signs of rejection. I never asserted myself with others in fear of offending them with who I am. I never was accepted for who I was, and therefore, I never accepted who I was either, which led to self-loathing.
It is similar to the fear of losing yourself in the other person, as both have the fear of acceptance and rejection at the heart of the issue. They just manifest differently.
The “all or nothing” thinking came from my negative view of reality. It is a cognitive distortion and it was part of my depression. My fear was that if a person didn’t like one part of me, they would hate all of me. There was no in between. It’s not a realistic view and my cognitive behavioral therapy deals with this all or nothing thinking and changed my perspective to that which is realistic. A person may not like a part of me, but still like the other parts.
In one case someone holds back because they are afraid of losing themselves. In the other case someone holds back because they are afraid of not being accepted. There is a belief that if someone got to know the “real you” they wouldn’t love you.
Interestingly both scenarios are symptomatic of people who do not have a strong sense of identity. When you are comfortable with yourself, then you can see that another person is able to enhance your identity. You don’t fear losing your identity, and instead see a relationship as being beneficial to both parties.
In my last post where I talked about attachment styles I mentioned that anxiety and avoidance levels are the two primary characteristics leading to unhealthy attachment. People with high levels of either tend to have more issues in relationships, and it is very common for people with avoidant personality types to hold back in intimate relationships.
When you look at the reasons for holding back, at their root they all come down to fear. It may be fear of getting hurt, fear of rejection, fear of losing their identity, fear of dependency, fear of losing control, or even fear of your own feelings.
All of these lead to holding back due to a fear of intimacy itself, and this is seen most clearly in anxious or avoidant personality types. They both want and fear intimacy, and as a result they hold back. Or when too much closeness occurs, they push their partner away. It creates an emotional distance that results in them either being alone, or living largely as two people leading separate lives.
People have talked about love being like a drug, and the early stages of love can definitely feel that way. But if love is a drug, then anxiety and avoidance is the antidote.
In his book “Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety”, Danial Smith talks about how for him falling in love was the magical cure for his anxiety. But it is a cure that never lasts.
Unfortunately, what an anxiety disorder does to love is far more consequential than what love can do to the disorder. Anxiety is a wily, reactive affliction; it often recedes in response to positive life events. But it seldom recedes for long. Like acne or arthritis, anxiety is always lying in wait, ready to flare back up. My anxiety came back shortly after Joanna moved in with me and when it did it quickly consumed our relationship.
In his story, Danial Smith tells how his anxiety made him hold back, and question everything. He ended up losing the love of his life, because he wasn’t sure if he even loved her. His story has a happy ending (spoiler alert!!!). He conquers his anxiety, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he learns how to deal with in in such a way that it no longer controls his life. And in the process he was able to win back the girl he had lost.
Learning to Let go
We all want to be loved, accepted, valued and cared for. And I think that all of us hope to find someone to be with “happily ever after, till death do us part”. But when we hold back in relationships, we are not only sabotaging our relationships, but also our happiness and our future.
At it’s root, holding back is about fear. So ask yourself, what are you really afraid of? Losing yourself? Are you afraid of rejection? Are you afraid of being hurt?
My buddy was afraid he wouldn’t be accepted for who he was, so he tried to be what he thought everyone else wanted. He was afraid of rejection. When he finally learned to let go, he found that the people who loved him loved “him”. They cared about the person he was, not just the one he portrayed.
If you are in a relationship and you are holding back or hiding yourself, you need to ask yourself if you are holding back from the people you love, or from yourself? If your loved ones accept the bits of you they have seen, why would you not believe they would love you as you are? No one is perfect. We all have our quirks. Part of love is accepting the other person and loving them for who they are.
Some people who hold back blame their partner. They convince themselves that maybe it’s their partner. Maybe they would be able to let go with someone else, if they could just find the right person. Your partner may contribute, but usually it’s something inside the person themselves.
There’s a saying, garbage in, garbage out. You only get out of life what you put into it. When you hold back, you limit your potential happiness and your future.
If you have built up walls, you are the only one who can decide if you will ever let them come down.
If you have someone who loves you even with those walls, imagine how much stronger it could be if you would let them in. When you hold back, you may believe you are protecting yourself. But consider the cost.
So make the choice to let someone in. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and allow yourself to be hurt. And guess what, you probably will be. We often hurt those that we love. But better to have a strong, pure love where you accept that there will be issues, and know that you will get through them together.