Overcoming a Fear of Intimacy: What's Causing Your Intimacy Issues?Oct 25, 2023
"We're seeing each other but it's not serious"
"I'm looking for something casual"
"Let's keep it no strings attached"
"I'm not into labels"
It's easy to say you don't like emotional conversations, or you just love alone time - the realisty is fear of intimacy can be hard to spot.
Intimacy issues are usually the brain's way of responding to past painful experiences by preventing future ones. Over time, though, these people find themselves craving deeper connections - and aren't able to maintain them.
I have good news for you.
If you developed this bad habit, you can unlearn it. I've helped couples, men, and women overcome their intimacy issues and build out relationships that fulfill them.
So, let's unpack this fear so you can help yourself - or someone else - stop avoiding and start connecting!
What is Intimacy?
Firstly - let's clarify that intimacy isn't synonymous with sex. It's mostly about vulnerability, which is the backbone of building trust and openness in any kind of relationship. This includes friendships, family relationships, and romantic relationships.
Merriam-Webster defines intimacy as "a warm friendship developing through long association" or "suggesting informal warmth or privacy."
It involves getting close, private, or familiar with someone - romantically or not. I stress this because some intimacy problems might manifest in your dating life before you realize they're impacting your friendships, too.
The Many Types of Intimacy
Let's take a look at the different types of intimacy - all of which can be impacted by a fear of relationships. Think about how each of these intimacy types shows up in your friendships, romances, and family dynamics.
Emotional intimacy refers to a close bond with someone, involving easy and open communication and an intense sharing of feelings. It's what allows you to share your biggest fears, cry together, or talk about insecurities, hopes, and dreams.
Having a fear of emotional intimacy is a form of anxiety around forming close physical and emotional connections.
Physical intimacy includes things like hugs, kissing, holding hands, cuddling, playful touches, dancing, caressing, and sex. While physical intimacy can be between partners, it's also an important part of all relationships. Picture:
- Two young girls holding hands and skipping on a playground
- A mother stroking her daughter's hair
- Massaging your partner's back after a long day
- Hugging a friend after a long time of not seeing each other
- A playful nudge during laughter or camaraderie
Having a fear of getting close to someone prevents you from enjoying these simple moments of joy!
Intellectual intimacy gives us the chance to share ideas and mentally stimulate each other. Political debates, book clubs, and discussing current events are just a few ways we get close to each other intellectually. On this token, being scared of intimacy might manifest as the inability to express your opinion or avoidance of high-bar discussions.
Spiritual intimacy means bonding over spiritual or religious beliefs. This looks like:
- Praying together
- Engaging in philosophical or existential conversations
- Participating in acts of kindness, charity, or volunteer work together
- Walking in nature and appreciating its beauty together
For people with spiritual partners or families, these types of intimacy problems are more noticeable.
This one is as simple as bonding over experiences with each other. Baking cookies with grandma, taking a cooking class together, or sharing a love for a TV or book series lets us "sync up" over everyday activities.
What are Intimacy Issues?
Intimacy issues, usually subconscious, affect the way a person forms and keeps relationships. If you're like other people, it probably took you a while to consider that you might be the common denominator in failed relationships, and intimacy issues are to blame.
On one end of the spectrum is philophobia, a fear of love, where a person completely avoids any type of intimacy. On the other end of the spectrum are people with anxious attachment styles or love addictions who cling to their lovers and require constant reassurance (more on that later).
Below are some common signs of intimacy issues. Think about how these might be manifesting in your relationships, friendships, and past relationships. Maybe you even see these habits in your friends or partner.
You Self-Sabotage When Things Get Good
Do you ever notice yourself picking fights as soon as you start catching feelings for someone? Have you ever interpreted someone's kind gestures as ingenuine or suspicious?
This is called pushing someone away and stems from a fear of emotional intimacy.
Self-sabotage is the mind's way of stopping intimacy in its tracks - sometimes before you even realize it! It's an all too common sign of fear of intimacy in a woman: picking fights, accusing someone of things that didn't happen, or subconsciously making ourselves "unlovable" to avoid getting our feelings hurt down the line.
You're a Serial Dater
Hopping from relationship to relationship or sexual partner to partner is easily disguised as "living your best life." Don't get me wrong - sometimes it is! If you're reading this article and it's resonating - there's a chance it's just not for you.
Historically a sign of fear of intimacy in a man, you may think you're easily bored, no one ticks off all of your boxes, or you're just a lone ranger. Casual sex and relationship hopping can stem from a fear of commitment and/or intimacy. Next time you start looking for flaws in a partner or are preparing to ghost, stop and think.
You Go Through Periods of Isolation
Another way we exhibit a fear of getting close to someone is by isolating ourselves from time to time. Saying no to invites, going straight home after work or school, and avoiding social interactions are a few signaling behaviors to look for in yourself.
Any of these sound familiar? If so, when was the first time you remember isolating yourself? Pinpointing that moment might help you understand the reason behind your fear of intimacy signs.
You Have Trust Issues
Trust issues and intimacy issues are tightly intertwined. While trust issues are common, using them as a form of self-sabotage is less so. This looks like
- Pushing someone away with accusations
- Interpreting their behavior as "sketchy" when it's not
- Badgering them for updates and answers, even if they haven't given you a reason not to trust them
This is a stereotypical sign of fear of intimacy in women based on movies and TV. But men exhibit this too, and are typically called controlling, clingy, or obsessed. No matter your gender or how your issues manifest, you've got to work on them (ideally with a professional) if you want a successful, intimate relationship.
You Actively Avoid Physical Closeness
It's okay to confess that you aren't a hugger. Sometimes, though, intimacy problems cause people to avoid physical touch completely. This can be a real problem in relationships because partners will notice the lack of touch and begin to ask questions. This looks like:
- Opting for side hugs instead of front-to-front
- Dodging kisses (even if you want to kiss them deep down)
- Engaging with distractions (TV or phone) when someone wants to be intimate physically
- Keeping a physical distance from people or maneuvering to create barriers between you
You Struggle to Form Close Friendships
Having a difficult time forming friendships reflects general issues with vulnerability and the ability to open up to people or put yourself out there. Friendships are important to physical and mental health, and vital to feeling a sense of community and support. Fear of intimacy signs include:
- Preferring surface-level interactions and avoiding deep conversations
- Keeping a busy schedule so you have no time to hang out with friends
- Deflecting questions when friends ask about emotions, challenges, or personal life
- Overusing digital communication methods to keep friendships at a distance and prevent meaningful face-to-face interactions
Why Am I Afraid of Intimacy? Common Causes
Therapy sessions will be helpful to figure out what life event is the basis for present bad habits or mental health issues. Luckily, we professionals are happy to share the common underlying themes of our patients who are scared of intimacy.
Like most baggage, intimacy issues are usually due to a negative experience during childhood or adolescence.
Intimacy disorders cover a range of issues from sex addiction to relationship sabotage. It's really an all-encompassing term to wrap up the unhealthy behaviors listed above.
Intimacy avoidance, or, avoiding relationships at any cost, can be considered a disorder if it goes untreated and negatively impacts your quality of life.
Picture someone who churns through friendships year after year or an older person who feels lonely but hasn't formed a successful close friendship since they were a young child.
Fear of Abandonment
Fear of abandonment or rejection stems from childhood neglect, abuse, or early repeated rejection.
It's not hard to imagine how abandonment can rock a small child's world and make them build walls around their emotions as a form of self-preservation.
Picture this: A child forms a close connection with his aunt and cousins, who are closer to him than his own nuclear family. The cousins move to another state, making him feel alone, abandoned, and disregarded. The child was so hurt that he stopped letting people in so he never had to feel that pain again. As an adult, he shows signs of intimacy issues - not fully opening up to his friends and ending romances after a few months.
Fear of Engulfment
The fear of engulfment is an intense apprehension of being controlled or dominated by another person, typically within the context of an intimate relationship.
For example, if someone's mother was overprotective and didn't let them make their own decisions, they might be triggered by being told what to do. The thought of being that couple that refers to themselves as "we" makes these people want to shrivel up.
This fear of being controlled can manifest as hyper independence or hesitation to appreciate certain acts of love. Springing a surprise trip on them, for example, might be seen as "too much" rather than a spontaneous gesture.
Past Trauma or Abusive Dynamics
Abuse is a vicious cycle that leaves both victims and witnesses with a slew of baggage to unpack. Those struggling with intimacy might have past abuse to blame. This includes:
- Physical or sexual abuse
- Neglectful parents
- Losing a parent or having a parent with a chronic illness
- Being cheated on
- Being gaslighted, put down, or verbally abused in past relationships
- A history of manipulation
Social anxiety is the worst, and for some of us, it gets in the way of forming meaningful relationships.
An intimacy anxiety disorder or intense fear of relationships can also stem from a social phobia. In some cases this is related to a fear of rejection, learned behavior from parents, or genetics.
Do you want to move things along and struggle with the physical part?
Maybe you've had some bad experiences in the bedroom (most people have) or maybe you received some bad criticism in the past.
Either way, performance anxiety can cause us to subconsciously avoid situations that might escalate in the bedroom. This type of intimacy anxiety disorder might disguise itself as a fear of relationships, and it's really just a fear of the physical part.
(Check out my premature ejaculation audio course if this is you)
Poor Body Image
To the same tune, people who feel ashamed of their bodies sometimes struggle with intimacy out of fear of revealing themselves to others. Maybe you feel so uncomfortable showing your skin that you avoid relationships altogether. Maybe you avoid or sabotage situations where you will be seen without clothes.
Having low confidence or low self-worth makes us scared that others will notice how "bad" we are, so we don't let them get close enough to see.
Why It's Important to Face Your Fears
Intimacy avoidance doesn't just go away. Ignored intimacy issues will amplify the struggle over time and show up as:
Countless studies show that relationships and community are negatively correlated with depression rates. Loneliness, no support system, and not being able to confide in anyone during a hardship make the lows of life that much harder.
Humans are social creatures. We don't just crave connection - we need it to survive. In response to loneliness and isolation, people are more likely to turn to substances. During the COVID pandemic, for example, young people reported drinking and partaking in drugs more often in response to their depression.
The loved ones of people with intimacy problems are the first ones to notice. Over time, spouses get tired of begging for intimacy - physical or emotional.
Next, I'll show you how to overcome the fear of physical intimacy or a general fear of relationships and vulnerability.
How to Overcome a Fear of Intimacy
Let's take a look at some tools to help you cope with and hopefully get over a fear of relationships. Keep in mind that facing this type of deep-rooted issue can be painful, and navigating it with the help of a professional is extremely useful.
Look Into Your Past
Do some detective work and reflect on the relationships of your youth. Were you ever embarrassed, betrayed, abandoned, or disappointed by a close family member or friend?
Once you pinpoint a possible cause, you'll be in a better position to work through those issues and build happier, healthier relationships. Depending what you dredge up, the next step might be sex therapy or counseling.
Examine Your Behavior
Sometimes the first step is to look in the mirror. Hopefully, some of the signal behaviors above clicked with you, and you're starting to see a pattern in your relationships.
Sharing your thoughts, fears, and feelings builds trust and connection, helping you build a deeper connection with your partner. You don't have to treat it like a confessional session. Try starting by bringing up a childhood tradition or opinion on a current event.
As the saying goes, "When you assume, you make an ass out of U and Me"...get it?
It's so easy to assume what your partner is thinking or feeling.
Assuming that they're annoyed, assuming they don't care, or assuming that they feel the same way that you do about something. Don't do it! You might even learn a bit about them in the process.
How to Get Close to Someone With Intimacy Issues
Dating someone with a fear of intimacy can feel like a roller coaster. You're really into someone, and all of a sudden they're picking fights or avoiding your invites. It gets in the way of your sexual relationship and ability to "click."
Intimacy issues in marriage can be even more confusing, and getting married doesn't magically make all of your problems go away.
Here are a few tips for helping a partner with intimacy issues:
Don't Take it Personally
When someone withdraws or keeps themselves at a distance, it can feel like they don't like you. They probably wouldn't still be around if they didn't! While their behavior might seem rude, remember that it's a self-preservation technique.
It's tempting to match coldness with more coldness. Doing so can lead to more intimacy issues in a relationship, especially if your partner sees your cold shoulder as rejection.
Encourage Them with Love
The best thing you can do is to create a safe space for them to communicate how they feel when the time comes. Hopefully, you can make them feel safe enough to open up and trust you.
On the note of encouragement, gently and lovingly encourage them to seek therapy. Some issues are too big to conquer alone.
Scenario #1: Your Partner Needs Constant Reassurance
Every time Josh compliments Sasha, she deflects the compliment and jokes that he's trying to butter her up. He recently surprised her with a romantic home-cooked meal, but instead of enjoying it, she was asking him who he'd done this for in the past. Despite his loving gestures, Sasha often asks how he feels about her and doesn't believe him when he says he's serious.
Sasha's last partner was carrying on with other girls well into their relationship. The one before that belittled and verbally abused her, making her perceive even well-meaning comments or feedback as potential threats to self-worth. As a result, she has a hard time believing that this partner is genuine.
If this resembles your intimacy issues in a relationship, try asking them about their past relationship dynamics or their parents. Do they seem positive or negative? Ask what you could do to make them feel more secure and follow through.
Scenario #2: Your Partner Shuts Down During Emotional Conversations
Beth and Andrew have been dating for 6 months. Lately, Andrew has been withdrawing emotionally and doesn't seem to engage in conversations about feelings or the relationship. Every time an emotional topic comes up, he changes the subject, walks away, or makes a joke.
This behavior could be due to past emotional walls and wounds. Andrew was an only child and never experienced openness. Growing up, he and other boys were encouraged to keep conversations surface-level and avoid showing emotion.
Dating someone with a fear of intimacy can leave you wondering if they even like you or not. They aren't necessarily avoiding "the talk" in an attempt to keep it casual. They might feel uncomfortable navigating new waters.
Assuming your partner genuinely likes you and wants to continue seeing you, approach these conversations in a completely non judgmental way.
Use phrases like "just indulge me" or "help me understand." Use body language that makes them feel safe, connected, and supported (a stroke on the arm rather than crossed arms).
Remember that not everyone has worked on their emotional intelligence, especially men who were brought up thinking that anger is the only acceptable emotion for their gender.
A bit about me. I'm a sex and intimacy coach based out of San Francisco. After receiving a Master's in Counseling Psychology in 2010, I've succeeded in helping couples struggling with intimacy overcome physical and emotional barriers. Using time-tested exercises, you too can experience a fulfilling sex life and close emotional connections. Learn more about my credentials and about me here.
Restore Physical Intimacy In Your Relationship
The struggle with intimacy pops up at different stages of relationships - after cheating, after having kids, or after a stressful life event. In couples intimacy coaching, you'll learn how to:
- Reconnect after having children.
- Recover from infidelity.
- Find deeper emotional and sexual connections.
- Communicate desires effectively.
- Rekindle playfulness and fantasy.
- Foster forms of non-sexual intimacy.
- Explore what's blocking your desire.
- Navigate non-monogamy.
Intimacy issues in marriage aren't a life sentence. In fact, facing them head-on can open up doors you didn't even know were there!
Overcome Sexual Shame
Learn how to overcome the fear of physical intimacy caused by insecurities, confusion, or a difficult past. I help women let go of sexual shame and intimacy disorders by touching on:
- Embracing Your True Erotic Self
- Loving your body and increasing self-confidence
- Overcoming the Fear of Dating
- Working on the Inability to Climax
- Understanding Abuse or Unwanted Sexual Experiences
- Navigating Physiological Changes
- Rekindling Desire
Get Past Your Fear of Commitment
Helping men have better sex and deeper intimacy means uncovering those hidden thoughts and fears that lead to avoiding relationships and commitment. We cover how to:
- Gain control of your orgasms
- Improve self-esteem and confidence
- Spot the signs of fear of intimacy in a man
- Empower your partner to feel sexual
- Build intimacy outside of the bedroom
- Explore your own sexual desires
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