Fear of Intimacy in Relationships

Learn how to overcome intimacy issues in relationships

Couple suffering from fear of intimacy in their relationship

Do you feel intensely anxious or uncomfortable when you find yourself getting close to someone, physically or emotionally? Do you remain aloof in order to avoid the risk of being vulnerable with others? If so, you’re not alone: fear of intimacy is a common affliction. Fortunately, there are ways of overcoming fear of intimacy in relationships, some of which we’ll discuss in this article. But first:

What is a fear of intimacy? 

Intimacy, quite simply, means closeness. Intimacy can happen on many levels, from physical to emotional, from spiritual to intellectual. People who have a fear of intimacy tend to be anxious about getting close to other people. Often, this fear is about physical intimacy, emotional intimacy, or a combination of the two.

While researchers don’t yet know exactly how many people fear intimacy, we know that most people feel a sense of anxiety in relation to vulnerability, at least from time to time. We also know that 65% of males and 69% of females have attachment styles (we’ll talk more about this later) that put them at risk of having chronic intimacy avoidance.

What causes fear of intimacy?

There are many different risk factors that can contribute to a person developing a fear of intimacy. Most psychologists believe that fears about intimacy get set up during our early relationships with caregivers. Through these formative relationships, we develop a template for how we relate to others later in life.

When the connection between an infant and its caregiver is strained in certain ways, this can lead to a fear of intimacy later in life. For example, parents who are intensely overbearing can make a person feel engulfed, setting them up to want to escape closeness. Similarly, parents who are harshly critical or emotionally unavailable can leave a person feeling uncomfortable about needing to rely on others for intimacy.

Let’s think a bit more about how early relationships can lead to a fear of intimacy in relationships later in life.

Attachment theory

According to this theory, people develop different attachment styles based on their early relationships. These attachment styles help us to understand how we deal with intimacy later in life; and how certain people are at risk of developing a fear of intimacy. Researchers have suggested the existence of four different attachment styles:

  1. Secure attachment: This involves a safe and trusting connection in which you feel safe to make yourself vulnerable. People who have secure attachment styles tend to be less likely to fear intimacy.
  2. Anxious Attachment: This involves a relationship characterized by a high degree of fear and insecurity. People with anxious attachments often deeply fear abandonment, which can make them anxious about trusting others. Anxiously attached people often need a lot of closeness and reassurance; and signs of possible abandonment (real or imagined) can trigger intense anxiety.
  3. Avoidant attachment: People who have avoidant attachment styles fear intimacy and avoid trusting and getting close to others. Often, this attachment style gets set up when a child experiences a sense of rejection from their parents early-on. This is not always intentional: some parents simply find themselves so overburdened by their difficulties that their preoccupation comes across as rejection. Unfortunately, this can set a child up to experience serious fears of intimacy later down the line.
  4. Disorganized attachment: this attachment style can develop when a child experiences trauma, abuse or unpredictable circumstances during their early years. People with this attachment style tend to crave love and affection, while also displaying a fear and avoidance of intimacy.

Other risk factors

Apart from one’s attachment style, what else can lead a person to develop a fear of intimacy? For some, difficult relationship experiences later in life can cause enough trauma to make a person fear becoming vulnerable in other relationships. Often, this can happen in the case of infidelity, trauma or abuse.

Additionally, people who experience sexual dysfunctions might end up learning to fear physical intimacy. Often, this happens because of past experiences in which their sexual dysfunction caused them to feel embarrassed or ashamed.

Signs that you may fear intimacy

What does fear of intimacy in relationships feel like? This fear can manifest in many different ways, including:

  • Actively avoiding emotional closeness by ‘partner hopping’ and walking out of relationships when the intimacy starts to deepen;
  • Feeling anxious, scared, irritable or defensive when someone tries to have a ‘real’ emotional interchange or conversation with you;
  • Withdrawing during relationships and craving excessive “me time”;
  • Feeling an intense fear of being abandoned or rejected;
  • Experiencing a fear of sexual intimacy, where you avoid and feel uncomfortable with physical contact;
  • Being constantly suspicious of your partner, suspecting that they may be gearing up to abandon you;
  • Finding that your sex life is rigid and boring, to the extent that you have no interest in exploration or trying new things.
  • Avoiding dating or friendships because you fear being let down or abandoned.

A test for fear of intimacy

Still not sure whether you might fear intimacy? Fortunately, researchers have developed a valid and reliable tool which can help us to assess fear of intimacy within ourselves. The Fear of Intimacy Scale (FIS) includes 35 questions about your way of connection. Completing the scale will provide you with a score that can help you to work out whether you fear intimacy. The scale can be accessed here.

How to overcome fear of intimacy

Acknowledge and accept your emotions

The first step toward overcoming a fear of intimacy is, well, to become intimate with the threatening feelings that you experience. Learn to notice and accept the discomfort that you feel when intimacy grows. Take some time to reflect: where do these feelings come from? What events in your life might have led you to have negative thoughts and feelings around intimacy?

Communicate

Once you have spent some time acknowledging your emotions, it can be deeply healing to communicate what you feel with others. If you’re able to discuss your fears with your partner, this can be a powerful way to move forward. Making yourself vulnerable in this way is important. You may also benefit from discussing your fears with trusted friends or family members; or even within a support group, if you have access to one.

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is a brain training meditation technique, based on Buddhist traditions. Mindfulness teaches us to be aware and accepting of the present moment. This provides us with a great tool to grow our intimacy and become more comfortable with the difficult emotions that come up in relationships, rather than trying to push them away. Mindfulness interventions have been used by researchers to help couples become closer and confront intimacy avoidance.

Try therapy

There are many different forms of talk therapy that can help. Psychodynamic therapy involves understanding how your past experiences set you up to unconsciously fear closeness. Relational therapy uses the attachment between you and your therapist to resolve early attachment issues. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help you to challenge and replace dysfunctional beliefs about intimacy. Finally, couples therapy is a fantastic way to gradually grow your intimacy with your partner, while receiving professional guidance and support at the same time.

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Resolve sexual dysfunction

If your sexual dysfunction has caused you to fear intimacy – physical or emotional – getting treatment for the sexual disorder can help you to move forward. Many forms of sexual dysfunction can be treated. Speak to your doctor or sex therapist about getting help.

Address trauma

If your fear of intimacy is based on trauma – sexual, physical or emotional – it’s important to get professional support. Reach out to a clinical psychologist who has experience with trauma-focused psychotherapy.

Takeaway

Often, fear of intimacy happens despite people craving closeness. In other words, it’s not that they don’t want intimacy – they just feel threatened and uncomfortable by it. At times, this fear may be unconscious, making it that much harder to recognize and treat. 

However, if you fear intimacy, it’s important to get the right sort of support. No man (or woman) is an island: and being intimate with others is vital for our psychological wellbeing. Fortunately, there are certain strategies which we have discussed in this article that can help you take the first steps towards healing and healthy closeness.

About Daniel Sher, MA

Clinical Psychologist and Sex Therapy Expert

Daniel Sher is a registered clinical psychologist and a sex therapy expert practicing in Cape Town, South Africa. Daniel gained his master’s degree in clinical psychology from the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 2014. A component of his training and practice involves working in the context of sexual and sex-related issues.

Daniel is a professional consultant for the Between Us Clinic, where he writes, edits, and reviews, professional materials and articles. He also treats patients at his clinic for male sexual dysfunctions including, premature ejaculation, erectile dysfunction and sexual performance anxiety.