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Dr David Christian Marriage Advice

Overcome Intimacy Paralysis

  • Dr. David B. Hawkins Director, The Marriage Recovery Center
  • 2010 18 Oct
Overcome Intimacy Paralysis

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 "When I try to get emotionally close to him, he panics," Sharon said to me during a recent marriage counseling session. "It's like he's a scared little boy, unsure of what to do." 

Her husband, Scott, looked at us blankly.

"I suppose it's true," he said slowly. "She seems to know what she's doing, but I don't even know the first thing to say or do. I'm out of my element."

"How do you get through a day at work?" Sharon asked, looking at her husband of twenty years.

"I know what I'm doing there," he said,  "but when you and I sit down to have a personal talk, I freeze."

"Men know how to work," I said, looking at Scott, and then at Sharon. "We've been taught to work. We've been trained to work since we were little. We know how to play too, but find ways to even make that look like work."

"And we're good at it," Scott said smiling. "It's not like I always want to be working, but I know what I'm doing there. Sitting with Sharon and talking about feelings is incredibly uncomfortable to me. And when she asks me questions about my feelings, I panic."

"You're not alone, Scott," I said. "I call this Intimacy Paralysis, which is the fear of being exposed, vulnerable. It is the fear, and even panic, of having to talk about our inner life, which we have often neglected for a long time."

"He seems so distant most of the time," Sharon continued. "It makes me feel neglected and very alone." She began to cry. "Twenty years, three kids and now we're starting the next phase of our lives and he's working and golfing with his buddies more than ever. I feel emotionally abandoned, and it's not ok"

I watched Scott bristle.

"I've got to tell you when she talks about being abandoned, it makes me angry. I can't stand hearing that. I'm not abandoning her. I've been a dedicated father, husband, provider, leader in the church. It's really hard for me to hear the word ‘abandoned.'"

"You don't do it intentionally, Scott," I said. "But it does sound like Sharon feels very alone much of the time. Is it possible you struggle with Intimacy Paralysis?"

I asked Scott and Sharon to consider some of the symptoms of Intimacy Paralysis.

Fear of sharing personal thoughts and feelings

Resistance to talking about feelings

More comfortable in the work-world

Avoidance of spending time alone with mate

Avoiding Sexual Intimacy  

Fearing Close, Loving Experiences

Staying Busy

Hyper-sensitivity to criticism

Sharon and Scott stared at each other in disbelief when I shared symptoms of Intimacy Paralysis. They nodded as I went down a list of traits many believe to be common to those who struggle with intimacy—"into me see."

"Yes, yes, yes," Sharon said with exasperation. "I'm terribly lonely, living like I'm a single woman. And I hate it. I beg him for closeness, and he just seems to get defensive or freeze."

"Fear, fight, flight," I said. "That's our most common response to danger, and I suspect ‘into-me-see' is dangerous for you, Scott."

He looked puzzled.

"The whole thing panics me," he said. "I just don't know what to do. I don't know what she's asking of me. So, I suppose I run."

"Are you willing to work on this?" I asked both of them.

"Yes," they both said.

"Then let's get to work," I said, as I began scribbling out a few ideas that would help them move from isolation to intimacy.  

First, you must admit there is a problem. Obviously, if you don't admit there is a problem, there will be little motivation for seeking a solution. While part of this problem usually includes some denial of the immensity of the issue, be honest with yourselves. Face the problem and the severity of it. Intimacy Paralysis is serious and will jeopardize your relationship.

Second, discuss the impact of Intimacy Paralysis. It's not enough to admit the problem. You must discuss exactly how the problem is impacting your relationship. Does Intimacy Paralysis cause distance in your marriage? Are you both suffering from abandonment and distrust? Talk about this in a non-threatening way.

Third, commit yourself to learning about Intimacy Paralysis and seeking solutions for it. Being aware that your mate has developed some entrenched patterns of avoidance of intimacy, healing from this problem will take commitment and intentionality. You most likely will need to work with a professional in depth marriage counseling to overcome this problem.

Fourth, you must be committed to a treatment plan to eliminate this problem. Again, healing won't come naturally or easily. You will need to follow the lead of your professional marriage counselor, easing your way into new patterns of emotional and physical connection.

Fifth, take gradual steps to heal Intimacy Paralysis. Be ready for resistance and discomfort. If you've been used to emotional distance, closeness will feel awkward and uncomfortable. However, using a technique known as systematic desensitization, (gradually decreasing anxiety around intimacy) you will develop a comfort with emotional and physical intimacy.

Sixth, watch for patterns of sabotaging emotional/ physical intimacy. You have well-worn patterns of emotional distancing, and learning and practicing new patterns of connection won't be easy. You will undoubtedly discover patterns of sabotage 

Finally, enjoy! We have been created for intimacy. Intimacy is wonderful when we feel safe as well as having a sense of competency in relating. Be patient with each other as you develop a dance of intimacy. Taking things slow and easy will assist you in overcoming Intimacy Paralysis. Learn the language of emotions and become competent in making connection to your mate.

How are you doing in your marriage? Are you starving for warmth and affection? Do you believe you and your mate struggle from Intimacy Paralysis? If so, seek professional help or contact me for more information. Take responsibility where needed and create a plan for change. Let me know how these strategies work with you and your mate. Please email me or visit my website.

October 18, 2010

Dr. David Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life, 90 Days to a Fantastic Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.

Also, visit Dr. David Hawkins