By nature, humans are social creatures. We have an instinct to create close bonds with others and connect intimately on both an emotional and a physical level. In fact, one 40-year study of 182 adults by a New York-based researcher determined that establishing intimacy as a young adult can lead to satisfaction in later life. But what happens when something that comes so naturally to some strikes fear and dread in others?
Fear of intimacy, or intimacy avoidance as it’s also known, is described by psychologist Jordan Rullo, PhD, as “the fear of having close and vulnerable relationships with others, whether that be emotionally, physically, or sexually.”
Any fear is a complex issue that exists in the subconscious, making it tricky to overcome. But that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. In fact, “if you’re reading this article because you recognize that you yourself have a fear of intimacy, you’re already on the path to overcoming it,” says Rullo. “The first step in changing an old pattern is awareness that the pattern exists. You can’t change something if you don’t know it exists.”
Often, a fear of intimacy is the result of difficult life experiences rather than something you’re born with. “These factors may include a history of abuse or neglect from caregivers or close people in your life, a fear of being abandoned, or a fear of losing oneself in a relationship or being controlled by others,” explains Rullo. But that’s not to say genetics don’t come into it at all; temperament impacts personality development, which can cause challenges. “There are also some personality types, such as the avoidant personality, which are characterized by an inability to connect with others. Personalities are believed to be solidified in adulthood, and it’s thought that one’s personality is a combination of genetic and environmental factors,” says the psychologist.
Sometimes, other types of fears lie at the root of intimacy avoidance, such as:
- Fear of rejection
“If you have a history of being rejected by loved ones or people important to you, then it makes sense that you’d be afraid of being rejected in the present and future,” says Rullo. This fear can mean that you subconsciously try to avoid closeness with others so they don’t have the chance to reject you in the first place.
- Fear of abandonment
Feeling afraid that your partner will leave you can often be caused by having previously been abandoned by loved ones or people who were important to you. If this is the case, says Rullo, “it may follow that you’d be afraid of being abandoned in the present and future. You might think, ‘Why get close to someone? They are just going to leave me anyway.’”
- Fear of engulfment
In contrast, some people are afraid of being invaded, controlled, or losing themselves in a relationship. This can lead to shutting down or avoiding intimacy to protect yourself from feeling dominated by your partner. “If you don’t trust your ability to set boundaries and maintain some sense of autonomy, it can be scary to get close to others for the fear that they’ll engulf your life,” explains Rullo.
Intimacy avoidance can manifest in many different ways — and don’t be fooled into thinking that those with a fear of intimacy avoid relationships entirely.
“For some people, their fear of intimacy is so strong that they don’t ever pursue or engage in intimate relationships. For others, the fear is strong and there is an equally strong desire to be in an intimate relationship,” explains Rullo.
“Essentially, the fear and the desire for intimacy are in a battle. The part of you that desires intimacy motivates you to engage in a relationship, but the moment there’s conflict or an argument, the fearful side gets loud and tells you to leave or end the relationship.”
Loved ones may perceive intimacy avoidance as coldness, indifference, or anger, while inside, you will be feeling afraid. “If a friendship or relationship gets deeper, you may feel like you’re getting ‘too close’ and need to pull away,” explains the psychologist. A fear of intimacy can also cause you to:
- Feel uncomfortable with being hugged
- Sabotage relationships
- Avoid sexual intimacy
- Feel uncomfortable with being told you are loved
- Experience low libido
- Withhold or react indifferently to affection
- Become paranoid or suspicious of your partner
- Criticize or lash out in anger at your partner
- Have difficulty sharing feelings and expressing emotion
If you start to recognize behavioral patterns that might indicate a fear of intimacy, it’s important to know that they’re possible to overcome. And as psychologist Rullo previously explained, the very fact you’re acknowledging the existence of intimacy issues is the first step to improving your ability to maintain close relationships.
Since a fear of intimacy is often rooted in complex emotional issues that can date all the way back to childhood, it may be advisable to consult a mental health professional. “Use your awareness of your fear as motivation to work with a therapist to dive deeper and start to understand where this fear comes from and how to change it,” says Rullo.
Therapy, Rullo continues, “can help you take a step back and observe the fear of intimacy behaviors and patterns that keep repeating themselves. A therapist will ask you questions to dive deeper into the cause of those fearful behaviors, help you gain awareness of when you’re engaging in those behaviors, help you analyze whether those behaviors are rational, and then help you experiment with and create new patterns and behaviors that are more congruent with your value of wanting more intimacy in your life and relationships.”
If therapy is not an option for you, there are steps you can take to start overcoming intimacy avoidance on your own, as Rullo explains:
“Engage in self-reflection to gain insight as to why you’re feeling that fear. Have you been mistreated by loved ones before? Have you been abandoned or neglected? Do you feel unlovable? It can be helpful to explore what this fear is about for you.”
- Have self-compassion
“Have compassion for yourself because of what you’ve been through.” Mindful self-compassion is the ability to bring compassion inward the way that we would respond to a friend or small child. Consider what you would say to others and give yourself permission to say that to yourself.
- Think about intimacy
“Then start to identify what you want your intimacy to look like. For example, do you want to be closer to others than you are? Do you want to let people in?”
- Take small steps toward progress
“If you decide you do want more intimacy in your life, start to experiment with small gestures to get closer to others. When your partner hugs you, try to accept the hug a bit longer than usual. When your partner says ‘I love you,’ try to take that in versus deflect it. Over time, the more you experiment with connecting more deeply with others, the less fearful you’ll become.”
Eventually, you may feel safe enough to start opening up to loved ones with conversations about your fear of intimacy. This, in itself, is a very positive step. “To have a conversation about your fear of intimacy is, in and of itself, an intimate and vulnerable conversation,” Rullo says.
“The key to any healthy conversation is to enter it with a mindset of wanting to understand. Pick a time with privacy and no time pressure. Think about where you can have this conversation where you will feel the least vulnerable. Is it easier to not look your partner in the eyes to have the conversation? Is it easier to write a letter about this fear and share it with your loved one?”
Being in a relationship with someone who has intimacy avoidance issues can be just as challenging. Rullo suggests reminding yourself that a fear of intimacy “can be overcome, and it takes time, insight, compassion, and trust.”
Modeling can be a powerful tool in supporting people with a fear of intimacy. Consider sharing emotions and being vulnerable yourself to create this as a norm within the relationship, and give the other person permission to join you in that space when they are ready.
Remember that your partner’s reactions to difficult situations really aren’t personal. It’s not about you; it’s about them. Be mindful of that as you support them in their process to work through it and encourage them to engage in self-exploration or therapy to start to understand where this fear comes from.
When dealing with a fear of intimacy (either in yourself or in a partner), patience is key. It takes time to overcome years of the deep-rooted insecurities that have created a fear of relationships. With time and guidance from a medical professional and support from loved ones, you can overcome those fears and build strong, healthy, long-lasting relationships with a closeness you might not have previously thought possible.