Can I Risk Being Vulnerable and Intimate with My Partner?

By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

Many daughters of divorce, like Diana, have a fear of commitment. She just can’t see a relationship working out, but she desperately wants one. Diana is a successful, educated young woman, but relationships have been her Achilles heel. Although she says she doesn’t believe in men, Diana wants one who will be a true match for her. “I think I can have a happy marriage, but I fluctuate, she says. “If it’s the right guy, if we’re both faithful, I’ll be optimistic. If it’s true love, I’ll be optimistic. But it’s going to take a lot to prove it to me because I want it to be foolproof.” Her craving for a failsafe relationship will always be unsatisfied because such relationships don’t exist. The truth is that intimacy is a mix of vulnerability and reciprocity that can only be achieved if a person has a willingness to trust another human being.   

During our interviews with over 300 women raised in divorced homes, we discovered that many of them were conflicted about their ability to find lasting love and intimacy. Thus, their fear of intimacy and commitment displayed itself in unusual ways – such as hanging on to a dysfunctional relationship too long or trying to rescue an unsuitable partner. Many of the women we spoke with questioned a possible connection between their parents’ breakup and their own fear of relationship failure and sought advice about how to change self-feating patterns.

Diana, for instance, seems to always be on guard – testing her partners to see is they’ll pass or fail as so many others have done. “The fear of loss can be so strong for the adult child of divorce that they may often test a relationship from any angle,” writes Jeffrey Zimmerman Ph.D. in his groundbreaking book Adult Children of Divorce: How to Overcome the Legacy of Your Parent’s Breakup and Enjoy, Love, Trust, and Intimacy. What Diana so desperately wants – love, commitment, and the comfort of a permanent relationship, is what she most fears. If she were to lose her boyfriend, it would reenact the pain of her divorce experience. This is an outcome she will stop at nothing to avoid.

Do you ever find yourself testing your relationship in any of these ways?

  • Questioning your partner’s intentions and asking for affirmation of their feelings toward you?

  • Complaining that you don’t get enough attention in hopes that he/she will change?

  • Pursuing a partner who is a distant even though you know deep down inside that he/she will never meet your emotional needs for connection?

  • Setting up the expectation that he or she has to prove their love by engaging in specific behaviors – such as buying you gifts or calling you twice a day?

  • Picking an argument or create conflict because you little blow things out of proportion? Ask Yourself: Is it the end of the world that your partner didn’t return your phone call right away? After all, he/she may have at an important work related call or a deadline to meet.

Take a moment and consider that even individuals who are raised in intact homes are faced with this reality – relationships, even marriages, provide no guarantees. I’m sure you know people who were raised in healthy, non-divorced homes who have had painful breakups and failed to achieve long-lasting commitment and intimacy. But if lasting, healthy, fulfilling love is something you want, how do you attain it? To be ready for love you must be completely autonomous. You can’t look for a partner to heal your wounds. This is work you must do yourself.   

Intimacy is an important source of comfort and provides predictability in an uncertain world. It’s important for you keep your partnerships in perspective. The truth is that all relationships end, through breakup or divorce. Why waste time being preoccupied with your relationship ending? It is possible to be close to others without losing part of yourself. Author Stephanie Dowrick writes, “At the heart of many of our difficulties is a lack of conscious understanding that each of us needs closeness with others, and also a knowledgeable, nurturing relationship with our own self. Each of us needs to find a delicate, shifting balance between dependence and independence, between being open to others and taking care of ourselves.”

Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW   Tracy Clifford

Do you fear your relationships will fail and does that fear motivate you to act in ways that prevent you from embracing love and intimacy? Please share your story with us and our readers. Be sure to order our new book “Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship.”