What’s Underneath the Cat and Mouse Game Present in Most Relationships?

The fear of intimacy.

I know. Most people have a hard time wrapping their head around the fact that people experience a fear of intimacy and a strong desire for it at the same time. What makes it even more crazy is fear that shows up in relationships and intimacy is often hidden from conscious awareness. 

Author David Rico is my favorite expert on the specific fears that create the cat and mouse game you see can see to varying degrees in most romantic relationships: the fear of engulfment and the fear of abandonment. The level of commitment or longevity of the relationship do not seem to inoculate us against these fears.

The Fear of Abandonment:

Most people are familiar with the fear of abandonment. 

David Richo says the fear of abandonment is “the fear that someone will go away and we will not survive it. (“Not to survive” is defined as being defenseless and resourceless)” (From his book: When Love Meets Fear: Being Defenseless and Resource-full p.122). 

So, in essence, once we are attached to someone, we fear that we will not be able to make it through a separation from that person. In addition, we will respond to anything we may perceive as someone leaving, whether it is physically or emotionally. 

If you tend to experience the fear of abandonment, you might perceive someone leaving even when that is not the case because you are have gotten good at trying to predict and protect against the pain of separation. 

The Fear of Engulfment:

This fear is actually just as widespread and, in my experience as a therapist, seems even more difficult to notice for the person experiencing this kind of fear. 

The fear of engulfment is defined as “the fear of someone getting too close” (p. 122).  So, it is the fear that someone will invade our inner space, take us over in some way, or diminish who we are. 

Again, this fear is triggered by someone’s perception that they are getting crowded, when that might not be the case in reality. 

Both of these fears do not necessarily represent any real threat.  They are fears that relate to experiences in the past, ones that already occurred because, as David Richo points out,  “An adult cannot be abandoned, only left, not engulfed, only crowded” (p. 123). 

As adults, even if someone leaves, we can take care of ourselves whereas a child’s survival would be compromised.  If someone intrudes on us, we can speak up to create space whereas a child has to tolerate the conditions until he can find another way to survive. 

David Richo says that most people experience these fears to some degree in their intimate relationships, as they are simply a condition of being in relationship with another.  Also, it is possible to be on both sides of the dynamic at different times, although, you may tend toward experiencing one fear over the other. 

How to Identify These Fears:

The fear of abandonment is easily recognized since this person is the one who is often trying to fix things, will compromise themselves to hold onto their beloved, and the words they use to communicate about what is bothering them matches the fear:  they do not want their person to go away.

Some of David Richo’s words to demonstrate how the fear of engulfment shows up are:  aloof, harried, showing anger, entitlement, “coldness, refusals to make commitments, need for more space and more secrets, indifference, intolerance, rigid boundaries, embarrassment about affection in public” (p. 125).

Interesting Points about Intimacy Fears:

The person who experiences the fear of abandonment will usually be the one to leave the relationship.  That usually happens because the person who fears engulfment can tolerate the situation because they continue to run and have gotten good at it, so they don’t get engulfed…but they also don’t experience the reward of intimacy.  Ultimately, the person with the abandonment fear gets fed up with fighting for the relationship, not getting their needs met and compromising themselves, so they are the one to walk away.

Another interesting point that David Richo makes is that “the fear of intimacy is directly proportional to the fear of abandonment” (p. 124). That means the person upset about their partner going away is just as afraid of their partner being close.  Except, it doesn’t feel that way, so their fear of intimacy is usually masked until they choose a partner that is willing to stay present or, who experiences the fear of abandonment to a greater degree, pushing them into the fear of engulfment. 

Essentially, these fears are two sides of the same coin.

Where Do Engulfment Fears Come From?

David Richo says that the person experiencing engulfment fears (usually they do not experience it like fear) may have had an experience of having over protective or helicopter parents.  This is part of why people will defend their parents and their childhood because it is not a question of deprivation or abuse; it is a question of too much. 

Their natural human drive toward independence and growth may have been stunted and compromised by over involved parents.  This causes a very unpleasant internal experience but it is hard for the conscious mind to perceive this since it does not seem like anything is “wrong” on the outside, it just feels bad inside. 

Another reason people may have this fear is if parents were very critical when they got close to them.  So, allowing someone to come close equals someone finding that something is wrong with you. 

Another formula that seems to cause this fear is if someone had a parent who may not have been very aware of their child’s experience because they were dealing with their own overwhelming experience of addiction, domestic violence, chaos or financial struggle.  So, closeness in this experience was the equivalent of being bulldozed by the parents’ needs. 

In all of these scenarios, I don’t mean to suggest that parents of someone who experiences the fear of engulfment are bad, evil people.  No.  They are probably great people doing their very best who love their kids a lot.

Being an Adult in Relationships:

We are all human who are beautiful and flawed raised by humans who are beautiful and flawed.  It is our job as adults to be aware of these injuries that caused the fear and work through them so that we can love healthfully.  

How To Deal With These Fears When They Come Up:

There is a formula that David Richo suggests: admit it out loud, stay with it for a second longer than you can stand and act as if the fear was not holding you back in that second. 

That means, you let your partner have space and attend to yourself while you are afraid of them leaving or you let your partner get a little closer by holding them, sharing what you have inside or take a tiny step in committing to your relationship and breathe through it!  This literally helps to rewire your nervous system and the neural pathways in the brain.

Finally, David Richo instills some hope when he says that we have a program for dealing with these fears as adults:  “When you go, I grieve and let you go.”  “When you get too close, I ask you to give me more room” (p. 121).

If you find yourself experiencing these fears or this dynamic in your relationships, contact us. We’d love to support you in working through it.

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