Why intimacy stirs up conflictual emotions

Getting intimate with a person, either a partner, a friend or even our therapist, is not always a smooth and easy process for everyone. 

In this instance, the word intimacy means not only a relationship characterised by physical closeness, as we may spend a lot of time with a person without being intimate with them. For an intimate relationship is meant as an emotional relationship connoted by affection, familiarity, mutual support and sharing of our thoughts and emotions. Being intimate with someone entails revealing our deepest secrets, weaknesses and vulnerabilities: this is the reason why it is sometimes hard to get so intimately close to someone. 

Our personal way of dealing with intimacy usually reflects a pattern that we have learnt through experience during our life. Our early-years experiences and relationships seem to affect this pattern the most. 

This pattern has been discovered by psychiatrist John Bowlby in the 30’s, who named it attachment style. The original theory has been enriched and expanded thanks to the work of many authors and it still remains the benchmark for understanding people and relationships.  

Attachment theory suggests that each of us has its own specific attachment pattern based on deep and established expectations rooted in our infancy, but that keep on influencing us during our whole life.
These expectations include specific beliefs about:

  • how much we feel to be love-worthy
  • how much the attachment figure (our parents in our early years/our partner in our adult life) will be available and loving
  • the outcome of the relationship: positive, rejective or unpredictable

These patterns are usually well recognisable in our relationship history: in our adult life it is indeed very common to find ourselves in relationships where specific patterns tend to be replicated and as a consequence where specific issues are re-experienced. 

In the best-case scenario, people with a secure attachment style will choose a “secure-attachment” partner. They will create long-lasting relationships based on trust and where intimacy and independency are well balanced. 

But for around 40% of people, the scenario is more complicated as they carry an insecure attachment from their childhood. 

Sometimes, as intimacy implies opening up to the other person and showing our weaknesses, some of us may feel intense and conflictual emotions. Indeed some of us may intensely covet being intimately close to a person but at the same time may experience intense fear of being hurt, used or rejected, or intense anger of being so vulnerable, thus the relationship will be accompanied by an intense anxiety. These emotions, if experienced altogether in a close relationship, can be very confusing but if we refer to attachment theory, these reactions are totally understandable.

Ambivalent attachment adults experienced in their childhood unpredictable caregivers, who in certain instances responded properly to their emotional needs and in others did not respond at all. This unpredictability didn’t allow the kid to form a stable image of the caregiver and of himself as love-worthy. As a consequence these kids intensely suffered separation, as they were not so sure if the caregiver would be back, and they desperately attempted to be as close and dependent as possible to the caregiver. At the same time they did not enjoy the time spent with them, as they were already fearing the future departure. This ambivalent attachment is re-experienced in adult relationships: the person intensely swings between being dependent and very close to the partner and feeling angry, jealous, not wanted or rejected. 

Another type of attachment is the avoidant style: people who keep distances in relationships as a protective way for avoiding being hurt or rejected.

Even if attachment plays such an important role in our relationships, the good news is that it is not stable. Attachment style can change during lifespan: as Patricia Crittenden theorises, there are particular moments in our development that represent potential shifting points, where attachment can be reorganised towards a more secure organisation. 

Change is possible thanks to its acknowledgment, new experiences, new positive relationships and psychotherapy.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Ilaria Tedeschi

Ilaria Tedeschi is a cognitive behavioural psychotherapist, BACP registered, working in Marylebone both in English and Italian, with adult and adolescent clients experiencing depressive, anxiety, sleep and relational issues.… Read more

Written by Ilaria Tedeschi

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