Losing Direction: When Intimacy Avoiders Lead You Astray

Partners who desperately want intimacy often push it away. It’s easy to lose direction with them. They demand more openness from their partners but then deflect, attack or give double messages when their partners are more open.

Let’s look at how you might work with a couple named Sue and Joe. Sue expresses ongoing frustration about Joe being shut down and distant. She desperately wants him to be more intimate with her.

They come to see you after a particularly nasty fight. Joe reports how he risked telling Sue about his insecurity at work and his fear that he might be laid off.

Joe: I feel anxious about work. Things aren’t too good with my boss. I am anxious about what might be coming.

He goes on to talk more about feeling insecure and as he begins to be more open and to speak about his experience at work, Sue escalates quickly.

Sue: Work is all you ever think about. When will you ever think of me?

Joe: Why should I bother? You won’t listen to what’s troubling me.

Sue: I’m sick and tired of your whining. Why can’t you pay attention to me instead of being so bloody focused on your work?

Suddenly her needs are front and center. Her issue is more intense than his and she takes over and ignores what he just said. She doesn’t recognize that he is moving towards her emotionally and instead she moves to her past experience and is not present to what is happening now.

You recognize the risk Joe took. You know he doesn’t easily talk about his insecurity. That’s the part he is struggling with – revealing himself when he fears not being enough for her.

You know it is important to:

  • Support his brief movement into initiating intimate dialogue.
  • Resist the temptation to go faster than the couple can go.
  • Confront her process and see if she can recognize how her anxiety gets in the way of her having the intimacy she desires.

You do not want to get caught in the content of their fight!

You can do all of the above without losing direction. You might say:
“Sue, I see how distressed you are. In fact, I think you are so distressed that you missed Joe’s attempt to move towards you. He is being more open with you when he tells you his fears.

When he lets you into his struggles with his boss, he is actually treating you like a trustworthy confidante by telling you some things that are really important to him.

You think he’s talking about work, rather than revealing himself to you. You immediately remember all those times his work took him away from you. Suddenly you are in the past rather than recognizing that right here in the room he is present, he is participating, and he is telling you what matters to him in order to be closer to you.

There seems to be a part of you that wants a more open, loving and intimate relationship with him, and another part that keeps you safe. That part is scared to let him in for many reasons. For those of us who want intimacy, sometimes we have to welcome it first even if it is not in the form we’d like it to be.”
Now you can structure the session to:

  • Help Joe come forward to express even more.
  • Help Sue be quiet enough to hear him.
  • Work more at illuminating the side of her that is keeping him away right now.

Working with Sue’s distancing gives you a way to help her be accountable for the part of her that deflects the intimacy she desires.

Together you can create a language that allows Sue to accept without shame how she protects herself. So when she pushes Joe away again in future sessions you can ask,  “Which part of you do you want to bring into the room today… the part of you that wants to stay safe or the part that wants to take risks and allow Joe to move closer to you?”

Then you can encourage Joe to continue taking risks to reveal himself more.

It is very, very easy to lose direction with partners who fear intimacy. These partners are unaware of the internal conflict that leads them to push away the intimacy they desire. Understanding this dynamic more clearly will enable you to steadily maintain your direction!

  1. Please comment by sharing ways that you have encouraged couples to overcome their tendency to distance themselves from the intimacy they desire.
  2. You can learn a lot more about intimacy anxiety in The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy training program. One of the hidden treasures of the program is the large collection of recorded calls. In fact, if this topic grabs your attention, you can listen to an archived call titled, “Recognizing Developmental Progress: Inches and Openings” within moments of registering. Sign Up Now and listen to any recordings immediately.

This blog post is from a 9-part series called “Avoid Losing Control, Momentum or Direction in Couples Therapy.” Click here to see the other articles in the series.

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Excellent discussion, came in the right moment


Excellent…I am right there with my clients. Wife sabotages husband’s tries to be open. Thank you for the HUGE tips.


Thanks. This came exactly 24 hrs before I enter into another session with this exact couple.

Deb Hecker
Deb Hecker

Thank goodness for this couple. They keep us in business! Thanks, Ellyn, as always.

Barb Leigh
Barb Leigh

Very clear and so helpful. It is almost like I was in the room with you, learning a masterful way to help this couple. I really appreciate all your examples.

Ümit Çetin
Ümit Çetin

Thanks Ellyn, as always I learn so much from your exquisite work. Your interventions here are both empathic and confrontative. Your language is so respectful; you illuminate and get them to own their intrapsychic conflicts while also resorting to some psychoeducation, i.e., tackling the issue of intimacy from a differentiation viewpoint.

In a recent session with a couple, the wife, wanting more closeness as her husband, who was a writer, would spend a lot of time alone focusing on his work, was feeling especially hopeless. They were celebrating his newly published book by having some intimate time together when, all of a sudden, the man said, “But why do you have you such a large head?” The woman, having a low body confidence, got instantly upset and the two had a big fight. While the man first claimed that he only wanted to tease her and that’s much ado about nothing, he then admitted that the intimacy at that moment had been too much for him, that he was scared to directly ask for some privacy. I had them reenact the scene to get him to directly ask for some separate time while helping her to inquire about his desire and contain her own frustration. Upon reading your case example, I realize that complementing this session with the parts language would be much more meaningful for their resisting parts would also be highlighted.

Marcia Naomi Berger
Marcia Naomi Berger

Thank you , Ellyn. It’s all about the process and I like how you explain it to the couple gently, making it safe for them to risk expressing feelings including fear.

Donna Shanahan
Donna Shanahan

Thanks so much Ellyn. I see this happening all too often in the couples I work with. Your insights will help me a lot in my work with them.

Dr. Sara Joy David
Dr. Sara Joy David

I have three couples who are all variations on this theme. One is a gay couple only two years into their relationship. One was unfaithful when stressed which led to uncovering childhood sexual abuse by a family acquaintance. His revelation led to increased bonding followed by controlling and OCD behaviours by the partner terrified of trusting the healing process. I have had to be lovingly present and confrontational with each at different moments. They are becoming more accountable and accepting of each other’s issues. Another couple, 9 years in are seeking to get pregnant and are dealing with emotional blackmail from a sister of the woman. That sister has a terminal illness and is draining her family financially and emotionally. The husband is at his wit’s end and has divorced financially but does all he can to stay in for his wife who increasingly escapes into work as a lawyer. My strategy is much like yours. The third are a pilot and successful marketing sales leader who are uncoupling but seeking to make sense of their attachment wounds in the relationship and prior to it. Your series with Clinton and Juliet and at the recent summit have helped and validated my approach. Thanks.

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy. Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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