One evening several years ago, when my then boyfriend, Sam*, let me use his laptop, he forgot to close the email he’d been reading — which ended with “I can’t wait to see you again” and a bunch of Xs and Os. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t from me. After we broke up, I couldn’t help but be on high alert for any signs of cheating with my next boyfriend. If he said he was “going out for a while” and wasn’t specific, I wondered what he was hiding — it had to be that he was going to meet another woman, right? If I asked, he thought I was being distrustful, while I thought I was just being cautious; deep down, though, I was scared he was cheating, just like my ex.
According to experts, having an emotional barrier like mine is pretty common, and can affect a lot of relationships — whether they’re newly formed or years-old.
“The most common emotional barriers come with the dynamic nature of relationships,” says Joshua Klapow, an Alabama-based psychologist and co-host of The Kurre and Klapow Show, where he and radio personality Tony Kurre address different psychological topics. “Every relationship has three components — person one, person two, and the relationship itself — and all three must grow, change, evolve, manage the past, deal with the present, and plan for the future.”
Klapow says that very often, we enter relationships with attitudes, mindsets, and habits shaped by our past experiences. “Some of these fit into the new relationship nicely, but some create conflict and problems. The more we try to overlay the old onto the new, the more barriers we will face,” he explains.
Emotional roadblocks — such as being afraid of commitment, dealing with past trauma, or not knowing how to build back trust (like in my case) — can happen to anybody, whether you’re single or partnered up. Here, experts walk through each of those common barriers, so you can be better aware of what’s holding you or your partner back. That might help you foster more compassion and maybe take a step (or several) toward emotional progress.
1. Being scared of rejection
“Most of us aim to avoid rejection because it’s not a fun experience, but some of us are truly crippled by the thought,” says South Carolina-based therapist, Kailee Place. Since relationships require taking risks and being open, there are numerous opportunities to possibly be rejected. “On first dates, we discuss our likes and dislikes, we may discuss a bit about our family or social group, and we also put ourselves out there physically with how we dress and present ourselves,” explains Place. These aspects then open up the possibilities for judgment and rejection.
For those who are paralyzed by the thought of being rejected, it can feel safer to avoid relationships or avoid being truly authentic when in a relationship, adds Place. If you recognize this in yourself, she suggests working with a therapist to address where these fears come from. That way, you can examine — and then challenge — distorted or irrational thought patterns. One way to do so, for instance, is by focusing on a time you took a risk that resulted in a positive outcome.
And, if you’re in a relationship and find yourself holding back emotionally due to the fear of being rejected, it’s a great idea to share your concerns with your partner, says Place. “Of course, it’s not up to your partner to fix these things, but they may be able to have a better understanding of why you may react the way you do and be supportive,” she explains.
For someone with a fear of rejection, having these types of communicative moments — where they feel accepted and loved — can decrease the power of that fear.
2. Avoiding change
Another emotional barrier in relationships occurs when one partner changes — whether in regards to their interests and hobbies or political and spiritual views — and the other has trouble adapting to that change. “People and relationships change over time,” says Dr. Klapow. “If one or both of the partners fears that the other will become different over time — or sees them changing and is unwilling or unable to accept it — the emotional bond will break.”
He adds that having the courage to go along with and adapt to the change, from a new haircut to a new career move, is key to sustaining the relationship. In some cases, though, the change might be one you’re not OK with, and so you don’t necessarily need to adapt to it. However, you should not shy away from talking about it with your partner.
3. Feeling low self-worth
A lot of us have probably “settled” into a relationship that has toxic or abusive dynamics, and it can come from how we view ourselves when it comes to self-esteem and confidence. “Any instances where your character was torn down can lead to poor self-worth, and it’ll be tough to feel like anyone is going to enjoy being in a relationship with you,” says Place. As a result, you may end up attracting people who also don’t see your value.
“But, when you find your value and have higher self-worth, it’ll be nearly impossible to settle for a partner who doesn’t treat you as a valuable person,” Place adds.
4. Having a skewed view of relationships because of your upbringing
Dr. Klapow says that our concepts of things like love, compromise, respect, and honor are instilled in us at early ages through our parental figures. “These set an emotional foundation that may or may not compliment what our partner comes to the relationship with — and may or may not be healthy for the relationship itself,” he explains.
Place adds that if the home environment you grew up in wasn’t a great model for healthy, committed love, it could be difficult to feel confident going into a relationship of your own one day. She notes that examples of an unstable home environment can include anything from watching your parents barely speak to one another, yet stay committed, to seeing physical and/or emotional abuse.
“You may then grow up not knowing how to communicate effectively, or there’s a lack of confidence that relationships can even be functional or happy,” Place says.
5. Letting negative aspects of past relationships affect the present one
Place says that a common thing she hears in individual therapy sessions is that people bring specific aspects of their previous relationships into their new relationships, such as communication patterns. “For instance, if a past boyfriend became stingy with texting and ultimately it came out he had been cheating, a new boyfriend who sucks with technology and just doesn’t text much may elicit the same uneasy feeling of being cheated on,” she says.
Dr. Klapow warns that if we respond to our current partner in the same way we did to our former partner, conflict and miscommunication are likely. “By making assumptions about how they will think, feel, or act based on your past relationship(s), you are pre-judging them and may completely misinterpret their (good) intentions and actions,” he explains. “Treat them as a unique individual, not as a replica of your ex.”
6. Wanting two different things
When two people have misaligned relationship expectations — for example, one wants to eventually get married while the other is fine dating without plans of a long-term commitment — an emotional wall can build up between them.
“All too often, one or both parties comes into the relationship with a view of what a relationship ‘should be’ that has not been well-articulated to their partner,” says Klapow. “We think we’re on the same page when it comes to what we want out of the relationship — and then we come to realize that our definition of things such as love, compromise, and intimacy is not the same as our partner’s.”
Eventually, if you and your partner don’t communicate and come to a compromise, the wall that builds up can crumble and lead to the end of the relationship, he says.