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Fear of Intimacy: Everything You Need to Know

Fear of intimacy, or intimacy avoidance, means you’re afraid of getting too close to another person — emotionally, intellectually, experientially, or sexually. Though it’s usually thought of as a simple character trait, it could also indicate a personality disorder. 

Sometimes, a fear of intimacy can be attributed to a phobia which prevents you from making close connections. Perhaps it’s linked to low self-esteem, imagined awkwardness, or concern over being judged, shamed, or ridiculed in social situations. Individuals living with this disorder typically steer clear of social interactions (including sexual ones), despite the fact that they still desire closeness with others.  

According to research, both genetic and environmental factors foster the development of a fear of intimacy. Some evidence suggests that female gender, early childhood shyness, and behavioral inhibitions may play a role in forming these patterns.  

External factors for intimacy issues might grow out of dysfunctional relationships, abuse, or other negative experiences, remaining hidden early in life. Possible childhood triggers leading to intimacy issues include: 

  • Physical abuse
  • Verbal abuse
  • Sexual abuse 
  • Emotional or physical neglect 
  • Parental loss at a young age (through death, abandonment, or divorce)
  • Parental illness, including mental illness
  • Parental substance abuse 

Interestingly, positive feelings in a relationship can “flip the switch” for an individual with a fear of intimacy. This occurs when the positive way your partner views you conflicts with the negative way in which you view yourself.

Fear of intimacy causes you to push away loved ones — but it’s not because you don’t want to be loved. Other types of fears lie at the root of a fear of intimacy, such as: 

Fear of rejection

By completely avoiding closeness with another person, you eliminate any chances of rejection. This concern might stem from past experiences with rejection, whether direct or indirect. 

Fear of abandonment 

Feeling afraid that your partner will leave you is often derived from some form of childhood trauma. It might have been caused by the abandonment (or death) of a parent, or other significant person in your life. 

Fear of engulfment

In contrast, some individuals are afraid of being invaded, controlled, or losing themselves in a relationship. You may choose to shut down or avoid intimacy to protect yourself from feeling dominated by your partner.

A fear of intimacy manifests itself in many different ways. Loved ones sometimes perceive it as coldness, indifference, or anger. A fear of intimacy can cause you to: 

  • Push people away when they get close
  • Sabotage relationships
  • Avoid sexual intimacy
  • 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 indicative of a fear of intimacy, it’s important to know that they’re possible to overcome. Sometimes, simply acknowledging the existence of intimacy issues helps to improve the quality of your relationship. 

Since a fear of intimacy is potentially rooted in childhood emotional issues, you may wish to consult a mental health professional. Therapy is capable of providing you with the necessary tools to work through these issues in a healthy way and achieve lasting results.

Try changing your behavioral patterns on your own by venturing outside your comfort zone a bit. Consider doing the following things:

  • Practice reading your partner’s emotions, and then ask them how they feel to see if you got it right. 
  • Describe how you really feel, rather than what you think your partner wants you to say. For example, “I’m feeling overwhelmed, and this situation is making me anxious.” This is preferable to covering up your true feelings. 
  • Listen through difficult conversations. If your partner expresses criticism, disappointment, or even feelings of love and appreciation, don’t run away from it. Instead, repeat it back to them to show you understood what they said. 
  • Share your emotions when your partner shares something with you, whether good or bad. This will help them feel validated, not dismissed. 
  • Prioritize your relationships over your career. Carve out time for loved ones to show them you care.

Being in a relationship with someone who has a fear of intimacy can be challenging. First, it’s crucial to remember that their reactions to difficult situations really aren’t personal. They’re likely the result of certain past experiences. 

If your partner shuts down or runs away, it usually means they’re afraid of losing someone they care about. Give them some time to cool off, and try again when they’re feeling better. 

Create an emotionally safe, encouraging environment. Ask your partner how they’re feeling, and if they don’t know or aren’t willing to verbalize their emotions, try to offer an educated guess. Having them respond with a simple “yes” or “no” allows them to gain more personal awareness. 

Also, be on the lookout for triggers that send your partner running. It could range from positive to negative emotions, from romantic moments to sexual encounters. 

Talk to your partner about attending therapy together, but do it at a time when both of you are calm, not in the heat of an argument.

When dealing with a fear of intimacy (in yourself or your partner), patience is absolutely key. It takes time to overcome years of deep-rooted insecurities which created a fear of relationships. With time and guidance from a medical professional, you can overcome those fears, and build strong, healthy, long-lasting relationships.

http://vuir.vu.edu.au/19409/1/Marianne_Lloyd.pdf

http://albertellis.org/dealing-with-your-partners-fear-of-intimacy/

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1300/J146v15n01_02

https://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/advisory-boards-and-groups/namhc/reports/blueprint-for-change-research-on-child-and-adolescent-mental-health.shtml

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4119720/

https://www.psychiatrist.com/JCP/article/Pages/2005/v66n11/v66n1102.aspx

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