Part of my work with men and relationships is with individuals who have a tendency to experience an overwhelming urge to distance themselves the closer they and their partner start to become. This is often a result of anxiety around having another person truly know and see all aspects of them, having never experienced a feeling of safety around being open and intimate. As a consequence, they are not able to foster or experience the intimacy they seek.
Jeb Kinnison, the author of “Avoidant” which provides balanced, in-depth insight into this issue, has this to say: …since he was brought up not to depend on anyone or reveal feelings that might not be acceptable to caregivers, his first instinct when someone gets really close to him is to run away….Should a partner penetrate his armor, unconscious alarm bells go off and he retreats to either aloneness or the safety of companionship with others who do not realize he is not what he appears on the surface.
Because men in our culture, from a young age, still tend to be given strong messages linking power and autonomy to self-reliance and lack of emotional expression, this issue tends to be more common among men than women. Although emotional avoidance or distancing occurs on a continuum and is experienced differently by different people, below are some of the more serious behaviors often displayed by those who experience high levels of (conscious or subconscious) anxiety when it comes to emotional intimacy.
- Saying (or thinking) “I’m not ready to commit”- but staying together nonetheless, sometimes for years.
- Focusing on small imperfections in your partner: the way s/he talks, dresses, eats, or (fill in the blank) and allowing it to get in the way of your romantic feelings.
- Pining after an ex-girlfriend or boyfriend- (the “phantom ex”…)
- Flirting with others- a hurtful way to introduce insecurity into the relationship
- Not saying “I love you” – while implying that you do have felings toward the other person
- Pulling away when things are going well (e.g. not calling for several days after an intimate date)
- Forming relationships with an impossible future, such as with someone who is married
- “Checking out mentally” when your partner is talking to you
- Keeping secrets and leaving things foggy- to maintain your feeling of independence
- Avoiding physical closeness- e.g., not wanting to share the same bed, not wanting to have sex, walking several strides ahead of your partner
This way of experiencing close relationships is rarely a consciously aggressive action (although damaging to all involved) but is instead a reactive coping strategy learned early in life that was once useful and vital to survival and emotional growth. It’s possible for clients to adopt more effective ways of relating that allow them to better get their needs met but they first need to understand the dynamic at play. Accepting and supportive partners can also play a critical role in this understanding and any subsequent changes.
Another part of my work with men and relationships involves helping men better understand the dynamic between themselves and their partner, whatever that dynamic may be. Couples will sometimes, without realizing it, develop unhealthy bonding patterns over the course of the relationship that hinder emotional and physical intimacy. There are many lenses one can use to explore this dynamic ranging from adult attachment theory to love languages to exploring various aspects of one’s self that may be bonding with one’s partner and those that are not.