Life traumas, parental models, and more.
Some people who seem aloof and unneedy are telling the truth about themselves. They choose to live their lives without emotional connection or true intimacy.
But most people who act as if they don’t need emotional connection desperately ache for it. Because of painful life experiences or personality difficulties, they’ve become emotionally isolated. It may have been the only way they could survive, but they are deeply lonely inside.
Many have had partners who’ve tried to reach them, hoping that, in time, they could gain their trust. But if those partners cannot break through the formidable emotional walls, they become lonely themselves, and eventually give up trying and leave the relationship.
After many failed partnerships, these emotionally isolated people realize that their pretense is dooming them to live forever without genuine intimacy. They can see how they are pushing away the very connection they ache for.
That is when I typically meet them. In the therapeutic setting, safe from the judgment they fear, they can tell me how lonely they feel inside. They want to understand why they have been unable to trust their partners to understand the painful vulnerability that holds them back from being honest.
If you are one of the many people who suffer from this kind of intimacy deprivation, you can begin to heal by searching for the reasons that formed who you are.
Following are the four most common reasons why people who crave love and affection cannot share those desires. They may help you find your way.
1. Life Traumas
Many emotionally isolated people pretending to be unneedy have been that way since childhood. Whether genetically influenced or environmentally caused, they maintain control by not allowing themselves to be vulnerable in any way.
Perhaps they have lived in unpredictable circumstances in which they could not rely on anyone for understanding or help. They may have had to heal or nurture themselves when they were frightened or vulnerable. When they desperately needed understanding and support, they may have been pushed aside or humiliated for those needs. They could even have been put on a pedestal as a child, seen by their nurturers as not needing any help because of their competence and ability.
If there was traumatic physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, they knew that enduring that pain would hurt less than fighting back, or that resisting would only lead to more anguish. Believing that there would never be understanding or liberation from their circumstances, they learned to act as if nothing bothered them. Choosing emotional isolation was the best chance of survival.
2. Inherited Characteristics
There are people who are just born more introverted than others. They have trouble finding words to describe how they feel, often expecting confrontation or disharmony. They often attract partners who are comfortable taking over and controlling the relationship, which protects them from conflict, but keeps them locked into their internal worlds.
There are some people who are too easily woundable. They are extremely sensitive to rejection or abandonment, and will not risk opening up for fear that they will be seen as less valuable if they do. Appearing unneedy, easy-going, and nonchalant, they can have a certain allure of not being knowable. They may have experienced those anticipated fears when they have opened up, and endure their emotional isolation to stay safe.
Others suffer from social anxiety. They fear that they will be judged unfavorably if they are known, and they incessantly worry about how they are experienced by others. Their anxiety immobilizes them and makes them too fearful to accurately identify how they are seen, and they imagine the worst.
3. Fear of Intimacy
Many people who need intimate connection are afraid of being entrapped. To protect that fear, they will act as if they don’t need closeness to avoid letting their partners know. They wait until their frustrated and lonely partners are pulling away, and then pull them back by opening up just enough to give them hope again.
That pattern of closing off and then opening up permeates their relationships, often re-entrapping their partners to try harder to get close, only to be pushed away again. Their goal, whether unconscious or not, is to keep their partners not too close and not too far away. It may work for a while, particularly with partners who are deeply in love with them, but it eventually becomes too costly for them to stay.
4. Fear of Vulnerability
Closed-off people may have become that way because voicing their vulnerability, anger, pain, and frustrations have been dismissed or mocked in the past. They have responded to those rejections by becoming tight-lipped and carefully monitored. Terrified of pushing away the love they so desperately crave, they choose to brood quietly, perhaps sending a clear message that there is much inside that cannot come out.
They might show their dependency and caring in other ways, but cannot do it emotionally. They attract partners who want to be trusted to hear those internal anguishes but are not able to get to them.
Sadly, if they do finally let down, their partners often do not have the bandwidth to respond to the intensity of emotions that erupt, further proving to the emotional isolates that there is no one who can ever understand.
Sadly, many hiding under the pretense of preferred emotional isolation develop a dignity about who they have become, feeling proud that they can “handle things themselves.” They become more and more hesitant to give up that martyred nobility.
It is only when the sadness and loneliness become unbearable that emotionally isolated people are willing to take the risks to find authentic connection. They must choose transparency and authenticity over safety. They need a partner who can understand their inner conflict and welcome their difficulty in learning to ask for what they need.
I have helped many couples in the midst of these transformations, and they have a high probability of success if both partners stay the course.
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