Understanding the Intimacy Avoidance Marriage

Understanding The Intimacy Avoidance Marriage

Revised 1/4/20

Intimacy Avoidance is a concept that might seem confusing. We pretty much accept the fact that being human means being normatively wired to seek and maintain community and connection. How can there be such a thing as an Intimacy Avoidant Marriage? After all, isn’t bonding with a life partner essential to the continued existence of our species?

intimacy-avoidant-marriage

Sadly,  sufferers of intimacy avoidance might want love… but some actually fear intimacy more.

They are, for numerous and diverse reasons, uncomfortable with the kinds of human closeness that help us to self-soothe, regulate our emotions, or feel connected with an intimate partner.

While some may avoid close relationships entirely, some intimacy avoidants do occasionally have friendships, love affairs, and even marry.

Frequently these marriages seem to start well. An intense emotional or sexual attraction leads to a felt (but superficial) bond.

But eventually, the Intimacy Avoidant begins to feel alternately trapped, bored or smothered, or confused, and they may initiate a pattern of hyper-focusing on their new spouse’s shortcomings and begins to systematically disengage emotionally.

Or they may desire intimacy but are completely bewildered and confused by what their partner expects of them.

It is essential in working with an Intimacy Avoidant Marriage for the couples therapist to carefully unpack the complaining spouse’s narrative. Despite what you may have read elsewhere on the internet, The notion of Intimacy Avoidance is not simple, but many therapists do tend to over-simplify this issue.

If the Intimacy Avoidance Marriage Breaks Up

If the Intimacy Avoidance Marriage breakup, the avoidant partner may continue to socialize but frequently loses any desire to date, and for any sexual intimacy. Intimacy Avoidants often drift from one doomed relationship to another or avoid romantic and sexual relationships periodically— typically for a limited time (weeks, months, or years). And some Intimacy Avoidants are content to swear off relationships forever.

Intimacy Avoidance is sometimes related to early childhood trauma (physical neglect, emotional rejection, or other forms of mistreatment), all of which become the foundation of their difficulties with intimacy in later adulthood. Rather than experiencing strong bonding, children who are neglected or abused “learn” that affection is conditional, abusive, absent, or overpowering.

They also learn (on an emotional level) that to get too close is to get hurt, and so it’s best to flee from these feelings.  As an adult, the Intimacy Avoidant usually doesn’t connect the dots between their early life experiences and current adult disappointments.

However, Intimacy Avoidance may also be related to adult-onset PTSD, a personality disorder, and missed most often…a neurodivergent partner usually the husband) who is otherwise high-functioning, but on the autism spectrum.

Here are some examples of intimacy avoidant behaviors:

  • The eternal bachelor. He has many friends but rarely engages in serious dating or courtship.
  • The workaholic who habitually subordinates their intimate partner to the margin of their attention.
  • The soccer mom or football dad who compulsively lives a “kid-centric” lifestyle, neglecting the needs of their spouse.
  • The serial dater who drops partners as intimacy expectations rise.
  • The couple that is more enthralled with technology and entertainment than they are with each other.
  • The emotionally abusive partner uses displays of anger and criticism to push their partner away.

Help for Intimacy Avoidance

Attachment styles established in childhood are not cast in stone. Through therapy, and the deliberate pursuit of healthy relationships, intimacy avoidants can build a sense of what Robert Weiss describes as “earned security.”

Therapy helps some Intimacy Avoidants to transcend their early childhood programming and acquire the necessary skills essential for authentic intimacy and lasting emotional bonds.

Couples therapy for an Intimacy Avoidant Marriage often begins with identifying and addressing co-morbid mental health problems, such as depression, addictions, anxiety, personality disorders, or alexithymia.

Treating The Intimacy Avoidant Marriage Requires Exploring the Family of Origin

I’m annoyed with how many therapy bloggers simplify the notion of Intimacy Avoidance as an act of belligerent withholding. The word “narcissism” also gets tossed around a lot. This is shallow, simplistic thinking at it’s worst.

Self-protection is not the same as narcissism. Many intimacy avoidants come by their fear of intimacy honestly, and to brand them all as selfish narcissists is as unwise as it is unkind.

intimacy avoidant marriageIntimacy avoidance is difficult to discuss in blogs because it is complicated. It’s a catch-all term.

While I agree that some intimacy avoidants might have personality disorders, many suffer from untreated PTSD or Developmental Trauma.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s typical to see an Intimacy Avoidant Marriage also contains elements of Depression, Anxiety, emotional dysregulation, and trauma.

Another issue that frequently labeled as Intimacy Avoidance is how neurodivergent men on the spectrum struggle in marriage.

These men are typically misdiagnosed as narcissists. It takes specialized training to recognize husbands that are neurologically on the spectrum. Unfortunately, 99.99% of couples therapists have not invested in this training. And as a result, when they are treating an Intimacy Avoidant Marriage with a husband on the spectrum, they often make the marital situation worse.

Because we are often the last resort, It’s been our experience that neurodivergent husbands are a significant population of the Intimacy Avoidant Marriages that we see. Most couples therapists miss Aspergers.

Any and all co-existing conditions must be carefully assessed, identified, and addressed alongside couples therapy for the Intimacy Avoidant Marriage. Each case is different.  And sometimes, individual therapy is also needed.

The Importance of Family History

This work usually involves a gentle probing of early attachment history, as well as psycho-education on the connection between their emotional deficits and difficulties they are experiencing in later adulthood. Establishing a safe therapeutic bond is essential in treating Intimacy Avoidance.

The Intimacy Avoidant Marriage begins to improve as the Intimacy Avoidant Spouse achieves some degree of success in regulating their anxiety. Developing self-awareness of how (and why), they act the way they do is critical.

Not all Intimacy Avoidants are alike. And not all Intimacy Avoidant Marriages are the same either. For some, intimacy avoidance therapy is multi-modal; involving a combination of cognitive restructuring, developing increased social skills, group therapy, social learning, and perhaps even medication.

On the surface, Intimacy Avoidance may not appear as a severe problem. To varying degrees, we accept that most American men have been socialized to avoid strong emotions. But in the Intimacy Avoidant Marriage, this problem looms larger as the couple moves through time together.

An Intimacy Avoidant Marriage casts a long inter-generational shadow. It negatively impacts the overall quality of life for both partners and their children as well. With treatment, a person suffering from Intimacy Avoidance can realize a deeper capacity for joy and connection, and overcome the deficits from their emotionally impoverished childhood.

Do You Have an Intimacy Avoidant Marriage?

Call us for more information at 844-926-8753 to reach Cindy at extension 2.

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About the Author Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.

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