The phrase “intimacy issues” can mean a number of different things.
In romantic relationships, this can refer to a difficulty with feeling or expressing emotions, but it can also have to do with physical affection.
It can be difficult to cultivate a partnership with someone who has problems letting other people get close. Furthermore, if their issues are sexual in nature, that can take a massive toll on the relationship, since physical intimacy is a cornerstone of a strong pairing.
Emotional intimacy can be navigated a bit more easily, especially if the relationship is based on a strong friendship first, rather than a whirlwind romance.
There are ways to deal with these difficulties, of course, but they do take time, patience, and communication.
If your partner would like to speak to an accredited and experienced therapist to help them address their intimacy issues, the service from BetterHelp.com is one potential option to consider.
What causes intimacy issues to begin with?
Oh boy. This could be an entire article (if not an entire book) all on its own.
Problems with intimacy can be caused by a wide range of experiences. For most, it’s because their trust was betrayed at some point in their lives.
People who grew up with abusive parents may have learned early on that they had to bury their emotions in order to avoid being badly hurt. They might have also learned the lesson that admitting to anything they were feeling would result in those details being used to harm them later on.
They had to be invulnerable in order to keep themselves safe. As a result, they put up fierce protective walls, which they guard ferociously.
For other people, they might have experienced physical or sexual abuse of some kind. As such, they shy away from physical contact because they don’t (or can’t) trust other people not to hurt them. If the abuse was quite severe, they might flinch or pull away from unexpected touch in case they’re surprised by pain.
Similarly, if they experienced sexual abuse, they may have difficulty sleeping next to another person and prefer to be alone with the door locked because it’s the only way for them to sleep securely.
Ultimately, it’s important to remember that people don’t have problems with intimacy just because they’re trying to be difficult. They’ve likely been through several types of hell and are muddling through as best they can.
They likely want to be able to let someone else get close, but they’ve spent so much time keeping those defensive shields up that they may not know how to lower them again.
Is your partner aware that they have intimacy issues?
It’s important to establish whether your partner has told you straight-out that they have problems with intimacy, or if it’s something you’ve noticed as the relationship develops.
It’s a lot easier to work with someone who knows that they’re averse than one who’s either oblivious to the fact, or intentionally repressing things.
If your partner isn’t aware that they have intimacy issues, then they might exhibit a variety of different behaviors that are solid clues, such as:
- Redirecting the conversation when and if emotionally charged topics are raised
- Mistrust about intentions (or mistrust in general)
- A history of pulling away or even breaking off relationships so they don’t “catch feelings”
- Leaving the room because they “have something to do” if the conversation is pressed rather than dropped
- Getting defensive about a topic and going on the attack to deflect
- Expecting that anything they open up about will be used against them later
- Saying flat-out that they don’t want to talk about it
- Getting quiet and disassociating/refusing to answer
- Telling you that they “don’t want any drama” and going uncommunicative (might not talk to you for days if you don’t live together)
- Freezing up or pulling away from hugs and caresses
- Insisting on having the lights out during sex and/or keeping clothes on
- Finding excuses not to be sexually intimate
- Only interested in sexual activity when they initiate it/are in control of the situation
How can you help your partner feel comfortable with greater intimacy?
Let’s take a look at some things you can do to try to get closer to someone who’s dealing with intimacy issues.
1. Broach the topic gently.
The worst thing one can do with a person who’s having closeness issues is to hold some kind of intervention and force them to discuss the issue.
In fact, that’s a surefire way of chasing this person off and ensuring they go “no contact” with you.
Think of this like treating a person who has frostbite: you need to warm up the flesh little by little until sensation returns. If you apply too much heat too quickly, you’ll cause pain and possible irreparable damage.
Choose both your timing and your words very carefully. For example, a good time to broach the subject would be if and when they mention something about their past.
Let’s say you’re watching a film in which a parent hits or verbally abuses their child, and your partner mentions something about how they can relate. After the film is over, you can gently bring up that scene (and their response to it), mentioning that they don’t talk about that family member often, but if they ever want to, you’re there for them.
Expect them to clam up at this point, possibly walk away or redirect the topic. Don’t push it. Let them mull this over.
2. Give them the time and space to open up to you bit by bit.
Have you ever watched videos on YouTube or similar where people befriend wild animals? You’ll notice that they don’t just run up to an animal in the wild and grab them in a huge hug.
At first, these wildlings are skittish and will run away as quickly as they can. Secondly, moving too quickly like that will break whatever trust the creature already has in you, and they’ll be far less likely to try trusting you again in the future.
Treat your partner as though they were a deer or a fox that you’re trying to create a connection with. Expect a “two steps forward, one step back” type of reaction from them as trust grows.
Remember that this is someone who has been hurt very badly by a person (or people) they once trusted. It could have been a parent, sibling, or previous partner who hurt them, and being on the receiving end of abuse and betrayal by someone who’s supposed to love and protect you can create severe damage.
As a result, your partner will test the ground beneath them (so to speak) again and again to see if you’re also going to hurt them. Over time, they’ll realize that it’s solid ground beneath their feet instead of constantly shifting sands. When that happens, they might decide to stand still or move forward with more confidence, knowing that the ground isn’t going to fall out from under them at any given moment.
You’ll have proven to them that you can be a rock for them, which in many cases is something they’ve never experienced before.
3. Don’t make a big deal of it when they open up a bit more, but keep things consistent.
One of the best ways to help someone with intimacy issues open up and trust you is to keep things consistent in your relationship. Much like we talked about with testing the ground repeatedly earlier, your partner will discover that you’re a stable foundation that they can in fact lean into instead of running away from.
As such, it’s vitally important to keep things consistent. If you’ve been behaving a certain way to get them to trust you, and then change dramatically, then they’re going to panic and pull back. Same goes for if they’ve been edging forward with greater trust and you suddenly turn and leap at them with a huge hug and gushings of support for their progress.
The best thing you can do is to just keep on keeping on at a steady, even pace. When and if they open up to you about stuff or manage to fall asleep in your arms instead of panicking at proximity, just take it in stride. Making a big deal out of it will make them self-conscious and retreat.
Instead, treat whatever they say or do in the same way as you would any other conversational topic. If you’re spreading jam on your toast and they blurt out that their parent once beat them with a toaster for spilling milk, don’t drop everything and act aghast. Acknowledge what they’ve said in an even tone, and ask if they want to talk about it. If they do, then let them speak. If they say “there’s nothing more to talk about,” then just nod and eat your toast.
4. Communicate about where the intimacy issues are coming from.
Like every other personal issue, there’s going to be a source to uncover and learn about.
This is kind of like learning that someone’s knee pain comes from an old gymnastics injury or similar. That way, instead of it being brushed off as psychosomatic, or suggesting platitudes to calm it (e.g. “take an aspirin and just keep walking”), you’ll know that it requires certain types of TLC to keep it healthy and not hurting.
Same goes for intimacy issues.
How you go about communicating about the source of their issues will depend entirely on what kind of person they are, where they’re at emotionally right now, and the nature of the intimacy block.
For instance, someone who has trouble trusting others because they were constantly lied to and betrayed by a narcissistic parent may have an easier time opening up than someone who has problems with physical intimacy because they were sexually assaulted by a step-sibling as a child.
5. Try to learn their triggers and physical cues.
Of course, communication gets a lot more difficult if someone isn’t truly aware of their issues (yet), or if they’re loath to discuss them verbally. This is because you’ll need to go by physical and energetic cues rather than the words they’re prepared to share with you.
It’s often more difficult to work out someone’s triggers in this manner if they have difficulties with emotional intimacy vs physical. This is because they might have a lot of trouble opening up about what phrases, expressions, physical movements etc. can trigger their self-preservation instincts.
As a result, you won’t know whether or not you’ve said or done something to set them off until they freeze up all of a sudden and make excuses to leave the room.
6. Take small steps, together.
The examples we’re going to use here focus on people who have issues with physical intimacy.
Let’s say your partner experienced a great deal of physical violence when they were younger, and as such they shrink or flinch from touch. What you can do is let them know in advance that you’re going to touch them so it doesn’t shock or startle them. Sort of like calling a skittish horse’s name before approaching so it doesn’t get scared or kick out.
Similarly, you can check in with them regularly as things get more intimate to make sure they’re okay. People who’ve experienced sexual violence often disassociate and “check out” during sex so they just sort of endure what’s going on instead of being present and enjoying themselves.
Since we want to have real intimacy with our partners and not feel like they’re simply tolerating sex with us, it’s so important to work with them to determine:
- What they enjoy
- What they’re comfortable with
- What’s definitely off the table
Sadly, some people who’ve had sexual trauma in their pasts may not even know what they like. They’ve gotten so used to disassociating that it doesn’t occur to them that this can be a positive, pleasurable experience for them. It may be a case of showing them bit by bit that they can embrace this vital aspect of self in a safe, supported environment, and that they aren’t going to get hurt again by lowering their shields a little bit.
*Just a final note on this topic: remember that one person’s horror show might be another’s idea of a fun Saturday night. Everyone has individual preferences and predilections when it comes to sexual intimacy, and it’s important to establish early on whether you’re actually compatible in bed or not.
For example, let’s say one partner prefers rough, playful sex that involves rope bondage and paddles, and the other is only comfortable with gentle, loving touch and slow intimacy. That’s going to be a recipe for disaster. You’ll find yourself in a situation where a partner will either be bored or traumatized, and neither will be sexually fulfilled.
Even though people may love one another dearly, that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily right for one another sexually.
7. Let them initiate.
This goes for both emotional and sexual intimacy.
Encourage your partner to be intimate on their own terms, and give them the opportunity to fill that space and initiate/approach you when they feel comfortable and confident in doing so.
Just be aware of their behaviors so that when and if they (shyly, awkwardly perhaps) initiate something sexual, or try to start a difficult conversation with you about emotional stuff, you don’t just brush it off because you’re engrossed in something else.
Give the partner wins.
Yeah, this may require some extra care and diligence on your part, but the long-term benefits of being a bit more vigilant about supporting them right now will be well worth it.
Of course, this may require some patience and self-sacrifice on your part too. You might not be feeling particularly frisky at all, but if you turn your partner down for sex the first time they try to initiate it, then the likelihood of them initiating again will plummet significantly.
This is especially true if said partner has intimacy issues because of past problems or failures with others. For example, let’s say your male partner has experienced a great deal of embarrassment because of erectile dysfunction in the past. Maybe an ex of his mocked him for it, or he felt humiliated when he couldn’t perform with someone he cared about and was attracted to.
If he finally feels comfortable and confident enough to try and be intimate with you and you shoot him down, he might be absolutely devastated.
Same goes for a partner who may have been rejected by another lover because of some aspect of their physical appearance. If they’ve developed a degree of confidence with you and feel comfortable enough in their own skin to initiate intimacy, only to have their advances rejected, that’ll likely reopen the old wounds you’ve been trying so hard to help heal.
Yeah, you might not be into it at the moment, but if you can take one for the team and go with it anyway, that might do more for their intimacy issues than you can imagine. One small action can either repair years of damage, or undo years of positive growth, so be cautious in your responses.
This may not seem fair, but chances are that if you’re in a long-term relationship with this person, your roles will reverse at some point in the future. See this as another loving block in the foundation of the future you’re building together.
8. Suggest therapy, but don’t force the issue.
Most people who’ve experienced trauma can benefit a great deal from therapy, but it has to be their decision to seek help when they’re ready for it.
Even if you have their best interests at heart, trying to push them towards therapy can re-open old wounds, reminding them of when they were forced to do other things against their will.
As such, it can be completely counterproductive. They’ll instinctively put their shields up to maximum and rail against the very thing that could help them the most, simply because they feel that it’s being forced on them against their will.
If you feel like they’re reluctant to get therapy because they’re nervous about being alone with a counsellor, then you can offer to do couples therapy instead (still with a certified therapist). Again, leave the ball in their court as to whether they want to do this at all. It’s just that sometimes people are more willing to open up about what’s going on with them if they have someone they trust holding their hand while it’s happening.
If they are open to your suggestion of therapy – either by themselves or with you by their side – we would recommend you look into the online therapy offered by the website BetterHelp.com. Your partner can get the help they need from anywhere they like, so they might feel more comfortable being in familiar surroundings such as their home.
While they may try to work through this themselves, it may be a bigger issue than self-help can address. And if it is affecting their mental well-being, your relationships, or both of your lives in general, it is a significant thing that needs to be resolved.
Too many people try to muddle through and do their best to overcome issues that they never really get to grips with. If it’s at all possible in their circumstances, therapy is 100% the best way forward. Just raise the issue gently and with utmost respect.
Here’s that link again if you’d like to learn more about the service BetterHelp.com provide and the process of getting started.
9. Acknowledge past traumas, but don’t make them center stage.
Quite often, people get stuck on past pages in their history by overly focusing on their traumas.
Many of them make their traumatic experiences vital aspects of their personalities, rather than seeing them as experiences they had, but are no longer mired in. As such, rather than doing their best to try to heal from them, they hold to their victimhood.
This isn’t meant to be a slight, but rather is a commentary on how some aspects of modern culture promote self-victimization rather than real healing.
If someone bases the majority of their personality on being “an abuse survivor,” then chances are they won’t want to get past it. Quite simply, they wouldn’t know who they are without that label. As a result, they hold to it as an integral part of their identity, rather than risking feeling lost without it.
Since their traumas are so front and center in their minds, they might not want to move forward. If real intimacy with a partner might heal what they’ve gone through, they might avoid it so as not to risk losing who and what they are.
Sometimes, the best approach is to not focus so much on the past, and focus on enjoying one another and having a good time in the moment. You’re here now.
Just make sure to always act with love and integrity with one another, and respect each other’s boundaries.
10. Be aware that some wounds will never heal completely.
In some cases, where there has been severe trauma, or intense stress over a long period of time, the person who experienced these difficulties will be unable to ever heal completely from what they’ve gone through.
Many of them will have had to shut down parts of themselves in order to get through everything. Although these parts can be accessed to a certain degree, they’ll never be the same as they could have been if the traumas hadn’t occurred.
Think of this like a tree that’s grown sideways instead of upright because it’s been barraged by heavy winds for years. That tree is still growing, still has leaves on it and is pretty healthy all in all, but it’s never going to be able to stand upright. Its form has been altered on a fundamental level, and no matter how many struts and supports are placed beneath it to try to re-shape it, it’s never going to grow straight up like others in its species.
The same goes for people who have experienced sexual violence. Even if they’ve managed to “get over” the worst of their memories, there may always be some acts that they’re simply not capable of taking part in.
None of us are issue-free, and it’s inevitable that each of us will end up triggered or uncomfortable in certain situations. What’s important is to be honest with oneself about what’s going on, and to discuss things with our partners however we’re able to do so.
If you’re the partner who’s dealing with intimacy issues, then it’s okay to say to the other person that you’ve been through a lot of awful stuff that’s left a mark on you, and although you’re not ready to talk about it just yet, you’d like to do so once you feel more comfortable opening up to them about it. Just knowing that they’re not the cause of your distress can be enough to turn their emotional state around from feeling guilty and defensive to compassionate and supportive.
The reverse is true if it’s your partner who’s dealing with intimacy hesitation. Just because they may not be ready to talk about or work through what’s going on right now doesn’t mean that’s always going to be the case.
People tend to open up once they feel safe and secure with another person. In fact, they might surprise you by taking huge leaps forward once they realize that you’re someone they can truly trust.
Just don’t ever break the trust that they have in you. People who have been betrayed badly in the past tend to go “scorched earth” when and if betrayal happens again. Accidental missteps are one thing, but if you try to push beyond what they’re comfortable with, or say/do things that they’ve specifically asked you not to because you think it’s for their own good, then you’ll likely lose them forever.
You may also like:
- How To Date Someone With Trust Issues: 6 No Nonsense Tips
- How To Love Somebody With Abandonment Issues: 8 Key Tips
- Dating Someone With Anxiety: 4 Things To Do (And 4 NOT To Do)
- 11 Signs Of An Insecure Man (+ Tips For Dealing With One)
- How To Love A Broken Man: 7 Key Things You Need To Know
- How To Navigate Depression In A Relationship (For Both Parties)
- How To Break Down Your Emotional Walls: 9 No Nonsense Tips