Fear of intimacy is a subconscious fear of being close to one’s partner that often affects other personal relationships. This fear of emotional and/or physical intimacy can even show up in the most meaningful and close-knit relationships. This fear is also known as intimacy avoidance and is characterized as the anxiety of sharing a close physical or emotional relationship. People who deal with this fear do not want to feel this way and may even want closeness, but frequently push their partners away or even sabotage their own relationships.
Fear of being intimate can have several causes, including childhood experiences of abuse and neglect. However, many other disturbing factors and experiences may also contribute to the fear of closeness. Overcoming this fear can take time and patience, but it is worth it. In this post, we will discuss more about the fear of intimacy and how one can overcome it.
What Actually Is The Fear of Intimacy?
Intimacy means being able to sincerely share your true self with another human being who is special to you. There are different kinds of intimacy, and the fear of being intimate may involve one or more of these. Examples include:
- Sexual – The ability to share yourself sexually with your partner.
- Intellectual – The ability to share your ideas and thoughts with your partner.
- Emotional – The ability to share your private feelings with your partner.
- Experiential – The ability to share personal experiences with your partner.
However, the fear of intimacy is different from the fear of vulnerability, though these two can be closely related. A person who has a fear of intimacy may mostly be comfortable in showing their vulnerable side and their true self to people at first, or at least to their close relatives and friends. The issue often begins when these people realize that they are becoming too intimate or close to others.
Multiple factors can cause a fear of intimacy, and the next section will speak about them.
What Are The Causes Of Fear of Intimacy?
Fears of being abandoned and engulfed and, ultimately, a fear of losing relationships is the root cause of fear of intimacy in most people. These two fears, in fact, may often coexist. Even though these fears are quite different from one another, both result in behaviors that alternately engage the partner and then push them away again. Both these fears are rooted in past childhood experiences. They are often triggered by the difficulties of adult relationships.
- Fear Of Abandonment
People who are afraid of being abandoned are constantly worried that their partner will leave them. This is often the result of experiencing a parent abandoning them physically or emotionally as a child (1).
- Fear Of Engulfment
Those who have a fear of being dominated, controlled, or “losing their identity” in a relationship are known to have a fear of engulfment. This generally stems from growing up in an enmeshed and controlling family.
- Social Phobia/Anxiety Disorder
The fear of intimacy may also be caused by social phobia or social anxiety disorder. People who are worried about others’ evaluation, judgment, or rejection are generally more likely to avoid making intimate or personal connections. Additionally, there are some specific phobias, such as the fear of touch, which may occur as a sub-part of the fear of intimacy.
Some people, however, may be comfortable with flexible social situations. They name their acquaintances as friends but do not have any deep personal relationships with any of them. In fact, it can be harder to detect the fear of intimacy in these people because they hide their true personalities behind their fake social media personas.
What Are The Risk Factors?
Risk factors for fear of intimacy often stem back to incidents that have occurred in one’s childhood. It is often hidden in the inability to trust parental figures. This, in turn, leads to attachment issues. Here are some examples of experiences that may cause this:
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Verbal abuse
- Physical neglect
- Emotional neglect
- Parental illness
- Parental mental illness
- Parental substance abuse
Parents who are present in their child’s life only physically and not emotionally send a message that they can’t be relied on. The fear can also be caused due to the loss of a parent through divorce, death, abandonment, or imprisonment. Illness in one of the parents can result in the feeling of not being able to trust or rely on anyone but oneself. This is especially true when there is a role reversal, and there arises a need to care for younger siblings.
Fear of intimacy is also common in people who are taught by authorities not to trust strangers, and in those who have depression or suffered a trauma like rape (2). Traumatic experiences due to relationships outside of the family, such as with a relative, teacher, or a peer, may also contribute to this fear.
This fear can manifest in different ways, and it is important you know about them. In the following section, we will explore this.
Signs And Manifestations
The fear of intimacy can be present in any type of relationship, whether platonic, romantic, or familial. The worst part is that while a person may strongly wish to have close relationships, the fear of intimacy may prompt them to cause problems in the same relationships. Ironically, this relationship-sabotaging behavior is usually most noticeable when the relationship is the one the person in question particularly values. The fear does not generally cause major issues unless the person truly longs for closeness.
Here are some specific behaviors of people who have intimacy issues:
1. Serial Dating And Fear Of Commitment
People who have a fear of intimacy are often able to interact with others, at least in the initial stages. It is when the relationship grows that things begin to fall apart.
Instead of trying to connect at a deeper level, the relationship is somehow ended due to superficial reasons and replaced by another insignificant relationship. This results in several short-term relationships.
The fear of intimacy often makes a person feel that they don’t deserve to be supported and loved. This leads to the obsessive need to be “perfect” to prove oneself lovable. This fear often makes the person push others away.
3. Difficulty Expressing Needs
The person with the fear of intimacy may have difficulty expressing their needs and wishes. This may stem from feeling unworthy and undeserving of their partner’s support. Since most people are unable to read their partner’s minds, those needs most often go unfulfilled, confirming the person’s belief that they are unworthy of love and attention. This can become a vicious circle.
4. Sabotaging Relationships
Those with a fear of intimacy may purposely sabotage their relationship. This may be done by nitpicking the partner and being very critical of them. They may also make themselves unlovable in some way, such as by acting suspicious or accusing their partner of doing something that wasn’t actually their fault.
5. Difficulties With Physical Contact
Fear of intimacy may lead to extreme reactions when it comes to physical touch. A person who has this fear may avoid physical contact completely or may need constant physical contact from their partner.
These are the most common signs of the fear of intimacy. But there is a way to treat the fear. Let’s understand how.
How Can You Deal With The Fear Of Intimacy?
You will need therapy and professional guidance, especially if the fear stems from complicated childhood/past events. Your therapist should be able to help you come to terms with any traumatic events that are affecting you. They also can help you design a plan that will enable you to work through your fear gradually.
Irrespective of you consulting a therapist, there are certain things you must do to conquer your fear of intimacy. You need to face and challenge the negative attitude you have about yourself, accept uncertainty, and make an effort to review your life. Assess how and why you have developed this fear.
Those who are afraid of intimacy fear the consequences of a relationship that may cause heartbreak. It is important to accept that there are no guarantees in life. Every relationship you get into with another person is a gamble, after all. Practicing to be courageous can make a lot of difference in your life. Try to focus on living your life day to day, rather than obsessing about a particular outcome.
To cope with the fear of intimacy, you must learn to be comfortable with yourself. If you know and accept your own worth as a person, you will realize that any kind of rejection is not as heartbreaking as it may seem. Practicing self-love and compassion may sound easy to most, but for some, it is not always intuitive.
If you had had an abusive, neglectful, or engulfing parent in your life, understanding that those people are not the sole models of relationships might enable you to realize what might be okay in terms of intimacy.
Find out what you really want in life. Do you want to be in a long-term intimate relationship with someone? If yes, have you pushed away people in the past? Review what your relationship goals are and how your actions are helping or hindering them. Overcoming the fear of intimacy is not going to happen overnight. Be forgiving towards yourself and speak kindly to your beautiful inner self. Your fear is not a character flaw. It is simply something that stems from your difficult past. You can work through it and give yourself unconditional love to have a better future.
Let us know how you plan to combat your fear of intimacy. Do share your thoughts with us by leaving a comment in the box below.
- Fear of Intimacy in Romantic Relationships During Emerging Adulthood: The Influence of Past Parenting and Separation Individuation, Victoria University.
- Sexual Issues in Treating Trauma Survivors, Current Sexual Health Reports, SpringerLink.
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