Fear of Intimacy: Signs, Causes, and Coping Strategies

Unhappy couple not speaking to each other in living room

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The fear of intimacy, also sometimes referred to as intimacy avoidance or avoidance anxiety, is characterized as the fear of sharing a close emotional or physical relationship. People who experience this fear do not usually wish to avoid intimacy, and may even long for closeness, but frequently push others away or even sabotage relationships.

Fear of intimacy can stem from several causes, including certain childhood experiences such as a history of abuse or neglect, but many other experiences and factors may contribute to this fear as well. Overcoming this can take time, both to explore and understand the contributing issues, and to practice allowing greater vulnerability.

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Questions and Tips For Building Intimacy In Your Relationship

What Is Fear of Intimacy?

Intimacy refers to the ability to genuinely share your true self with another person and relates to the experience of closeness and connection. Some define different types of intimacy, and the fear of it may involve one or more of them to different degrees. Examples include:

  • 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 yourself sexually
  • Experiential: The ability to share experiences with another

The fear of intimacy is separate from the 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 fear finds those relationships becoming too close or intimate.

Causes

Fears of abandonment and engulfment—and, ultimately, a fear of loss—is at the heart of a fear of intimacy for many people, and these two fears may often coexist. Although the fears are dramatically different from one another, both cause behaviors that alternately pull the partner in and then push him or her away again.

These fears are generally rooted in past childhood experiences and triggered by the here-and-now of adult relationships, leading to confusion if a person focuses on examining the relationship solely based on present-day circumstances.

Fear of Abandonment

Those who are afraid of abandonment worry that their partner will leave. This often results from the experience of 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 being controlled, dominated, or "losing themselves" in a relationship, and this sometimes stems from growing up in an enmeshed family.

Social Phobia/Anxiety Disorder

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' judgment, evaluation, or rejection 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 phones and social media.

Risk Factors

Risk factors for a fear of intimacy often stem back to childhood and the inability to securely trust parental figures, which leads to attachment issues. Experiences that may cause this include:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Physical neglect
  • Emotional neglect: Parents who are physically but not emotionally available send the message to children that they can't be relied on.
  • Loss of a parent through death, divorce, or imprisonment
  • 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.
  • Parental substance abuse
  • Enmeshed families: While enmeshed families may, on the surface, appear to be loving and supportive, boundaries and roles might be blurred and lead to issues with attachment, independence, and intimacy.

A fear of intimacy is more common in people who are taught not to trust strangers, in those who have a history of depression, and in those who have experienced rape. Traumatic interactions in relationships outside the nuclear family, such as with a teacher, another relative, or a peer who is a bully, may also contribute. In addition, the experiences of relationships during adolescence and adulthood can continue to influence one's openness to intimacy.

Signs and Manifestations

The fear of intimacy can play out in a number of different ways in any type of relationship, whether romantic, platonic, or familial.

It's important to note that the manifestations of an underlying fear of intimacy can often be interpreted as the opposite of what the person is trying to achieve in terms of connection. For instance, a person may strongly desire close relationships, but their fear prompts them to do things that cause problems forming and sustaining them.

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, 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 and Fear of Commitment

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 value of the relationship grows—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; fear of intimacy may be one.

Perfectionism

The underlying 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, the fear 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 be very critical of a partner. It may also take the form of making themselves unlovable in some way, acting suspicious, and accusing a partner of something that hasn't actually occurred.

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. On the other, he or she may seem to have a constant need for physical contact.

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 at all. 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 objectively assess the condition.

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. You may find that you need to try several therapists before you find a match.

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.

Many people who have a fear of intimacy also experience problems with depression, substance abuse, and anxiety disorders that also need to be addressed. A therapist can assist with these individual concerns as well.

Management and Coping

Whether you consult with a therapist or not, there is some work that must be done in order to conquer a fear of intimacy that only you can do. This largely comes down to facing and challenging negative attitudes about one's self, which is critical 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.

Willingness to Accept Uncertainty

Those who fear intimacy ultimately fear the consequences of a relationship that turns sour. It's important to embrace the fact that there are no guarantees in life or in human relationships. Every connection with another person is ultimately a gamble. Despite that, social relationships are a basic driving goal of human existence.

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

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 as crushing as it may seem. 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, 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.

Look at Your Past

Most of us don't want to think negatively about a parent but try to honestly evaluate your childhood relationships in an effort to zero in on possible contributions to your fear of intimacy. 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, understanding that those are not the only models of relationships may help you realize what might be possible in terms of intimacy.

Tune Into Your Inner 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 review what your wishes and goals were and are and how your actions either help or hinder them.

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.

Try not to 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.

Research has also shown that positive relationship experiences can be beneficial for those who have issues with intimacy. Having such positive experiences may improve your ability to form intimacy over time.

Advice for Loved Ones

If it is your loved one who is coping with a fear of intimacy, you will need to practice patience. Setbacks are perfectly normal and to be expected.

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.

Regular reminders of your love, both in words and in actions, are important. Don't assume she "feels" loved. Rather, create an environment that supports the fact that she's deserving of it.

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 how this all started. Instead, what your loved one needs is support and a willingness to listen when she is ready to share.

Finally, keep in mind that fear of intimacy usually rears its head in relationships that a person cherishes—not those that are superficial. It's also usually triggered by positive emotions instead of negative ones.

A Word From Verywell

Actions rooted in a fear of intimacy only perpetuate the concern. 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.

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Article Sources

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