“To love is to risk not being loved in return. To hope is to risk pain. To try is to risk failure, but risk must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.” Leo Buscaglia
Edgar’s marriage is in trouble and it’s been that way for quite some time. His wife Joan noticed that for several years Edgar has been giving less of himself in their relationship. Edgar doesn’t deny this. Worried that his wife is seriously considering divorce, a fire has been lit under Edgar and he’s now much more present on both a practical and emotional level. As his wife Joan describes, “I can feel his presence more and more. It’s like he’s bringing more of himself into the marriage again. I know we have more work to do, but it feels really good.”
We can speculate as to why Edgar withdrew from his wife—we’ve all been there and done that. Hurt feelings, difficulties with intimacy that stem from old wounds, crazy schedules and a frenetic pace of life that would pull apart even the strongest relationship; of course, the “why” of why we pull away from our spouse/partner is important. But knowing the “why” isn’t enough for intimacy or to restore a distressed relationship.
Fear and Intimacy
Over the years, I’ve worked with many couples who remained stuck out of fear—a fear that lingers even after couples learned effective communication skills and were able to respond appropriately to each other’s needs (needs for emotional safety, understanding, etc). As one wife once shared, “I should be able to trust him more, but I don’t know why I hold myself back…”
This is an important point for all of us to reflect on:
At times we hold ourselves back from opening up emotionally to our partner (and to continue to remain emotionally open), even when we feel confident in his/her ability to respond lovingly to us. When this occurs, we’ve stopped taking risks in our marriage or relationship. One of the biggest hurdles to risk- taking in intimate relationships is fear (and often we don’t recognize that it is fear holding us back).
The Inhibiting Power of Fear
Fear immobilizes us—a powerful chain that keeps you still when a part of you wants to reach for what is yours. Fear shrinks our world, preventing us from seeing the vastness of potential and possibility that exists in any given moment. Said differently, fear is a breeding ground for stagnation and for staying mired in the status quo.
When a fear of risk-taking is at work, you will cling to the familiar, the known relationship patterns and routines that feel safest (even when these patterns feel stale and stifle your life energy and growth). Understanding how these fears shape your life and relationship is an important part of the self-growth process. However, this understanding won’t necessarily move you toward taking the small risks that emotional and physical intimacy require.
Action is needed in addition to understanding.
Emotional Intimacy and Risk-Taking
What kind of risk-taking does intimacy require?
Intimacy (emotional and physical) is about sharing yourself—allowing your spouse/partner to see and engage with the deepest, most vulnerable parts of you. It’s about letting go of certainty, giving up control and relinquishing power.
Indeed, this can stir anxiety even in the most enlightened couple! But risk-taking doesn’t have to be an-all-or none process. Think of risk-taking as a never-ending series of small steps (rather than impulsively jumping into the deep end of the risk-taking pool).
And it’s important to note that what can feel easy to one person can feel very risky to another. There is no one-size-fits-all risk-taking norm.
Emotional Intimacy and Risk-Taking Action Step
The first step in moving toward deeper, more meaningful intimacy is to monitor whenever you find yourself holding back in some way from your spouse/partner (blocking intimacy).
You may want to keep a journal to help you track any patterns that might exist in how you block intimacy. This might be subtle (like tensing up physically, looking away when your partner is trying to engage with you, or distracting yourself by becoming suddenly busy whenever an intimate moment is possible). Self-inhibition can also involve certain types of self-talk or thoughts that keep you emotionally distant.
A thorough self-monitoring would involve your thoughts, feelings, physical reactions and behaviors.
Once you become attuned to all the subtle and overt ways you hold yourself back from taking risks in your marriage/relationship, begin to ask yourself:
What is one small risk I can take right now that would allow me to move through my fears?
One final note: The risk-taking discussed in this article highlights a common occurrence: The way in which fear might hold you back even when your spouse/partner is responsive (as responsive as possible) and sensitive to your needs. If your partner isn’t responsive to you and it feels clear that risk-taking would make you vulnerable to neglectful or abusive behavior, then clearly taking greater risks emotionally isn’t what is needed in your relationship.
Dr. Rich Nicastro