You head out the door just a little too early every night, and your new squeeze doesn’t get it; this is the way it’s been for a while, and honestly it’s just easier if things continue this way. You might like this person—you might even love them, and you recognize those butterflies-in-stomach, heart-soaring feelings. And yet, your unending fear of intimacy keeps you from letting your barriers fall. You can’t let new promising people about whom you honestly care deeply into your heart. But why does this happen?
Most people with a fear of intimacy don’t exactly know where it stems from, according to family and marriage counselor Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT. But typically, it isn’t a result of not wanting to be in love with someone, per se. Instead, it’s a mask for a fear of being hurt. And what causes that fear of being hurt? Well, it very often draws from an early childhood experience.
“They 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.” —Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT
“Usually experiencing trauma either in a relationship with an early caregiver or someone else important can cause people to be guarded and be emotionally distant,” says Thompson. “They 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.”
And while having a fear of intimacy might share 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. The first step for combatting this? Identifying if it is that very fear holding you back in the first place. So below find five signs that a fear of intimacy may be keeping you from your big love in life.
Here are 5 signs of a fear of intimacy, and how it can manifest in your life
1. You don’t tolerate close emotional interactions well
Any heart-to-heart moment that feels earnest enough to be accompanied by the gentle piano music that tracks Full House scenes makes you cringe. (Okay, bad example—that schmaltzy piano music could make truly anyone want to roll their eyes up, Excorcist-style.) But 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 they really care about you?
2. You don’t love exchanging information with others
Because you skew closed off, others have trouble having deep conversations with you. Sure, the absolute basics are available, like where you went to college, what your favorite color is, how many siblings you have, and so on. But when they ask about something a bit deeper, like, say, “Do you get alone with your siblings?” You try to keep those types of answers nice and vague.
“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.”
3. 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.”
4. 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.”
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.
How to overcome your fear of intimacy
Once you’ve done the work to figure out how your specific fear of intimacy manifests, you can use that knowledge to take steps that’ll help you feel less alone and really enjoy love for what it is. So, what’s the best strategy to overcome this social-romantic handicap?
It’s best to start by introspecting within, which, I know, sounds counterproductive. But you won’t be able to warm up to someone unless you understand why your default temperature is Antarctica chill in the first place.
“It’s important to understand 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. Understanding your anxiety and fear around intimacy will also help you make different choices.”
And though you have to look inward first before you can learn to bond with someone, this step doesn’t absolutely 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.”
Want to understand more about intimacy? Well, there are four types of intimacy, but only one includes touching. And in a new relationship, here’s how to know the difference between intimacy and instamacy.
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