The Fear of Intimacy: Are you Afraid? Part One

Do you struggle with sharing your thoughts and feelings out loud to others?

Are you open to sharing your experiences with others?

Do you have trouble expressing yourself sexually?

The fear of intimacy is a very common type of fear that many people of varying ages experience throughout their lives. It can also be referred to as “avoidance anxiety,” or “intimacy avoidance,” but overall means the same thing: a fear of sharing a close emotional or physical relationship. For those who are facing the fear of intimacy, our series of articles “The Fear of Intimacy” parts one, two, and three might be for you.

People who struggle with intimacy avoidance do not usually want to do this and are often fighting hard to break down their own walls to accept intimacy. So often for these folks, they are unable to achieve this goal without the help of licensed therapists, counselors, or medical professionals. Many of these individuals have stated in numerous research studies that they often feel that they are “broken” and do not know how to maintain relationships, or that they find themselves sabotaging their own efforts.

This intimacy avoidance can begin from several different causes including childhood experiences or traumas, like abuse and neglect. Others can stem from deep emotional trauma and high levels of anxiety. Some have reported that their intimacy avoidance started in the midst of a bad relationship, or from those who have deep levels of self-hatred. Overcoming this fear can take time and loads of practice, both to better understand the self and circumstance- but it is possible!

Intimacy is…

Intimacy speaks of the ability to truly connect and share your true self with another person and often relates to the experiences of connection and closeness. There are numerous types of intimacy that we can find in our lives, and the most common are:

  • Physical: The ability to share yourself physically or sexually with another.
  • Intellectual: The ability to share your thoughts and ideas with another.
  • Emotional: The ability to share your inner feelings with another.
  • Spiritual: The ability to share your beliefs beyond your own self, in a higher power, or individual connection with others in the world.
  • Experiential: The ability to share experiences with another.

There are over fourteen types of intimacy that can touch a person in their everyday lives. The fear of intimacy can involve one type of intimacy, or a mix of many of the different varieties.

The Fear of Intimacy is…

The fear of intimacy is different from the fear of vulnerability, which many people often confuse or mix together. One who is living with intimacy avoidance may be comfortable being vulnerable and showing their true selves at first, but there are often limits that are sometimes known and other times unknown that the person must face. For those who fear intimacy, the problem most often begins with a relationship begins to get too deep, or the person is getting “too close” to the other.

What causes the fear of intimacy…

There are many things that can cause intimacy avoidance and these things can happen at any time throughout our lives. Abandonment and engulfment are typically the two major triggers, and the fear of loss are often all at the center of this intimacy avoidance. For many, these fears creep in during childhood events or traumas that last into their adult relationships. The fear of intimacy is also strongly linked to severe anxiety disorders. These different fears are described below.

  • The Fear of Abandonment: These folks worry that their partners will leave them, and often results from the experience of a parents or another important role model figure abandoning the person emotionally or physically in their lifetime.
  • The Fear of Engulfment: Those who have a fear of engulfment worry that they will be dominated, controlled, or “lose themselves” in their relationships. This fear often stems from growing up in an enmeshed, emotionally unavailable family.
  • Anxiety Disorders: Certain social phobias and social anxiety disorders can worsen the overall fear of intimacy. Those who are afraid of judgment, rejection, or being evaluated by others are more likely to avoid intimate, personal connections in their personal lives or in the workplace.
    • Certain people may also have worsened fear of intimacy is they also have a fear of being touched, or haphephobia.
    • Some people may be comfortable in some social situations, with limited people or only those people they are the most comfortable with, or those people who they do not have any personal or deep connection with. These people may look like they have no fear at all.
    • The fear of intimacy can be very difficult to detect in others in our society that is so technological and allows people to hide behind their computer screens.

What are the risk factors for the fear of intimacy…

There are many risk factors that coincide with the fear of intimacy, many of which can make the feelings more or less extreme. Some experiences that may increase the overall risk of a person having intimacy avoidance are:

  • Dysfunctional families: While dysfunctional families may, on the surface, appear to be loving and supportive, boundaries and roles might be blurred and lead to issues with attachment, independence, and intimacy.
  • Parental illness: Illness in a parent can result in a feeling of not being able to rely on anyone but oneself, especially when it involves role reversal or the need to “play parent” and care for other siblings at a young age.
  • Neglect: People who experienced neglect as children may find it difficult to trust and rely on others, including intimate partners, as adults.
  • Emotional neglect: Parents who are physically but not emotionally available send the message to children that they (and by extension, others) can’t be relied on.
  • Loss of a parent: People who have lost a parent through death, divorce, or imprisonment may be left with feelings of abandonment and may have a harder time forming romantic attachments as adults. Research has found that a fear of abandonment is associated with mental health problems and later anxiety in romantic relationships.
  • Parental mental illness: Research studies state that parental mental illness, such as narcissistic personality disorder or severe depression, can affect attachment formation in children, which may result in insecure attachment and poor coping strategies in adulthood.
  • Parental substance use: Substance use issues can make it difficult for parents to provide consistent care, which can interfere with the formation of attachments.
  • Physical or sexual abuse: Abuse in childhood can make it difficult to form both emotional and sexual intimacy as an adult.
  • Verbal abuse: Children who are emotionally or mentally abused may grow into adults who fear being ridiculed or verbally abused if they share anything with others, which can lead to an inability to share and be vulnerable in relationships with other people. (Intimacy Institute)

The fear of intimacy is most common in those folks who are taught to never trust anyone, those with a history of depression, and those who have experienced any form of rape. Traumatic experiences and interactions within relationships or partnerships outside of the immediate family can also contribute to intimacy avoidance.

If you are struggling with the fear of intimacy, plan a discussion with your medical care team or therapist to dive into the depths of finding out the reasons why this is, and how you can work to control this fear, learn to live with it, and reclaim your life.

Look for Part Two in our “The Fear of Intimacy” series titled, “The Fear of Intimacy: Signs and Manifestations: Part Two.” And Part Three titled, “The Fear of Intimacy: Diagnosis, Treatment & Management.

Resources Used:

Reclaiming Intimacy


Intimacy Institute

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