You’ve started growing closer to your partner when suddenly they begin to behave in ways that seem calculated to push you apart.
Maybe you notice:
- increased physical and emotional distance
- terse communication
- less interest in your needs
- unusually rude or unkind words
This distance leaves you hurt and confused. You thought your relationship was progressing nicely, until they started throwing up walls to keep you back, that is.
Or maybe you’re the one who pushes people away. You start shutting down when a relationship starts to become serious or pull back when friends and other loved ones approach things you’d prefer not to share.
If you catch yourself repeatedly falling into this pattern, you might worry you’ll never build the intimacy you desire.
Don’t despair, though. Change will require some dedicated effort, but you can learn to let people in.
Generally speaking, people don’t end up avoiding intimacy because they truly dislike others or want to be left entirely alone.
So, why does this happen? And do those reasons matter?
Often, yes. If you don’t know why you push people away, you might find it more difficult to change that behavior. Identifying possible reasons can be an important first step toward regaining intimacy in your relationships.
People often push others away for the following reasons.
Fear of intimacy
Pushing people away is one way of avoiding intimacy. In fact, this avoidance can act as a defense mechanism for people afraid of getting hurt in relationships.
Even if you think you’ve healed from a past relationship that ended badly, worries about further rejection might linger in your subconscious.
As you begin developing a relationship with a new partner, the instinct to protect yourself begins to take over. You don’t want to experience rejection again, after all.
Maybe you don’t actually think, “If I push them away before they get too close, they can’t hurt me,” or purposely attempt to drive them away.
Actions like starting arguments and avoiding emotional intimacy sometimes happen more unconsciously — but the end result is usually the same.
The thought of a close intimate relationship makes you uncomfortable, so you do what you can to avoid intimacy as a means of self-preservation.
Attachment style can also play a part in intimacy avoidance.
As an adult, you want to develop close relationships with friends and romantic partners but simultaneously fear they’ll let you down, just as your caregiver did. You might tend to develop low involvement or casual relationships that you can back out of when things get too intense.
Or you could also alternate between the urge to pull partners close or cling to them and the need to push them back.
It’s worth noting that excessive clinginess can drive partners away, too, especially when relationship behaviors shift abruptly between a strong need for closeness and a sharp rejection of it.
Low self-esteem or self-confidence
People who lack confidence or have a hard time with self-esteem may also end up pushing people away.
Maybe you really care for someone but doubt you have the skills to sustain a long-term relationship or friendship.
You might believe:
- You’ll make a mistake or let them down.
- They don’t actually like you.
- They’ll eventually leave you for someone else.
- You’ll hold them back because you aren’t good enough.
- You don’t deserve a healthy relationship with a loving partner.
If you live with anxiety, depression, or another mental health condition or physical illness, you might also have some concerns about your ability to support their needs and stay present in the relationship (even though that’s probably far from true).
Trouble trusting others
Trust issues are pretty common among those who’ve experienced the pain of betrayal before. If a past partner cheated or lied to you, it’s understandable you might have a hard time recovering from that betrayal.
Broken trust is hard to repair, and its effects can linger, following you from one relationship to the next. What if you achieve the closeness you want, only to learn they’ve deceived you, too?
Trust doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s absolutely normal to need some time before you feel able to trust someone. Still, a persistent lack of trust in someone who has never given you cause for doubt can eventually cause some bumps in the road.
Maybe you constantly question them or check up on them, or you simply struggle to open up emotionally — neither of which are helpful for building a health relationship.
You could also, of course, have some difficulty trusting yourself. This often ties back to self-confidence.
If you made mistakes in the past, you might worry about messing up again and hurting your current partner. Guilt and self-doubt might leave you pushing them away to protect you both.
While recognizing your tendency to push people away marks a key first step toward change, it’s just that — a step.
Learning to let people in will take time and practice, but these strategies can help.
Take it slow
When you truly desire a close, intimate relationship, you might want to rush to get there quickly. Yet real intimacy takes time, especially when your relationship history involves heartbreak or betrayal.
Forcing yourself to dive in before you’re really ready can leave you flailing to regain your ground when your fears and doubts come rushing back. Pushing your partner away might make you feel safer, but it probably won’t inspire the development of trust.
Instead, try the cautious approach:
- Work on developing your bond with your partner slowly but steadily.
- Enjoy the time you spend together instead of fixating on hopes or fears about the future.
- Note the things you like about them to remind yourself why you value the relationship.
- Look for specific behaviors that help reinforce their trustworthiness and reliability.
Talk about it
Healthy relationships require good communication. Along with talking about day-to-day life and your general feelings about the relationship, you’ll also want to share your thoughts on any issues that come up.
Talking with your partner about a habit of avoiding intimacy might feel a little scary, but it can make a big difference for your progress.
Explaining why you find intimacy challenging can help your partner understand why you hesitate to open up, so you might consider sharing a few details about your past experiences.
For example, you might say: “I thought my ex was the one I’d spend my life with, but they cheated. Worrying about another betrayal sometimes gives me the urge to wreck relationships before I get hurt again. I’m working on talking about my fears and fighting the urge to push people away when I begin feeling scared.”
If something in particular makes you feel uncomfortable, let them know: “Growing closer makes me really happy, but I’m not ready to talk about future plans just yet.”
Aim for balance
If you’re trying to reign in the impulse to push people away, you could end up overcompensating by opening up too much or clinging instead of respecting your partner’s boundaries.
Striving for balance can increase your chances of relationship success. Balance might mean:
- sharing past experiences naturally instead of immediately divulging your full life story
- expressing interest in their life without prying or demanding to know every detail
- sharing your emotions with your partner while also making sure to ask about their feelings
Your goal is interdependence. That means you establish a bond and work to support each other without depending on each other entirely. You share a life, but you still remain your own person.
Balance can also mean working to become comfortable with normal conflict.
If you fear rejection, you might run on high alert for any little sign that your partner’s just not feeling the relationship. But disagreements happen from time to time, even in close relationships.
Feeling frustrated with a loved one doesn’t mean you want them out of your life, as you probably know from your own experience.
Overcoming long-standing patterns of behavior often proves challenging, so remember to treat yourself kindly. It may not seem like much, but the fact that you noticed the problem suggests you have the self-awareness needed to establish lasting change.
Your reasons for pushing people away might have an impact on how quickly change happens. Still, as long as you’re willing to work at it, chances are good that your efforts will pay off.
Talk with a therapist
Having trouble identifying your reasons for avoiding intimacy? Not sure how to break the habit of pushing loved ones back when what you really want is deeper intimacy?
The support of a mental health professional can have a lot of benefit.
You might notice some progress navigating these issues yourself, certainly. When you’re trying to navigate underlying factors like relationship anxiety, attachment issues, or mental health symptoms, however, you may find it hard to address these alone.
Therapists have plenty of training and experience in helping people address avoidance and other intimacy issues. There’s no shame in needing a little extra support with exploring potential causes or developing intimacy skills.
When you get the impression a friend or partner is trying to create some distance, try a direct conversation to get some insight on what’s happening. They may not realize exactly how their actions affect you, for one.
They could also be coping with something completely unrelated to your relationship. Remember, people deal with challenges differently. A response that doesn’t make sense to you might feel perfectly natural to them.
Conversation starters to consider include:
- “I’ve noticed we aren’t connecting on an emotional level lately, and I’m wondering if there’s anything on your mind.”
- “We seem to have a lot of disagreements lately. How can we work together on better communication?”
Once you express your feelings, give them a chance to explain and hear them out.
Ask how you can support them
They might find it helpful if you point out when they start shutting down — but not always. That’s why it’s always wise to ask what they need, since the wrong assumption might further complicate things.
If your loved one pushes you away because they fear rejection, the solution might seem clear: Simply reassure them of your love on a regular basis.
It’s normal to talk about your feelings over the course of your relationship, but providing constant reassurance of your affection may backfire. It can leave them needing this reassurance more and more.
A couples counselor can offer more guidance on navigating this effectively.
When you feel your loved one pushing you away, fear of losing the relationship might lead you to try making up the distance yourself. Yet clinging to them or pressuring them to open up will probably make them want to shut down further.
Instead, let them know you’re there for them and ready to go at a pace they feel comfortable with. Then, show them you mean it by offering the space they need to feel more comfortable with intimacy.
Although it isn’t uncommon to push people away when you fear getting hurt, this doesn’t work as a long-term strategy for good relationships.
A therapist can help you delve into the reasons behind intimacy avoidance and practice turning toward others instead.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.