- Intimacy can exist between family, friends, and partners, but a fear of intimacy is not uncommon.
- A fear of intimacy can manifest through self-sabotage, loss of attraction, or avoiding vulnerability.
- While a fear of intimacy is nothing to be ashamed of, it can often be overcome through therapy.
Intimacy can be as powerful as it is intimidating. And there are many examples of what fear of intimacy may look like — it doesn’t always involve romantic relationships and emotional intimacy.
Intimacy can exist between friends, family members, as well as romantic partners and there are many different types of intimacy.
A fear of intimacy usually results from a negative experience in childhood, says Stephen Hirsch, a psychotherapist at The Relationship Suite.
“Whether it’s an abusive parent or an alcoholic parent or divorce or whatever, something happens in a person’s early life to make [them] feel insecure in allowing themself to be vulnerable and get attached to somebody,” he says.
If you think you, or someone you know, might have a fear of intimacy, here are a few different signs to look for, as well as some tips for how to address intimacy issues.
Signs of a fear of intimacy
Fear of intimacy is experienced on a spectrum, so everyone experiences it differently, says Gary Katz, a therapist and the founder of the Center for Intimacy Recovery.
Still, there are a few characteristic signs of avoiding intimacy that you can look out for, either in yourself or a partner. They include:
- Serial dating: Serial dating doesn’t necessarily mean you’re afraid of intimacy. However, you may regularly go on first, second, or third dates, but find yourself unable to push past the early stages of a relationship, even if you want to.
- Sidestepping meaningful conversations: If you fill your schedule with work or social engagements so that you don’t have time for deep conversations, this could keep your relationships from progressing to a more intimate stage.
- Loss of physical interest in your partner as time goes on: After six months to a year of dating, you may lose physical interest in your partner(s), sometimes to the extent of being unable to achieve sexual arousal. This is a physical response to a fear of intimacy and rejection.
- Avoiding emotional vulnerability: When you are given the opportunity to open up, you could retreat from the conversation out of a fear of vulnerability.
- Self-sabotage: In order to avoid rejection down the line, you might subconsciously sabotage a relationship. This can be through small things, like carrying on with a habit your partner hates, or big things, like abruptly ending an otherwise healthy relationship.
Sometimes, people fear one type of intimacy but not others. For instance, people who are afraid of emotional intimacy but not physical intimacy may frequently have casual sex but not be comfortable with a longer-term relationship, Katz says.
On the other hand, someone who is afraid of physical intimacy but not emotional intimacy may avoid sex or disassociate during physically intimate interactions. This is often seen amongst sexual assault survivors, says Sari Cooper, a therapist and Director of the Center for Love and Sex.
Causes of a fear of intimacy
In most cases, a fear of intimacy starts in childhood, Hirsch says. And it all ties back to a feeling of rejection.
This feeling can either be the result of severe trauma, Katz says. For example, if one, or more, parents abandoned you, were alcoholics, or had a mental illness that impaired their ability to meet your needs, it probably prevented a strong, positive attachment between you and them.
Or your intimacy fears could be due to something less severe, Katz says. For instance, if your parents were preoccupied with their own mental health, stress, or long work hours, over your needs.
The bottom line is that if a child thinks their caregivers can’t or don’t want to meet their needs, the child may start to feel self-conscious — like something’s wrong with them. In the future, that could lead them to avoid opening up to others, because they fear additional rejection, Katz says.
One study suggests that rejection by parents as a child – and especially rejection by one’s mother – was strongly associated with fear of intimacy as an adult.
Alternately, Hirsch says that in some cases, children of closely-knit families may grow up feeling that they lack privacy and a sense of control over their lives. As adults, that can make them shy away from intimacy as they attempt to retain their agency.
How to overcome a fear of intimacy
Having a fear of intimacy is very common and nothing to be ashamed of. “We all have it on different levels,” Katz says.
If you want to overcome your fear of intimacy, the best option is therapy. This might include delving into your past to recognize your triggers, identifying the root cause(s) of a fear of intimacy, and developing a compassionate relationship with the hurt parts of your psyche, Cooper says.
If you’re in a relationship, couples therapy would also be appropriate.
“My gold standard for my clients is they’re in couples therapy with me and they each have their own individual therapist to work on themselves,” Hirsch says. “You do that individual work and bring it to the couples therapy and then 1+1 = 3.”
But Hirsch also acknowledges therapy is expensive, and this might not be an option for many. If you can’t attend simultaneous individual and couples therapy, try going to individual therapy first to work on your own past before attending couples therapy, Hirsch suggests.
Group therapy can also be a great option, Katz says, since it allows you to actively practice intimacy with your fellow group members while also exploring the source of your fear of intimacy.
In terms of modalities, Katz notes that certain types of body-based therapies might be best since they connect to your emotions. That could include somatic experience therapy, which involves practicing changing your physical responses to trauma, or sensorimotor psychotherapy, which is specialized for trauma and attachment issues.
But Hirsch says your main focus should be finding a therapist you connect with. “If you’re with somebody you feel really gets you, really understands you, really cares and really can help, overwhelmingly that’s the most important thing,” he says.
In your day-to-day, pay attention to when you’re willing to engage in intimacy and when you turn away, Katz says.
For instance, if you regularly turn down plans with friends, or pick up your phone instead of engaging in an emotional conversation with your partner, note those behaviors. Then make an effort to change them on a small scale.
“Slowly, over time, you’ll start to develop new neural pathways in your brain that are about connection and reach versus turning away and avoidance,” Katz says.
A fear of intimacy is very common. If you think you may experience this, pay attention to signs such as serial dating, self-sabotage, and pulling back in moments of emotional intimacy.
A fear of intimacy is nothing to be ashamed of, and if desired, it can be treated with individual, group, or couples therapy.
“Intimacy starts with being able to see all the parts of ourselves,” Katz says. “If I’m not going to look at them all, I’m not going to let anybody else in to look at them either, so it starts with becoming more familiar with the way I work, emotionally, intellectually, and then slowly allowing someone else to be able to see me, too.”