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Fear of intimacy is a real and common issue that can cause significant problems in our relationships, as well as our mental health. Research shows that failing to establish intimacy in relationships is linked to negative relationship outcomes, including the breakdown of a relationship. 1
In this article, we will discuss what fear of intimacy is and why it happens, as well as common signs and symptoms so you can start dealing with it in your own life.
Do you want to learn more about the topic of intimacy in relationships? Explore our comprehensive guide on intimacy in romantic relationships.
What is fear of intimacy?
Fear of intimacy describes a feeling of deep-seated anxiety that makes it difficult to share our innermost thoughts and feelings with someone we deeply care about. 2 People with this fear may struggle to establish and maintain close relationships, or they may engage in seemingly intimate relationships but avoid truly opening up.
Descutner and Thelen (1991) developed the Fear-of-Intimacy Scale as a tool to assess variables that impact intimacy in close relationships. Their construct highlights three core elements: 2
- Content: This refers to the information you are sharing in the relationship, which could be facts about yourself or your feelings.
- Emotional valence: This describes the intensity of emotions that are attached to that information.
- Vulnerability: This is the degree of risk you are taking when you share that information. When you’re being intimate, you’re essentially putting yourself in a vulnerable position because you hold the other person in high regard and trust them to respond with care and respect.
Together, these three elements create a complex web that can make intimacy frightening for some. The fear of intimacy can act as a significant roadblock in forming a deep, meaningful connection with someone else.
Discover why emotional intimacy is important in relationships and how to build it!"
What causes fear of intimacy?
Understanding the root causes of fear of intimacy can help you better address and overcome it. The causes can be multifaceted, ranging from past experiences and upbringing to current emotional states and beliefs.
Here are 4 common causes of fear of intimacy:
1. Attachment style
The concept of attachment style can be traced back to the 1950s when psychologist John Bowlby observed children separated from their parents and developed a theory of attachment. 3 Bowlby’s work laid the foundation for our understanding that early experiences with caregivers play a crucial role in shaping our future relationships. They form our expectations and beliefs about how others will treat us later in life. 4
The capacity to build intimacy is closely tied to a secure attachment style. To truly engage in intimate relationships, four key abilities are essential: 5
1. The ability to seek care
Sometimes, life throws curveballs. For intimacy to thrive, you must be able to turn to others for support and receive it. A secure attachment style empowers individuals to actively seek and communicate their need for care. This is rooted in their early connections, which provided reassurance that their needs would be met. 5
2. The ability to give care
The flip side is equally important. Being a comforting presence for your partner encourages them to open up, fostering a deeper connection. Inflexibility or displaying controlling behavior, however, can inhibit this openness. 5
3. The ability to feel comfortable with an autonomous self
True intimacy requires two separate, independent individuals. Trusting in your own autonomy, as well as your partner’s, mitigates the fear of being overly consumed by the relationship, making closeness more feasible. In order to allow this autonomy, you have to believe that a separation from your partner does not equate to an irretrievable loss of your partner. 5
4. The ability to negotiate closeness
Everyone has their own comfort zone when it comes to intimacy. The key is being able to communicate and find a middle ground where both parties feel secure yet connected. 5
To sum up, your attachment style is a blueprint for how you’ll engage in relationships, affecting your capacity for intimacy at a foundational level.
Learn more about how attachment styles shape intimacy in relationships.
Experiencing trauma can leave lasting emotional scars, and these scars often manifest as issues with intimacy. Research has consistently shown that childhood sexual abuse can have severe negative consequences on someone’s ability to be intimate in adult relationships. 6
But it’s not just sexual trauma that can impact intimacy. Also, non-sexual traumatic life events can lead to fear of intimacy. 6
For instance, a study focusing on military personnel who had been exposed to combat found that a significant number of veterans faced intimacy issues similar to those seen in individuals who had experienced sexual trauma. 6
So whether it’s a distressing childhood experience or a life-altering event, trauma can deeply impact your ability to connect intimately with someone.
Perfectionism can be a double-edged sword. Studies have shown that maladaptive perfectionists - those who set unrealistically high expectations for themselves and then harshly judge their own performance - are more likely to fear intimacy compared to those who don’t engage in this self-critical behavior. 7
When you’re always striving for perfection, the vulnerability that is necessary for intimacy can feel threatening. This can make it difficult to let your guard down and be fully open with someone else - which is crucial for intimacy to thrive.
4. Social anxiety
Social anxiety is another key factor in the fear of intimacy. While people with moderate to severe social anxiety can and do form romantic relationships, research has shown that they often experience less satisfaction in various aspects of their relationship. 8
They have difficulties sharing their thoughts and feelings openly with their partner and show enhanced fear of intimacy compared to those without social anxiety. 8
Essentially, social anxiety acts as a barrier, hindering individuals from embracing the intimacy and vulnerability that defines a romantic relationship.
Signs of fear of intimacy
Recognizing the signs of fear of intimacy is the first step toward overcoming it. Sometimes, the symptoms aren’t always obvious, but there are common signs to watch out for.
Here are 5 signs you may be experiencing fear of intimacy:
1. You struggle to open up and share your emotions
If you find it tough to articulate your feelings, even with someone you’re close to, this could be a sign of fear of intimacy. Here are some example items of the Fear-of-intimacy scale 2:
- “I would feel uneasy talking with [my partner] about something that has hurt me deeply.” 2
- “I might be afraid to confide my innermost feelings to [my partner].” 2
- “I have held back my feelings in previous relationships.” 2
2. You fall in and out of short-term relationships
Do you find yourself hopping from one relationship to another without really sinking into any of them? If long-term commitments make you uneasy, and you’re quick to exit when things start to get serious, this pattern might indicate a fear of intimacy.
The allure of a new relationship can be intoxicating, but if you’re not sticking around for the “real” parts, it could be because intimacy is intimidating. Here is an example of an item from the Fear-of-intimacy scale 2:
“I have shied away from opportunities to be close to someone.” 2
3. You have difficulty trusting others
Trust is a cornerstone of any intimate relationship. If you’re always skeptical of others’ motives or afraid they’ll hurt you, it’s going to be very difficult to let someone in.
This lack of trust could stem from past experiences or insecurities, but it acts as a shield against intimacy, keeping people at arm’s length.
4. You have difficulty expressing your needs
Being in a relationship requires a certain level of assertiveness about your own needs and desires. If you struggle with this, it can be an indicator of fear of intimacy.
Perhaps you’re worried that your needs will be a burden to your partner, or you simply can’t articulate them because you’re not used to opening up. Either way, not expressing your needs can stifle the growth of intimacy in your relationship.
5. You struggle with receiving and showing affection
Affection, both in its physical form, like hugs and kisses, and its emotional form like compliments and acts of kindness, is a key component of intimacy. If you find this kind of close interaction uncomfortable or anxiety-inducing, it’s another sign that you may be fearful of true intimacy.
It’s not just about your comfort level with giving affection but also how you receive it. If compliments make you uneasy or physical closeness makes you want to retreat, these reactions could be stemming from a deeper fear of intimacy.
How to cope with fear of intimacy
If you’ve recognized some of the signs of fear of intimacy in yourself or your partner, you’re likely wondering what you can do about it. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, there are steps you can take to start confronting and overcoming this fear.
Here are crucial steps you should take to start overcoming your fear of intimacy:
1. Be patient with yourself
Overcoming a fear of intimacy isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s a process that requires time, self-reflection, and a willingness to confront some deeply ingrained habits and beliefs. Don’t rush yourself or get discouraged if progress feels slow. Remember, you’re unlearning patterns that may have been in place for years, and that takes time.
2. Practice self-compassion
The journey to becoming more comfortable with intimacy often involves facing some uncomfortable truths about yourself and your past. This can be emotionally taxing, and it’s easy to slip into self-judgment.
Practicing self-compassion means treating yourself with the same kindness and understanding as you would a good friend. Remind yourself that it’s okay to have fears and imperfections; they don’t make you unworthy of love.
3. Talk with your partner
Open communication is key when it comes to addressing any problem. If you’re in a relationship, your partner can be your greatest ally in this journey.
This might be one of the toughest steps, but it is also one of the most important. By opening up to your partner, you’re taking a crucial step in the direction of true intimacy.
It also helps your partner understand what you’re going through and might explain behavior that may have been confusing to them.
Apart from helping your partner to better understand you, you also help yourself. Saying it out loud can be a powerful way of working through your fears and anxieties, freeing yourself from what may have been holding you back.
Discover more benefits of talking openly with your partner.
4. Seek professional help
Sometimes, the fear of intimacy is deeply rooted in past experiences that are difficult to address on your own. In such cases, it might be helpful to consult with a therapist.
Therapy can be an incredibly useful tool in confronting and overcoming your fear of intimacy. It provides a safe and reliable space for self-reflection, allowing you to work through complex emotions in a structured way.
Fear of intimacy is a complex issue that many people struggle with. However, there are strategies and supports available to help you navigate this challenge.
For more tips on how to improve your relationship, explore our complete guide on communication in a relationship.
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Yoo, H., Bartle-Haring, S., Day, R. D., & Gangamma, R. (2013). Couple communication, emotional and sexual intimacy, and relationship satisfaction. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 40(4), 275–293. doi.org ↩︎
Feist, J., Feist, G., & Roberts, T. (2017). Theories of Personality (9th ed.). McGraw Hill. ↩︎
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. Basic Books; New York. ↩︎
Montesi, J. L., Conner, B. T., Gordon, E. A., Fauber, R. L., Kim, K. H., & Heimberg, R. G. (2012). On the Relationship Among Social Anxiety, Intimacy, Sexual Communication, and Sexual Satisfaction in Young Couples. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42(1), 81–91. doi.org ↩︎ ↩︎