Intimacy defence mechanisms – are your standards too high?

Though it may be counter-intuitive, most of us, particularly those of us who have been hurt in the past, defend against the very love we desire. We erect love barriers, or intimacy defence mechanisms, in an attempt to protect ourselves from potential hurt. Rejecting someone before they have a chance to reject you eliminates the risk of emotional pain.This behaviour isn’t limited to perpetual singletons; intimacy-avoiding manoeuvres can be triggered within relationships themselves as couples grow closer and provide a convenient escape route for cold-footed partners.The trickiest hurdle when tackling these maladaptive behaviours is that we may not even be consciously aware of what we’re doing. So how do we figure out if we’re unnecessarily pushing love away, and how do we overcome it?

Intimacy behaviours are learnt through behavioural modelling from an early age and reinforced by relationship experience throughout life. We learn how to connect with others both through observation of role models such as parental figures and experience of childhood attachment to our caregivers. Each experience along the way, from our first kiss to our fourth heartbreak, affects how we behave with future partners. While earlier experiences hold the most weight, the way we love and connect with others is malleable and, if necessary, can be changed. 

The key is self-awareness. Identifying negative thought patterns and challenging them as they arise is the first step to overcoming self-defeating behaviours and changing them for constructive and fulfilling ones. It can be difficult to be objective and unbiased about your own tendency to pull back from someone, and to know when you’re being overly defensive, or justified in reacting to the other person's provocations. Next time you feel yourself pulling back, try to analyse objectively whether you are being reasonable.One way to do this while in a relationship can be to look at what you actually find unacceptable, deal breakers, and compare these with your partner’s present behaviour. If you can imagine becoming involved with someone in the future who occasionally leaves the dishes in the sink, but you’re exceedingly upset that your partner is exhibiting the same behaviour, you may be over-focusing on their shortcomings. Concentrate on their good qualities instead. On the flip side, if you know that there are certain behaviours that you cannot stand, and your partner has begun to evidence them, these could be real deal breakers. 

Another way in which we can keep intimacy at arm’s length is through over idealisation of partners, prospective or current. We can construct vast lists and tick boxes about what we think we need in a partner to make us happy – from personality traits to family background and from height to hair colour. Too often these criteria are ultimately unrealistic and subconsciously, we know this. The bar is never quite reached and so we never have to let anyone in. 

The key to defeating this tendency is open-mindedness. Being open-minded and accepting of your partner’s shortcomings makes way for a compromise, cementing emotional intimacy. Accepting your partner, flaws and all, creates a bond between you that’s stronger than any formed by them meeting all your idealistic standards. If by some miracle, we met someone who did perfectly fit the mould of our fantasy partner, we probably wouldn’t quite know what to do with ourselves. We may argue that some of our standards might seem extreme but are reasonable when taking past experiences into account. For example, if we once dated an unfaithful lawyer, we may find ourselves reluctant to romantically engage with any other law professionals again. While it’s important to learn from your mistakes, it’s also important not to tar all prospective partners with the same brush. 

Ultimately, intimacy defence mechanisms stem from a fear of vulnerability. It’s important to realise that there’s nothing wrong with being vulnerable – in fact, it’s how humans connect with each other on a deeper level. Becoming aware of the fact that you feel vulnerable and are acting too critically because of it is the key to understanding this behaviour and changing it. Understanding yourself is important to finding your perfect partner and accepting yourself even more so.