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Fear Of Intimacy: Causes, Signs, And How To Overcome It

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A fear of intimacy disrupts an important ability to forge close relationships and friendships with other people.

Intimacy is the act of sharing vulnerability and close physical and emotional ties with another person.

People who experience this fear often sabotage their own relationships or push people away before they can get too close.

They long for intimacy, but they have a hard time attaining and maintaining it when that closeness starts touching on their anxieties.

Confronting and overcoming a fear of intimacy is a difficult, but attainable goal with focused self-improvement and likely some counseling.

What Is Intimacy?

To better understand what a fear of intimacy looks like, you need to understand how complex intimacy can be.

There are four types of intimate relationships.

1. Intellectual

The bonding is done through deep, personal discussions and an exchange of ideas.

To truly share your rawest, purest ideas with another person requires bravery and a willingness to face judgment of your world view and beliefs.

That isn’t something we often give to a random person. Typically, that person is someone we are close to, want to be close to, or respect enough to have that discussion with.

2. Emotional

Emotional intimacy is what people tend to envision when they think of intimacy.

It is having a close, emotional connection with another person where you allow yourself to be vulnerable to them.

This includes people who feel they have spiritual connections with other people.

3. Experiential

People may bond through shared activities, interests, or experiences.

This can include something like a support group, where the attendees are all people who have a shared illness or experience.

It can also be neutral experiences, like feeling close to other people in a hobby club where people share a passion.

4. Sexual

Sexual is self-explanatory. Physical intimacy is another common way for people to think about intimacy.

In essence, then, to be intimate with another person or people is to be vulnerable to them, even if it’s not in the context of a deeply personal relationship.

Different Types Of Fear Of Intimacy

The different types of fears really come down to a fear of loss.

A fear of abandonment is often rooted in a fear of a loss of others, of losing their partner.

It often stems from losing an important adult figure in their childhood. The abandonment they experienced as a child may be physical or emotional.

Physical abandonment is when a parental figure is no longer physically present in the child’s life.

Emotional abandonment is when the adult figure cannot or will not give the type of emotional support a child needs in their development. That can happen because of traumatic experiences, substance abuse, or mental illness.

A fear of engulfment is a fear of losing oneself in a relationship.

The person may not realize that they are allowed to have boundaries or think that they need to give up large parts of themselves, change their life dramatically, or change who they are to be in a relationship.

None of these things are true in a healthy relationship. Yes, the way you conduct life does change, but it doesn’t have to change completely.

The fear of intimacy may also manifest in people with social anxiety disorder or a social phobia.

People who experience these social problems have a hard time facing judgment and evaluation, which makes it difficult for them to forge deep friendships, relationships, or intimate connections.

Judgment and evaluation are important parts of forming a friendship, because that’s how we choose who we want to give our time and attention to.

Some people may mask their fear of intimacy behind the use of social media, where they can appear to have hundreds of “friends” without having any deep or personal connections with anyone.

They may also have many superficial friends where there are low expectations on any kind of commitment or emotional labor.

Risk Factors For Developing A Fear Of Intimacy

Most risk factors point back to childhood with untrustworthy parental figures that lead to attachment and bonding issues as an adult. These risk factors can include:

Neglect. Both physical or emotional.

Abuse. Sexual, physical, verbal, or emotional.

Loss of a parent. Divorce, death, or prison.

Substance abuse. Alcoholism or drug abuse.

Illness. Illness in which a parent cannot provide appropriate parental support to the child, or forcing the child into a caregiving role for other children.

Enmeshed families. An enmeshed family is a type of family unit where the boundaries are blurred.

It often happens between a parent and a child where the parent does not establish appropriate boundaries.

They may do things like dote on a particular child at the expense of the rest, being the child’s best friend, confiding secrets in the child, and being over-involved in the child’s achievements and activities.

Enmeshed families often appear to be loving and supportive, but they tend to have major issues with boundary setting, boundary enforcement, independence, and intimacy.

Traumatic experiences. Traumatic experiences, particularly with authority figures, can shape one’s ability to trust and connect with others in and outside of the family.

Negative relationship experiences. The relationships a person has throughout their life can also foster and reinforce a fear of intimacy.

Avoidant Personality Disorder. Avoidant Personality Disorder is also known as intimacy anxiety disorder and is thought to affect somewhere in the region of 1.5% – 2.5% of the population.

People with Avoidant Personality Disorder often avoid social situations because of fears of humiliation, judgment, and an oversensitivity to criticism. They may be shy, awkward, and have low self-esteem.

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Symptoms Of A Fear Of Intimacy

A fear of intimacy can look different depending on the type of relationship.

Oftentimes, the fear can look like the opposite behavior of what a person is trying to accomplish.

A person who wants to form a romantic relationship may purposefully sabotage their own progress of forming that relationship by rushing things, being too clingy, not answering texts or calls, or testing the other person’s emotions within the relationship.

Behaviors include:

1. Serial Dating

A person with a fear of intimacy can often function at the surface level of relationships.

They might even enjoy the getting to know one another phase when both partners still haven’t shown the deepest parts of who they are.

They avoid connecting on an intimate level with the people they are dating and bounce from person to person because it’s within their comfort zone. They may have many short-term, superficial relationships.

They may appear to have a fear of commitment on the surface, but it’s actually a fear of intimacy that is keeping them from committing.

2. Sabotaging Relationships

Sabotaging a relationship can take many forms. It can be anything from ghosting for different periods of time to being overly critical and combative with their partner.

The person may act continuously suspicious and regularly accuse their partner of doing things they haven’t done.

They may also try to make themselves appear to be unlovable by acting with hostility or cruelty to try to force the other person to leave them so they can convince themselves they are unlovable and unworthy.

3. Physical Contact

A person with a fear of intimacy may not avoid physical contact, though that can happen.

They may also strive for far too much physical contact, constantly needing to be touching or within the space of their partner.

4. Perfectionism

Perfectionism may be a method of overcompensation for a person who feels they are unworthy of love, support, and respect.

They may overwork or keep an immaculate home to demonstrate that they are worthy.

The problem is that perfectionism gets in the way of living life. And very few people can ever live up to the standards that the perfectionist expects, so they inadvertently push other people away.

5. Difficulty with communication

A person who feels unworthy may not communicate their needs to their partner, so their needs start to go unfulfilled.

They don’t communicate their needs because they don’t want to cause disruption and potentially cause their partner to leave them.

That causes resentment and conflict that escalates because one partner’s needs are not being met.

The person with a fear of intimacy resents their partner, telling themselves that they must be unworthy of love and support if their partner is not trying to meet these needs, even though they haven’t made their partner aware of such needs.

That can lead to a breakup if it’s not addressed.

What If My Partner Has A Fear Of Intimacy?

Focus on developing and nurturing lines of communication with your partner.

Ask them what will make them feel loved and safe.

Ask what will help them feel comfortable in the relationship.

And do encourage them to seek help from a professional.

A fear of intimacy often comes from a raw, fragile place that needs to be carefully navigated.

The process of overcoming a fear of intimacy is difficult and there will likely be setbacks. Patience and kindness are an important part of supporting a loved one through their recovery.

They will make mistakes and may sometimes go stretches of time without improvement. The most important part of that success is that they keep trying and working for it.

Overcoming A Fear Of Intimacy

The diagnosis and treatment of a fear of intimacy will depend on how severe it is and why you are experiencing that fear.

Since this fear often comes from painful and traumatic experiences, it is best to consult with a certified mental health professional about how to work on and overcome the fear.

Addressing the why – the root cause of your fear of intimacy – is essential for actually healing and recovering from the problem. If you don’t fix the foundation, then the rest of the structure you build atop it won’t be sound.

You may continue to have additional problems with intimacy that you would think would be resolved, but aren’t, because that foundation isn’t solid yet.

So do talk with a certified mental health counselor about it if you are struggling with intimacy. They are best equipped to help you find the root of the problem and fix it.

About The Author

Jack Nollan is a person who has lived with Bipolar Disorder and Bipolar-depression for almost 30 years now. Jack is a mental health writer of 10 years who pairs lived experience with evidence-based information to provide perspective from the side of the mental health consumer. With hands-on experience as the facilitator of a mental health support group, Jack has a firm grasp of the wide range of struggles people face when their mind is not in the healthiest of places. Jack is an activist who is passionate about helping disadvantaged people find a better path.