What Is Fear of Intimacy and What Are the Causes?

Intimacy Avoidance Is Ultimately the Fear of Loss

young couple with one member coping with the fear of intimacy
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The fear of intimacy otherwise referred to as "intimacy avoidance," is characterized by an often subconscious fear of sharing a deep relationship. People who experience this fear do not wish to avoid intimacy, and may even long for closeness, but frequently push others away or sabotage relationships. Underlying causes often include a fear of abandonment or fear of engulfment that stems from childhood, with childhood abuse and neglect common risk factors for its development. Treatment can take time, both to explore and understand deep-seated trust issues and to practice vulnerability.

Definition

The fear of intimacy is separate from the fear of fear of vulnerability, though the two can be closely intertwined. A person who is living with a fear of intimacy may be comfortable becoming vulnerable and showing their true self to the world at first, or at least to trusted friends and relatives. The problem often begins when a person with the fear finds those relationships becoming too close or intimate. At that point, a number of behaviors often work to sabotage or otherwise destroy the relationship.

As noted, the fear of intimacy can stem from a fear of abandonment on one extreme and engulfment on the other, but ultimately comes down to a fear of loss. To better understand this fear, and the many ways it may affect relationships, it's helpful to look at what intimacy actually means.

What is Intimacy?

Intimacy refers to the ability to genuinely share your true self with another person. There are four basic types of intimacy:

  • Intellectual: The ability to share your thoughts and ideas with another
  • Emotional: The ability to share your innermost feelings with another
  • Sexual: The ability to share sexually
  • Experiential: The ability to share experiences with another

The fear of intimacy may involve one or more of these to different degrees. For example, a person may be able to relate well when sharing experiences (for example, golfing) with another, but face anxiety and fear when it comes to sharing thoughts and/or feelings. The fear may occur in any type of relationship, whether romantic, with friends, or with family members.

Fear of Intimacy as a Social Phobia

The fear of intimacy may occur as part of a social phobia/social anxiety disorder, and some experts classify the fear of intimacy as a subset of these conditions. People who are afraid of others are naturally more likely to shy away from making intimate, personal connections. In addition, some specific phobias, such as the fear of touch, may occur as part of the fear of intimacy. Other people, however, may be comfortable in loose social situations, numbering their acquaintances and social media "friends" in the hundreds, but have no deeply personal relationships at all. In fact, the fear of intimacy can be harder to detect as people hide behind their phone and social media.

Signs and Symptoms/Manifestations

The fear of intimacy can play out in a number of different ways in relationships. It's important to note that the manifestations of an underlying fear of intimacy can often be interpreted as meaning the opposite of what the person is feeling. Even though a person with the fear strongly desires close relationships, the actions related to the fear often cause problems with forming and sustaining those relationships.

The way that fear of intimacy affects relationships can vary significantly from one relationship to another. Ironically, relationship-sabotaging actions are usually most pronounced when the relationship in question is one that the person particularly values. For those who have been involved with a person living with a fear of intimacy (discussed below), this is particularly important to understand. The fear does not usually cause major difficulties unless a person truly longs for closeness.

Some specific behaviors that are commonly seen include:

Serial Dating/Commitment Phobia

As noted, a person who has a fear of intimacy is often able to interact with another, at least initially. It's when the relationship grows closer—when the person who has the fear begins to value the relationship even more—that things begin to fall apart. Instead of connecting on an intimate level, the relationship is ended in some way, and replaced by yet another, more superficial relationship. The pattern that emerges is many short-term relationships. There are a number of reasons why a person may appear to have a "commitment phobia," or be accused of being a serial dater, but fear of intimacy may be one underlying problem.

Perfectionism

Underlying a fear of intimacy often lies a feeling that a person does not deserve to be loved and supported. This leads to the need to be "perfect" to prove oneself lovable. Whether it takes the form of being a workaholic, or other manifestations of perfectionism, it often works to push others away rather than draw them near.

Difficulty Expressing Needs

A person with a fear of intimacy may have great difficulty expressing needs and wishes. Again, this may stem from feeling undeserving of another's support. Since partners are unable to "mind read," those needs go unfulfilled, essentially confirming the person's feelings that he or she is unworthy. This can translate into a vicious circle, one in which the lack of a partner understanding unexpressed needs leads to a further lack of trust in the relationship.

Sabotaging Relationships

People who have a fear of intimacy may sabotage their relationship in many ways. This may take the form of nitpicking and being very critical of a partner. It may take the form of making themselves unlovable in some way. It may also involve paranoia, acting suspicious, and accusing a partner of something that hasn't actually occurred. It's not that a person does not desire intimacy, but rather longs for intimacy but is frightened and anxious about it.

Difficulties With Physical Contact

A fear of intimacy can lead to extremes when it comes to physical contact. On one side, a person may avoid physical contact completely, and on the other, may seem to have a constant need for physical contact.

Underlying Causes

Fears of abandonment and engulfment are at the heart of a fear of intimacy for most people, and many people experience both fears simultaneously. Although the fears are dramatically different from each other, both cause behaviors that alternately pull the partner in and then push him or her away again. These behaviors create friction and help to destroy intimacy. These fears are generally rooted in past childhood experiences, rather than the here-and-now of adult relationships, leading to confusion if a person focuses on examining the relationship based on present-day circumstances.

Fear of Abandonment

Those who are afraid of abandonment worry that their partner will leave, and often results from a parent or other important adult figure abandoning the person emotionally or physically as a young child.

Fear of Engulfment

Those who have a fear of engulfment are afraid of losing themselves in a relationship and often stems from growing up in an enmeshed family.

Ironically, those who fear abandonment may actually be more likely to leave a relationship than those who fear engulfment. However, when the relationship breaks apart, those with a fear of engulfment may suffer feelings of abandonment.

Risk Factors

Risk factors for a fear of intimacy most often stem back to childhood, and the inability to trust parental figures. This lack of trust teaches the young child that they must rely on themselves.

Attachment trauma during childhood can take many forms, such as:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Loss of a parent, through death or divorce
  • Childhood neglect (unavailable parents): Parents who are physically but not emotionally available send the message to children that they can't be trusted as well.
  • Parental illness: Illness in a parent can result in a feeling of not being able to rely on anyone but oneself, especially when it involves role reversal or the need to play parent and care for other siblings at a young age.
  • Parental mental illness: An example is a parent who has a narcissistic personality disorder, especially when it occurs in a mother.
  • Parental substance abuse
  • Enmeshed families: While enmeshed families may, on the surface, appear to be loving and supportive, a child may lose themselves in the process of playing their "role."

A fear of intimacy is more common in people who are taught not to trust strangers, in those who have a history of depression (especially in women), and in those who have experienced rape. While the condition often stems from issues with a parent, it may also be related to issues with a teacher, another relative, or bullying from other children.

Diagnosis

There is a spectrum when it comes to fear of intimacy, with some people having only mild traits and others unable to form any close relationships. Psychometric testing can help a psychologist or therapist better define where a person lies on the spectrum, and also evaluate for other mental health conditions. The Fear of Intimacy Scale is one measurement that can help objectify the condition.

Management/Coping

Depending on the degree to which the fear of intimacy is interfering with a person's life, he or she may seek to address what is going on alone or with a friend, or instead, seek help with a therapist (see below).

At the core of the fear of intimacy lie negative attitudes about self that need to be addressed and challenged if lasting change is to take place. This can take time, a willingness to accept uncertainty, and the effort to review your life to discover how and why you developed this fear of loss.

Willingness to Accept Uncertainty

Whether the fear of intimacy is based on a fear of abandonment, a fear of engulfment, or something else entirely, it can wreak havoc on both romantic and nonromantic relationships. One of the most basic keys to battling this fear is a willingness to accept uncertainty. There are no guarantees in life or in human relationships. Every connection with another person is ultimately a gamble. Yet social relationships are a basic driving goal of human existence. Those who fear intimacy ultimately fear the consequences of a relationship that turns sour.

Practicing courage and trying to push through your fears can make a difference, and it's been found that developing positive relationship experiences can decrease the fear. A caveat is that it's important to do this with someone who you believe you can trust.

The old adage to "take it one day at a time" can truly be helpful in this setting. Try to focus more on living day to day, rather than focusing on (or needing) a particular outcome.

Self Compassion

In order to successfully battle the fear of intimacy, you must first be comfortable in yourself. If you truly know and accept your own value and worth as a person, then you know that rejection is not the end of the world. You will be able to set appropriate boundaries to avoid engulfment and cope with abandonment if it comes along. Practicing self-compassion may sound easy to some, but for others, such as those who have grown up with a narcissistic parent, for example, it's not always intuitive. There are several excellent books and workbooks available that may be helpful if you're not certain where to begin. And to use another adage, you may have to try to "fake it 'till you make it" at first.

Look at Your Past

Think about the risk factors that can lead people to develop a fear of intimacy. What was your childhood like? None of us want to think negatively about a parent, but try to look back as if you were doing a research project. Identifying what may have been abuse or neglect does not mean that you are standing in judgment of that person or being unforgiving. Then think about the messages you received in your family, and compare these with the messages you should have received. If you had a neglectful, abusive, or engulfing parent, realizing that this is not normal may help you look at what really is normal.

Be Aware of Your Inner Critic and Dialogue

The inner dialogue that leads to the manifestations of a fear of intimacy is often deep-seated, and after living a lifetime as your own inner critic, it may seem normal to you. Rather than accepting that critic, try to catch yourself casting judgments on yourself. Look to see where they are coming from and challenge and correct them when you can.

Look at Your Goals

What do you really want in life? Do you want a long-term intimate relationship? If so, how have you pushed people away in the past? Take time to compare what your wishes and goals were and are and your actions that went contrary to your wishes.

Give Yourself Time

Overcoming a fear of intimacy doesn't happen overnight. Even when you feel like you have gained ground, you will inevitably have setbacks. Grant yourself forgiveness when this happens and speak kindly to your inner self. Don't view your fear as a character flaw, but simply something that likely stems from your distant past that you can work through in order to have a better future.

Treatment/Therapy

Professional guidance is often required, especially if the fear of intimacy is rooted in complicated past events. Choose your therapist carefully, as therapeutic rapport, mutual respect, and trust are essential to the work of healing. Your therapist can help you come to terms with any past or present events that are clouding the situation and help you design a series of small steps to gradually work through your fear.

Treatment of Associated Issues

Due to the causes, such as chronic childhood trauma, many people who have a fear of intimacy also experience problems with depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders that need to be addressed. Again, finding a good therapist is an excellent way to live your best life, as he or she can help you work through the deeper issues, and hold you accountable to continue the work that's needed.

Prognosis

Without addressing a fear of intimacy, the fear can be compounded, as actions based on the fear lead to outcomes that further support the fear. With effort, and especially with a good therapist, however, many people have overcome the fear and developed the understanding and tools needed to create long-term intimate relationships.

If Your Loved One Has Fear of Intimacy

If it is your loved one who is coping with a fear of intimacy, you will need to practice patience. As noted above, there isn't an instant "cure" and setbacks are the norm along the way.

Establishing safety is of utmost importance so that your loved one can begin to open up. Try to not react personally or with anger if your loved one tries to push you away. Recognize that she is not rejecting you, but instead fears that you will reject her.

Keep her fear of abandonment, rejection, or engulfment in mind as you think about her words and behaviors. She may interpret an action in a completely different way than you would be given her upbringing. For example, if she is coping with a fear of engulfment due to growing up in an enmeshed family, surprising her by saying "we are going on a trip!" may not be a loving and pleasant surprise at all, and may reinforce her fear of being controlled. Instead, providing her clear choices and making sure she is involved in all decisions might be interpreted as more loving. Remember that she is likely not interpreting your actions as you would, due to different childhood experiences.

Many people who have a fear of intimacy feel undeserving of love. Regular reminders of your love, both in words and in actions, are important. Don't assume she "feels" loved.

Most importantly, let him or her know that getting past the fear is a team effort. While you are likely curious, it's not important for you to understand all of the roots of her fears and play psychologist; instead, what she needs is support and a willingness to listen when she is ready to share.

Finally, keep in mind that if your partner's fear of intimacy poses problems in your relationship, it is, in one way anyway, a good sign. Fear of intimacy usually rears its head only in relationships that a person values and is often less of a problem with superficial or less meaningful relationships. It's also usually triggered by positive emotions instead of negative ones.

A Word From Verywell

The fear of intimacy, or "come close, go away," is frustrating, and difficult to evaluate at face value as it often stems from issues going back to childhood. That said, recognizing its likely origins, learning how to accept uncertainty, and practicing self-compassion can work together to help you create a healthy inner dialogue that allows you to develop long-term intimate relationships.

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