Often, a fear of intimacy is a defense mechanism that comes from an impulse to protect the self. "It's a mask for a fear of being hurt," says therapist Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT. In other words, you might avoid vulnerability—and not to mention, engaging various types of intimacy—because you're worried about being rejected, which may stem from a feeling of not being good enough or not being lovable, says psychotherapist Genesis Games, LMHC.
"People with a fear of intimacy feel that being guarded and protected will keep them safe from heartache and loss." —Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT
In general, people whose fear of intimacy stems from such a mindset learn and adopt their behavior patterns as a result of relationships that went sour. "People with a fear of intimacy feel that being guarded and protected will keep them safe from heartache and loss. If they don’t get invested, it’s easier to be rejected or abandoned," says Thompson.
- Donna Oriowo, PhD, licensed clinical social worker and certified sex therapist
- Genesis Games, LMHC, couples therapist and owner of Healing Connections
- Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT, licensed marriage and family therapist
- Tammy Nelson, PhD, licensed sex and relationship therapist and director of the Integrative Sex Therapy Institute
Risk factors for developing a fear of intimacy:
1. Lack of secure attachment in childhood
Psychologists classify childhood attachment styles in four different camps—secure, anxious, disorganized, and avoidant, says sex and relationship therapist Donna Oriowo, PhD. "The first type describes a situation where your parents met your needs, and you felt comfortable exploring your environment solo, knowing that you could return home and continue to have your needs met," she says. While this kind of attachment sets you up for relational success, any of the other types could put you at higher risk for intimacy issues later in life.
For example, a person with an anxious version of attachment may have had recurrent doubts about whether their parents would meet their needs, leading them to question the same of friends and partners in adulthood. Similarly, someone with an avoidant attachment style may have come to the conclusion that, in fact, no one beyond themselves was capable of meeting their needs, making it incredibly tough for them to be vulnerable in relationships down the line, says Dr. Oriowo. "The disorganized style is a mash-up of both anxious and avoidant in that a person in this camp might have worried about relying on a friend or parent, while also deciding to avoid them just in case they came up short," she says. This makes a person more likely to approach future relationships with the same kind of fear and doubt.
2. An experience of conditional love
If a parent made you feel as though their love for you was conditional, based on particular actions or successes, you may develop the fear of being unlovable, and relatedly, a fear of intimacy, later in life, says Games.
"For example, if a parent acts super happy and affectionate when you do X, Y, or Z, but then becomes cold or distant, or essentially removes their love from you when you fail to do these things, that can plant the seed that you're not inherently good enough as is, from a young age," she says. And that feeling of inadequacy can translate easily into a fear of intimacy.
3. Negative relationships with previous friends or partners
Relationships in childhood and adolescence wire our minds for how we approach similar dynamics later in life—so, if they're unhealthy, unbalanced, or end poorly, we'll begin to naturally assume similar outcomes for new relationships.
"We use our past to story what we think will happen in the future," says Dr. Oriowo, describing the root of relational anxiety. "This is your body and mind working the way it's supposed to, in order to protect you. It will remember that you were unwell in your last relationship, and spark feelings of anxiety and fearfulness that lead you to avoid future connections altogether, again in an effort to keep you alive and well," she says. Unfortunately, when taken to its extreme, this can backfire in the form of a fear of intimacy that keeps you from becoming close even with the positive and supportive figures in your life.
While having a fear of intimacy might share some of the same qualities of being counterdependent, there's a softer side of those afflicted that still really craves genuinely connecting with another human, even though doing so in practice is difficult to accomplish. If you suspect you might fall into this camp, read on for five behavioral red flags that therapists use to diagnose a fear of intimacy.
5 signs you may be harboring a fear of intimacy:
1. You don't tolerate deep emotional interactions well.
If someone tries to express something real with you and you feel profoundly icky about it, sit with that feeling for a moment and consider why it might be happening.
"This could be a sign that you are afraid of getting too close, that intimacy makes you feel awkward and you'd rather be alone," says relationship therapist Tammy Nelson, PhD. To confirm that you feel this way, Dr. Nelson suggests that you observe what's happening with your feelings by asking yourself a few key questions: Do you feel uncomfortable with any expression of emotion? Do you find yourself changing the subject when someone wants to talk about something deep or when they tell you that they really care about you?
"In general, people who have a fear of intimacy have a disinterest in others getting to know them," says Thompson. "They aren’t emotionally vulnerable or care to reveal much about themselves."
2. You prefer to be alone when a situation starts feeling personal.
And not in an introvert, need-some-me-time type of way, to be sure. Rather, when it comes to connecting with other people, particularly through a romantic lens, you have to detach yourself after a certain point to draw a clear "don't cross" line in the sand when a situation grows too intense for your liking.
"If being with another person feels okay until you have to make eye contact, you may be afraid of intimacy," says Dr. Nelson. "Spending time together being physically close might be fine with you until that person wants to gaze into your eyes or asks you to sleep over. If you make excuses and run off to your own apartment or head to the couch for the night, you might have issues with intimacy."
3. You don't have many meaningful social ties in your life.
That doesn't mean you don't have friends or loved ones, per se. But if you have these issues with connecting romantically in a committed way, your platonic relationships might follow suit. Remember, intimacy isn't just about sex or romance, but rather it just requires being close with someone in a profound, authentic way.
"People who fear intimacy also usually don’t have a lot of close and emotionally connected friendships," says Thompson. "They keep their friendships at a distant."
4. You tend to self-sabotage when things are going well.
Taking a U-turn as soon as joy, success, or some other positive goal is just within your line of sight can reflect a lack of trust in yourself, which can also speak to insufficient confidence in your own lovability, says Games. "Perhaps, you've been working really hard to get a big promotion at work, and then as soon as you do, you do something entirely silly or out of character to ruin the situation. Or, maybe you've been aiming for the promotion but just decide not to accept it when it comes your way," she says.
In this case, the self-sabotaging is happening in a career setting, but it reflects the same tendency to remove yourself from any situation that requires an investment of heart or passion due to an innate fear of it going poorly. But without the risk, the reward escapes you, too.
5. You aren't able to share your feelings.
"When your partner asks you how you feel and you answer, 'fine,' 'good,' or 'okay,' you may have a problem with intimacy," Dr. Nelson says. "Fine, good and okay are not feeling words. You may need a lesson in emotional communication, or you may be terrified to reveal your true internal state."
Instead of those three non-feeling words, consider "sad," "mad," and "glad" as your basis, and then spin the feelings wheel to get a little bit more descriptive. Dr. Nelson believes that learning this language of intimate connection really starts with these expressions of emotions.
3 tips for overcoming a fear of intimacy, according to therapists:
1. Acknowledge it.
It's best to start by introspecting within, which may sound counterproductive, but you won't be able to warm up to someone else until you understand what's happening within. "It’s important to figure out why you're feeling like you want to keep yourself emotionally closed off," says Thompson. "Have you been hurt? Have you been rejected or abandoned? Learning about your raw spots will help you understand why you may be distant with those who want to be close to you."
As you pinpoint where and when your anxiety around intimacy began, it can also be helpful to imagine the decisions you might have made differently if you were unsaddled by this fear. "If, instead of thinking, 'I am not lovable,' you thought, 'I am lovable,' or 'I do deserve love,' what pathways might you have taken?'" asks Games. Having this understanding of past decisions can help you realign your path in the present.
And though you do have to look inward to acknowledge your fear, this step doesn't have to be a solo mission. You can learn how to be vulnerable with a trusted professional who can keep all your secrets and hold your hand through the process. "Find a therapist who can help you with your intimacy issues and work on the language of intimate connection," says Dr. Nelson. "Revealing who you are and what you feel can be scary at first, but the rewards are great."
2. If you're in a romantic relationship, share your fear with your partner.
We tend to internalize struggles in relationships—particularly when they feel like 'personal problems,' says Games. "Being able to let your partner know that a fear of intimacy is something you're confronting and that your coldness or distantness doesn't have to do with them can be very beneficial."
Including your partner in this way can help you both feel less isolated as you gain awareness about your intimacy avoidance, and work through it. And of course, it's possible that they're dealing with a similar or related fear—and in sharing your stories, you'll both be taking the first step to greater vulnerability across the board.
3. Learn from the successful friendships and partnerships that you do have.
"People often come to me and say, 'Oh, I've never been in a successful relationship,'" says Dr. Oriowo, "and I always tell them that's not true. You definitely have at least one friend or sibling or other relative with whom you've fostered a successful relationship characterized by intimacy, vulnerability, and loving kindness."
She suggests starting there, evaluating what exactly has made it successful by engaging that friend or partner in a conversation, and using that intel as a springboard for all the other relationships in your life, including romantic ones—which, says Dr. Oriowo, you can just think of as friendships that take intimacy to its greatest heights.
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