On Closeness: The Clash of Desire with Fear

Closeness is essential for proper psychophysical development. It affects not just the soul but the body too, lowering stress levels, blood pressure, and heart rate. It fosters stronger bonds and intimate relationships. Both physical and metaphysical, true closeness combines these realities. It is a fundamental human need, a universal desire, often leading to the distress of those unable to fulfill it. 

Human development does not always proceed smoothly. While it does not necessarily indicate psychopathology, achieving complete mental wellbeing is a challenging process, dependent on many favorable factors. Apart from normative crises – typical events posing developmental challenges – people often encounter unexpected situations that can significantly impact their lives.

Early Bonds and Lifelong Impacts: A Psychoanalytic Perspective

At the heart of psychoanalytic theory lies the concept of object relations, elucidating the intricacies of bond formation in early childhood. From the outset, an infant’s world is characterized by utter dependency and vulnerability. Typically, the mother fulfills the infant’s fundamental needs – providing nourishment, warmth, and comfort. Yet, she also inadvertently sows seeds of frustration, being unable to attend to every whim due to her own needs.

As the child grows, the familial circle widens to include fathers, siblings, and grandparents. Crucial early interactions with these primary “objects” are internalized, shaping an inner representation within the child’s psyche. Negative experiences, especially those involving violence, disrespect, deprivation, or devaluation, profoundly impact this internal world. These early imprints influence personality development and color subsequent relationships, particularly romantic ones.

Individuals burdened with adverse maternal or paternal experiences often project their ingrained fears onto other relationships. This transference makes establishing or maintaining romantic connections particularly challenging. Perceived closeness becomes a threat, triggering defensive mechanisms such as withdrawal, relationship sabotage, excessive confrontations, or emotional detachment.

Phot.: Midjourney

Attachment Styles

The way we forge future relationships is influenced by the type of attachment developed with our primary caregiver in infancy and early childhood. British physician and psychoanalyst John Bowlby identified four unconscious beliefs about internal assumptions of what to expect in relationships with others.

The most desirable form of relationship with the mother is secure attachment. Children who develop this dependency are characterized by emotional balance and appropriate responses to stimuli. They are interested in exploring their surroundings and, after a brief separation, quickly calm down upon their mother’s return, regardless of their initial distress. Such a child’s response indicates a high degree of emotional resilience and flexibility, achievable through the mother’s high responsiveness to the child’s needs, sensitivity, care during difficult moments, and unconditional acceptance.

Such a bond, combined with a favorable environment, creates excellent conditions for development and facilitates future well-being. The potential for forming relationships is also high, as such individuals exhibit a high level of internal coherence, a sense of security in interactions, and other psychological traits conducive to building healthy, lasting, and satisfying relationships.

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However, children who experience indifference and emotional coldness from a parent grow up believing that it is futile to express or communicate their needs, as they will not be met. Observed children who reacted with “nonchalance” to their mother’s departure and return only seemed calm on the surface. Similarly, people who appear as lone wolves or “dispassionate observers” unable to engage in deeper interactions often hide great drama and suffering behind their indifference. The lack of manifesting a need for closeness does not mean it does not exist internally. Sometimes hidden in the unconscious, it can manifest as disorders like excessive depression or high levels of neuroticism. The absence of a conscious need to build relationships in friendships or romantic partnerships leads to total resignation and closure from gaining experiences in interactions, and not seeing potential in others to meet their needs.

Unpredictability in the mother’s responses to the child’s emotional states also creates difficult developmental conditions. This inconsistency induces immense fear and disorientation in the offspring, fostering erroneous beliefs about the external world and other people. The caregiver’s ambivalence deprives the child of a sense of security, and the chronic emotional tension can lead to character pathologies expressed in significant difficulties in maintaining relationships, especially those based on intimacy and trust.

Relational Trauma

Difficulties in forming intimate relationships can also stem from intense, negative experiences within a relationship, such as infidelity, physical or psychological abuse, or the sudden death of a partner. Unlike normative crises that also induce high stress levels (like childbirth, buying a house, arguments), trauma is an event that exceeds an individual’s cognitive and emotional capabilities, carrying serious consequences. It creates a maladaptive structure in the psyche, with reactive fear being a key component. This fear triggers the reenactment of the trauma upon exposure to a similar situation.

Defensive reactions activate primal defense mechanisms, so strong that the prospect of closeness or a relationship terrifies a person who has experienced relational trauma. The tragedy of this state is that the natural desire for closeness is fully conscious, yet a paralyzing, often described as irrational, fear prevents emotional closeness to another person.

What Can Help?

No one can completely understand themselves. To notice the mechanisms governing our psyche, distance is needed for the right perspective. Psychotherapy is not just for treating severe psychopathological states; it is also a method for resolving internal conflicts and repairing mechanisms governing our emotions, including in relationships with others.

Therapeutic methods vary depending on the modality in which therapists work. Cognitive-behavioral therapies (CBT) have scientifically proven effectiveness in resolving emotional issues. Their advantage is that relatively few sessions are needed to achieve therapeutic effects. The work involves recognizing erroneous beliefs about oneself and others and their consequences. This method is psychoeducational and a very structured form of work. With a therapist’s help, we can discover the causes of our reactions to specific situations and how to change them, eliminating difficulties in relationships and partnerships.

Understanding the causes of our fears and confronting the depths of our past, along with beliefs hidden in the unconscious, can heal us and change how we perceive ourselves and others. Psychodynamic therapy allows for an in-depth exploration of the internal world. It is a long process, but its effects are lasting because the therapeutic work aims to change personality structures by showing patients their hidden desires, tendencies, and fears, which often prevent us from building a lasting relationship.

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Many Possibilities, Much Hope

Love is complex. It manifests in thousands of intricate processes and attitudes. Often celebrated in poetry and music, it can cause pain because nothing hurts as much as rejection or betrayal of trust. However, to experience something exceptional, complete, and satisfying in our lives, we must accept that building a relationship based on love, intimacy, and trust requires mutual hard work.

Self-awareness and insight into our own emotions are crucial resources. In more serious states or emotional crises, psychotherapy can not only provide healing but open the perspective to a better, fuller life. This journey, while challenging, heralds the promise of shared fulfillment and growth.

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Translation: Klaudia Tarasiewicz

Published by

Krzysztof Zaniewski


A careful observer of reality, a musician, who likes philosophical considerations as a hobby, and professionally works therapeutically with children and youth, from whom he draws inspiration and positive energy. The proud owner of the dog Isolde, who is an example of unconditional love. A passionate admirer of Richard Wagner.

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