Relationship Problems: How Social Anxiety Affects Intimacy
Over the next few weeks I’m going to focus on how living with social anxiety alters the way in which we treat those closest to us.
As with so much surrounding anxiety, there’s a mix of positive and negative – sure, those nagging doubts about yourself can batter your confidence and make relationships tough to start and maintain, but, at the same time, the strength of your feelings and the power of your emotional awareness means you’re capable of forging great partnerships with loved ones.
We’ll discuss dating, breakups and how to talk to those closest to you about social anxiety in the next few blogs, but first let’s look at the basics:
How does your social anxiety affect how close you can become to those around you?
The way love, sex and relationships are sold to us via Hollywood dream factories and the world of advertising, you’d have thought that there’s no grey area between happy, smiling families and disastrous solitude.
The truth, however, is that how we get along with each other is a complex, multi-layered thing – just as likely to be impacted by anxious thoughts or phobias as any other aspect of life. In fact, because of both the external pressures of the expectations portrayed by modern media and the internal pressures that come with becoming close to someone else, relationships can provide a playing field for strong negative thoughts and emotions.
This results in a range of reactions ranging from social anxiety to aphenphosmphobia – the fear of being touched – which governs someone’s entire life, let alone their relationships.
As with most forms of anxiety, the fear of intimacy is compounded by your “inner voice” pre-empting negative events and creating a spiral of worry. For example, that most basic of doubts experienced on any first date – “do they like me?” – is usually confirmed or rejected pretty quickly. However, the emotional amplification of anxiety casts the question far broader moving from “do they like me?” to “how long can this last?” or “what happens if we break up?” and “can I stand rejection?”
Because relationships cause us to put more “on the line” when we become close to someone else, anxiety can lead to people either ending a relationship in case they’re hurt or to avoid relationships in the first place.
That reaction then reinforces the feeling that relationships and intimacy are a dangerous area and makes us more suspicious to enter into them again.
Even within a relationship, the fear of intimacy can cause destructive behaviour – predicated on a desire to avoid being hurt.
But the way we react can differ:
Overbearing: Once those negative thoughts about a relationship have started to spiral because of anxiety, there can be a tendency to try to control a partner to reduce our own insecurities.
Holding on: The other side to being overbearing is to be overly “clingy” in which anxiety is demonstrated through jealousy or being insecure.
Turning away: This may manifest itself in holding back small parts of a relationship or be as grand as rejecting the whole thing, but what starts as a method to avoid feeling hurt always turns into a way of hurting your partner and harming the relationship.
Retribution: This can be as passive as ignoring our partner or as aggressive as turning every argument into a screaming match, but the insecurities which come with being anxious about your relationship in general are governing your responses here – not your disagreement with your partner.
Ignoring: In many ways this is the most insidious way in which anxiety and the fear of intimacy can sabotage a relationship. While the four symptoms above are usually easily recognised by one or other side of a partnership, some relationships become reliant on illusory bonds of intimacy in order to avoid the pain of dealing directly with underlying issues. A partner may use many or all of the other forms off destructive behaviour but ignore their effects because of an overwhelming sense that nothing’s wrong.
So, that’s how relationships can fall foul of anxiety and its tendency towards creating a fear of intimacy – but where does it come from? After all, humans are social animals and have gathered in family and wider groups for the purposes of protection and co-operation since we were gathered around fires and sheltered in caves.
One theory set out by US developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson is that we all go through eight stages in which we gain mastery over aspects of lives by coming to terms with conflicting biological and socio-cultural forces.
For example, from birth until we’re around five years old, we’re coming to terms with the tensions between trust and mistrust, autonomy and doubt and initiative and guilt. The fifth stage during our teenage years is consumed with coming to terms with who we actually are and how we fit in to society which then leads into the sixth challenge of determining how we deal with love, or how we perceive the tension between intimacy and isolation.
The basis of Erikson’s model is that any disruption to the stages in early life will manifest themselves throughout later life – this disruption can be from the lack of emotional link between a parent and a child or something as traumatic as abandonment, neglect or abuse.
More recent studies have also broken the fear of intimacy into two levels – the fear of losing the self (or having to dilute your “self” into the greater relationship and depend on a romantic partner) and the fear of losing the other (or the fear of exposing your true self and losing a romantic partner’s approval).
This is based on the belief that a successful relationship is based on each partner’s ability to feel comfortable with being in some ways dependent on the other as well as standing on their own two feet – of course it also relies on both partners being able to exchange thoughts and feelings successfully.
One of the odd side-effects of a fear of intimacy is that those who are too anxious to hold down a successful relationship may often demonstrate strong external characteristics such as positivity, a strong work ethic, strong opinions and the ability to mix well with all types of people.
This is because many of these traits mask creating close relationships behind being busy or being part of a crowd. The first step to overcoming a fear of intimacy is to recognise that anxiety behind some of that masking behaviour. That awareness – sometimes helped by recording journals or developing mindfulness skills – can then lead you to work towards looking for the root cause of your anxiety.
Therapy is often something which doesn’t appeal to individuals who like to see themselves as strong, confident people but when you are having to confront issues which often stem from early childhood and which need careful handling to avoid transferring blame on to an individual used to controlling situations, it’s important to have someone who can build a relationship based on trust.
The impact of confronting a fear of intimacy isn’t just confined to building intimate romantic relationships – by creating a better understanding of how you form relationships and what influences your choices, you’re much better able to value friendships, work colleagues and family members.
Do any of these relationship issues sound familiar? If you’d like to talk to me about them you can contact me here. And for those of you that are part of the Private Facebook Group, I’ll be discussing this topic more over the next few weeks, so I will see you on the inside!
All the best, Kyle