Fear of Being Vulnerable

by | Healthy Marriage Series


We could begin with any of the four underlying problems listed in the introduction, since they all carry with them the potential for creating difficulty in our marriages. However, I have chosen to begin with the fear of intimacy since of the four, it is the one underlying problem that is most common to all of us “normal neurotics”.

Granted, for many it is present in such a small dose that it is practically undetectable and not much of an issue at all.  Nonetheless, for reasons I will suggest here, we all struggle with a fear of intimacy to some degree and at various times in our lives. It may be situational and it may come and go from time to time and from relationship to relationship, but we all experience to some degree, a fear of the very thing we want in our relationships.

It is also important to point out that while each of us has this fear in common with our fellow human beings it is not the way any of us started out in our journey through life.  In fact, the opposite is true originally; what we all have in common from birth is a very strong need and drive for physical as well as emotional intimacy with others, rather than a fear of it.

We will eventually get to how our fear of intimacy can lead to lots of hard work that wares us down and out in our marriage, but first let’s take a look at where our need for intimacy comes from, and how we all to various degrees also develop the need to insulate and protect ourselves from the very thing we want the most.



In order to understand our fear of intimacy, we must also understand our original and innate need for it. It first shows up in the form of physical intimacy but it is only a matter of time until our physical needs for connecting with others begins to include the need for emotional connection with others as well.

We were all born with the God-given need, capacity and drive for both emotional and physical intimacy.  It is only later-but early on-that our fear of the very intimacy we so strongly desire from birth is learned and acquired. This learning to fear the very intimacy we originally craved usually comes about gradually and as a result of our many imperfect and less than ideal experiences and relationships that came our way after birth, especially during, but not limited to, our early formative years.

Anyone who doubts this notion of an early and innate need for connecting with others by way of physical intimacy need only observe the behavior patterns of a toddler.

Early on very significant and convincing signs of a need for intimacy via physical touch begin to appear as they reach out to be held, as they smile when cuddled, and by the sound of cooing when those around them physically stroke and touch them with loving care.

In my book, I relate a story about a discovery that was made quite by chance in England during the 1940’s.  This discovery occurred in an orphanage located somewhere in London, and it gives further credence to the importance and even necessity of physical closeness and intimacy we humans are born with.

This orphanage was actually little more than a warehouse for either unwanted babies, or for those whose parents had been killed or were missing as a result of the ravages of war. It was not a place where the emotional and intimacy needs of the babies were addressed. In fairness, little was known at the time about the importance of touch and physical closeness. Furthermore, the staff was no doubt so consumed with the physical and survival needs of these babies that time would not have allowed for much more than the bare necessities anyway.  And it did provide an important service of shelter, clothing and nutritional sustenance for these little war babies.

The death rate of babies brought to this particular orphanage for care and protection was consistently around 50%. Nearly one half of the babies brought in died within a year and a half of their arrival.  Then one day someone came up with the notion of actually taking the time to touch the babies each day. So the order was given that every employee of the orphanage from director to janitor was required to reach down and touch every baby they passed during the course of their daily responsibilities and duties. They were not required to pick them up or to spend much time in touching them; they were simply instructed to reach down and gently stroke any infant they came within an arm’s length of.

The eventual results of this new requirement were astounding and completely unexpected.  Within two years of this new mandate to touch and gently stroke the babies, the mortality rate dropped from 50% to right around 15%!  While this is far from a scientifically significant study, some degree of cause-effect could be argued, especially in light of what we have since learned about the importance of human touch and the well- being of infants.

To further support the importance of physical intimacy during our early years, it has been shown through brain scans that the actual brain size is generally larger among infants who have been given more physical stimulation early in their development. Those babies who received more stroking, coddling and holding developed a larger brain size than babies who had been given only minimal amounts of physical stimulation. In addition, the babies who were given less physical touch developed more space between their brain spheres than those who had received more attention physically. These brain size differences were found even though the babies in both groups received similar and adequate nutrition.

While the first and early signs of our need for intimacy are physical, this need slowly begins to include the need for emotional intimacy with others as well. As our need for physical touch becomes more of a valuable luxury and less a necessity for survival, our need for emotional intimacy increases. But as the old milk commercial goes, “You never out grow your need for milk”, so too it could be said that as we grow and mature past our  childhood years, we never outgrow our need for the physical touch of others, but we do develop a need for emotional intimacy as well.



In spite of our originally strong and intense need for physical and emotional intimacy with others, something else that is interesting (unfortunate might be a better description) inevitably begins to happen along the way.  And it can complicate our lives and relationships dramatically. Very early on we begin to encounter experiences with others that slowly but surely begin to create a conflict with our original need for intimacy.  As a result of these imperfect experiences and relationships, we begin to think that maybe, “this intimacy stuff isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I just got hurt and I need to protect myself”.

“I just reached out to be close and I got pushed aside.  Maybe it doesn’t pay to be vulnerable and to trust.  Maybe I’d better protect myself, insulate myself so I can’t be hurt like that again.  Maybe I shouldn’t let myself be so vulnerable next time.”

“Mommy always held me when I needed it. Now there’s a new baby that takes up all her time”.

“All I wanted was to play and daddy pulled the paper up in front of his face”.

“I just wanted to talk about my bad day and all I got was, ‘Get over it. We all have bad days once in a while’”.

“I told daddy I was scared at school and he told me to grow up and stop complaining”.

“Just because mommy and daddy don’t want to live together should not mean that I can’t see daddy every day. And sometimes when I do see him, he doesn’t seem to be too excited to see me”

“When mommy and daddy fight, I get yelled at”.

It is of course natural and even inevitable that many of our needs to be close could not have always been satisfied by Mom and Dad.  The best of mom’s give birth to another baby who then takes up some of her time and attention that was once just ours. The best of daddies from time to time choose the paper over his child’s need for closeness.  The best of parents can get so wrapped up in what they are doing that they lose sight of the importance of stopping to listen, to support, and to encourage. This is why we all to some degree have come to the conclusion early on that, “This intimacy stuff isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I’m going to insulate and protect myself from being hurt again”.

As we grow older and our world expands beyond the confines of our childhood house, the security of our back yard, and our relationship with mommy and daddy, there continue to be the inevitable relational bumps and scrapes that can reinforce and verify what we concluded in the very early years of life.  The passage of time provides no assurance that the emotional and relational hurt is behind us. In fact, it isn’t.

“Now that my best friend has a boyfriend, she doesn’t seem to have time for me”.

“Being laughed at by my friends makes me feel like none of them care”.

“The only person I really ever loved just died.  I will never let myself get close to anyone like that again”.

“Whenever I try to express my true feelings to my spouse, they are never acknowledged; I’m done trying to let him/her know me better”.

“This intimacy stuff isn’t exactly all it’s cracked up to be.  I reached out, I took a risk, I committed myself to this person and I got hurt.  Sometimes, it’s just not worth taking the risk of being vulnerable”.

“I just said, ‘I love you’, and the sentiment was not returned.  I need to protect myself from being hurt like that again”.

“I just got left, (jilted, cheated on, rejected, etc) by the only person I really ever wanted to be with.  I will never let myself be vulnerable in a relationship again”.

“I spilled my soul to my friend, and they didn’t really hear me or care about what I was telling them.  I will never confide in them again”.

“I trusted my friend to understand my side of the story and all I got back was criticism. I will never be so painfully honest with anyone again”.

“I took the risk of being vulnerable by kindly challenging my friend about how he was treating me, and I never heard from him again”.

“I confided my hurt and insecurities to my best friend and by the end of the day three people had heard all about it.  That’s the last time I will confide in others”.

Can you relate to any of these relational pitfalls? Haven’t we all experienced some of these less than perfect relational experiences?

The list of “intimacy-busting” experiences we have all encountered in childhood as well as later in our lives could go on and on. Whether we have experienced some of life’s inevitable hurts and disappointments like the ones above, or we have had more traumatic and painful ones, we have all had experiences that have led us to develop a need for some degree of insulation against further hurt.

The point is not to blame our less than perfect moms and dads, or anyone else for that matter, but rather, to suggest that in the best of families, in the best of relationships, there are experiences, mistakes, events and misunderstandings that all of us have had that leave us questioning our emotional safety with others. Granted, the degree to which we develop a need for insulation varies significantly from person to person, but we have all been affected, and as a result we fear the very thing we want most in our relationships-that is, to able to trust, to be close, to be vulnerable, and to be in intimate relationships with others.



What we can expect from this conflict between our need for intimacy, and our need to protect ourselves, is an internal tension that many bring into their marriage relationship.  Again, this “intimacy-insulation conflict” may be so minimal in some of us that it is hardly detectable, while in others it is clear and obvious in how they live their lives and how they behave and conduct themselves in their marriage relationships.

Nonetheless, we all struggle to some degree with this conflict between our need for intimacy, and our need to protect by insulating ourselves. And it is this conflict that we bring into our marriage-and other relationships for that matter- that can create many of the destructive symptoms (I call them “secondary problems”) that make a marriage so much work. And of course, the possibility for difficulties increases when both people entering into their relationship bring with them the similar intimacy-insulation conflict.

Some of you will hardly relate to this notion of being afraid of intimacy since you have had very few of the negative relational experiences that can lead to such a conflict. And then some of you will relate strongly to the notion and see the conflict between two very strong and opposing needs for intimacy and insulation.

So apply to yourself and your relationship only what really seems to fit.  What is important is that you talk with each other about these ideas and notions and whether they pertain to your marriage.  At the end of this chapter, you will find several questions that might be helpful in directing your discussion.



It is unfortunate that we cannot just occasionally withdraw when we are fearful of being hurt, rather than creating a justification for our need to protect ourselves. Better yet, if we could simply tell our partner that we feel vulnerable and fear being hurt by them, rather than behaving in ways that are unconsciously designed to create a distance that provides safety.

If we could simply state that, “I’m feeling uncomfortably vulnerable with you and am afraid of being hurt”.  Or, “Being vulnerable in past relationships has often led to my being hurt. When we get into these situations/discussions, I am afraid of that pattern repeating itself with us.  I’m struggling with the need to protect myself. Can we talk about it?”

Acknowledging our fears in this manner helps eliminate the need to create destructive symptoms in order to justify our withdrawal and self-protection.  What can happen instead is that we actually create a conflict over something that is minor and even insignificant in order to justify and make sense of our need to retreat into safety and to withdraw when we fear being hurt.

WOW! Even I’m a bit overwhelmed by what may sound like a bunch of psycho-babble to some of you. So, if you have been patient and are still reading, maybe an example will help to describe more clearly how easy it is to confuse the underlying fear of intimacy with the surface symptoms that can pop up in hundreds of different ways.



Aaron was raised in a home where Mom and Dad were always on the go.  They weren’t particularly bad parents but they lacked the nurturing qualities that all little kids need. More often than not, when he reached out to be held, talked to or just attended to in small ways, the response he got from his busy mom and dad was a token pat on the head and then gently pushed aside and sent on his way (remember:“This intimacy stuff isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It hurts to be pushed aside for other things”). Gradually, Aaron gave up and due to his need for safety, no longer tried (insulated himself) to have an intimate relationship with Mom and Dad.

Fast forward twenty years.

Aaron is now married to Julie. Because his past efforts consistently fell short of the intimate relationship he needed with Mom and Dad, he is now reluctant to initiate or even respond to Julie when she tries to connect with him.  His typical attitude and response is  to be distant, indifferent, and to withdraw, but is unaware of how the pain of his past lies buried beneath his current need to insulate and protect himself from Julie.

(Since it is difficult to withdraw and protect oneself without an explanation or reason, we (in this case, Aaron) may unconsciously create a justification for self-protection by setting the other person up to behave in a way that appears to justify our need to protect ourselves from the potential pain of intimacy.)

Aaron knows from past experiences with Julie that when he criticizes and embarrasses her in public, she (understandably) becomes angry and resentful and communicates her lack of respect for a man who would treat her in such a way.

Aaron now feels justified to reason, “Why would I want to be close to an angry wife who resents me and refuses to respect me!?  I am now justified in maintaining my distance (insulation) where I feel safe”.



Julie: “Aaron is distant, refuses to let me in, and constantly criticizes and embarrasses me in front of my friends”.

Aaron: “I’m married to an angry and resentful woman who refuses to respect me”

The real and underlying problem behind the troublesome symptoms is Aaron’s childhood hurt and sense of rejection. (never mind what baggage Julie might have brought in to the marriage). Because he learned as a child to insulate and protect himself from the hurt of failed attempts at emotional intimacy, he continues to do so in his relationship with Julie.

If Aaron and Julie cut the weed off at the surface by dealing only with the presenting symptoms, then, the weed will grow back, either in the form of the same original symptoms, or as new but equally debilitating ones.

Rather than making their marriage work, they will make work of their marriage.

There are of course, additional examples that could be given. So much more could be said about what all of us- to varying degrees- must face and struggle with because of our less than perfect relationship experiences. Hopefully the above example will make clear how our experiences from the past can affect our willingness and ability to take the many risks required for true and lasting, in-depth intimacy with others.

So to summarize the ideas about our intimacy-insulation conflict:

  • We are all born with an innate need, drive and capacity for connecting with others by way of intimacy.
  • Through our many imperfect life experiences, we develop a fear of the very intimacy needs we were born with.
  • Many of us create “symptoms” in order to justify our self-protection  and call those symptoms, “the problem”.
  • When we deal only with the symptoms and ignore the underlying problems, rather than make our marriage work, we make work of our marriage.

As I have suggested several times above, the degree to which this all fits for us human beings varies significantly from person to person. However, if you feel these ideas relate to you at all, I would encourage you to follow up by considering the questions provided below.

And as always, please feel free to weigh in with any ideas you might have regarding all of this.



  1. Are there experiences or relationships in your past that affect your current ability to trust?
  2. Did any of the “intimacy busting” experiences occur in your current relationship?
  3. Is there anything your spouse can do to help you regain your ability to trust him/her again?
  4. What are some of the fears you must face in your efforts to trust again?




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