Fear of Intimacy: Signs, Causes, and How to Overcome It

Published on: 04 Jan 2022
Clinically Reviewed by Amy Cirbus Ph.D, LMHC, LPC
couple arguing with moving boxes in background

Fear of intimacy in a relationship isn’t necessarily the result of not wanting to be close to others in your life. Rather, it’s more often an issue that stems from an inability to feel vulnerable. People who have a fear of intimacy may have experienced neglect, trauma, or abuse in their past that prevents them from fully opening up to and trusting others.

Learn more about types of intimacy issues, fear of intimacy signs, what might cause this fear, and, most importantly, how you can deal with it. We’re exploring everything you need to know about what it means to have a fear of intimacy and whether relationship counseling online might be the right option for you. 

What Are Intimacy Issues or a Fear of Intimacy?

Also known as avoidance anxiety or intimacy avoidance, a fear of intimacy is essentially a form of relationship anxiety about having an extremely close physical or emotional connection. People with intimacy issues tend to struggle with connecting on a deeper level. This struggle can fundamentally prevent them from establishing and maintaining meaningful relationships in life. 

Types of intimacy issues

There are a few basic types of intimate relationships, and someone with a fear of intimacy may have difficulties in any one of them. 

Experiential: Our experiential relationships are those where we have common interests in shared activities or experiences that serve to further the bond in a close relationship.

Spiritual: Relationships that are spiritual can allow us to relate to someone based on like-minded beliefs about a higher power or beliefs beyond our own being.  

Emotional: In emotional relationships, we share deep and inner emotions that can lead to a very connected bond or even spiritual connection. 

Intellectual: If you have a relationship that’s based on deep conversations or an intelligent sharing of ideas, your connection might be largely intellectual in nature. 

Sexual: Very sensual, stimulating, or close relationships can be considered sexual. 

Any one (or more than one) of these relationships may suffer from intimacy issues. As a result, you may have:

  • Fear of rejection
  • Fear of engulfment
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Avoidant personality disorder
  • Anxiety disorders

Common Signs of Fear of Intimacy

There are a number of common fear of intimacy signs and issues to be aware of. Many people mistakenly assume that intimacy issues can only be found in relationships that are sexual in nature. In reality, you can experience a fear of intimacy in any type of relationship, whether it be platonic, romantic, or even familial. 

Often the fear of being close to others on any level leads to self-sabotaging the relationship before things can get too intense. There are other signs beyond sabotaging, too. They can include: 

Perfectionism

People with a fear of intimacy may feel an extreme need to be perfect. They might believe they’re not worthy of a deep, true love or connection with another person, so they yearn to be perfect to “earn” that love. 

Serial dating

Serial dating is another very common sign of intimacy issues. As things become more serious and intense in a relationship, the urge to end things and start something new can be a driving force in the eventual demise of a relationship. The serial dating pattern may be interpreted as a “commitment phobia” or “intimacy phobia” by others trying to understand why relationships never last beyond a certain point. 

Difficulty stating one’s needs

Fear of intimacy can result in someone not being able to aptly express what they need and want from a partner or relationship. That lack of communication can create a pattern that makes it impossible to have basic needs fulfilled. This can lead to an unhealthy belief that they don’t deserve to be in a fulfilling relationship. 

Having a hard time with physical contact

Physical contact can be problematic on two levels for someone with intimacy issues. Either they may totally avoid intimacy or they may constantly crave it. Both patterns can be detrimental to a healthy relationship, as the other partner is left trying to navigate unhealthy demands or expectations about how much and what types of contact are desired and allowed. 

Low self-esteem

Low self-esteem can affect many aspects of a relationship. For the person who has a fear of intimacy, it can directly relate to feelings of inadequacy that reinforce the idea someone isn’t deserving of a loving relationship.  

Trust issues

A fear of intimacy can sometimes be linked to trust issues and fear of rejection. If someone’s trying to avoid connecting on a deeper level, it’s not uncommon for a fear of trust to also be present.

What Causes Fear of Intimacy?

For a lot of people, fear of intimacy can be the result of fears of engulfment or fear of abandonment. A large part of it can come from a general fear of loss. While these fears are significantly different from each other, they tend to have the same outcome — behaving in a way that ultimately pushes others away. Anxiety disorders can also lead to a fear of intimacy. 

Fear of engulfment: Can result in a near-debilitating fear of being dominated or controlled. People who have a fear of engulfment can be so terrified they’ll lose themself in their relationships, they push anyone who gets too close away. Sometimes this can be the result of growing up in an enmeshed family.

Fear of abandonment: Manifests as a deep-seated fear of being left. Fear of abandonment can be the result of caregivers (adult figures or parents) abandoning someone in their youth.  Abandonment can be either physical or emotional.

Anxiety disorders: Social anxiety disorders or a social phobia can lead to a fear of intimacy in some adult relationships. Sometimes, when someone is deeply afraid of being judged or rejected, they deal with it by avoiding intimate connections with others. Other phobias — like a fear of being touched — can also be a part of intimacy issues.

Past sexual abuse: Sexual abuse that occurs during childhood can directly result in a fear of intimacy in adult relationships. Difficulty trusting others is often at the root of why intimacy can become problematic in the adult life of somebody who’s been sexually abused.

Many times, intimacy issues, meaning fears of being too close to someone, stem from a childhood experience that is triggered by adult relationships. This is one reason why addressing only current relationships might not be beneficial in helping when fear of intimacy signs are present.

“The fear of intimacy can be caused by different reasons including abuse or neglect, medical problems, fear of abandonment, or religious beliefs. Sometimes, it can even be a combination of issues and securing the help of a professional is necessary.”

Talkspace Therapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S

The Impact of Having a Fear of Intimacy

Fear of intimacy can directly impact virtually every relationship you have in your adult life. Although it’s often most obvious in romantic partnerships, intimacy issues can cause problems in friendships, co-working relationships, and nearly every other relationship in your life.

Not being able to show affection or make a deep, emotional connection can lead to others assuming we can’t (or won’t) love them or want them in a meaningful way. Putting up hard boundaries or barriers to physical, mental, emotional, or sexual intimacy can end relationships.

Additional impacts fear of intimacy can have on your life include:

  • High risk for substance-abuse
  • Sabotaging relationships
  • Greater risk for depression and anxiety
  • Social isolation
  • Having more short-term than long-term relationships
  • Serial dating

“The impact can range from mild to severe. Sometimes, it can be just the frequent thoughts and anxiety felt by the person experiencing it, and other times it can be so severe that more abuse and even abandonment is experienced, making the person re-experience the  cycle of abuse that caused the fear from the beginning.”  

Talkspace Therapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S

How to Deal with Fear of Intimacy 

The good news is you don’t have to let fear of intimacy harm all your relationships. You can learn how to overcome your fears either through therapy, or on your own, depending on how significant and severe your intimacy issues are.

Sometimes it’s possible to manage your fear on your own. You can try to recognize the root of your fear and try to deal with getting past it. Other times, you may need therapy to fully recover from your fear of intimacy. 

If your fears are the result of significant trauma, or if you find that depression is a part of your fear, therapy most likely will be the most effective way for you to begin developing healthy, long-term, meaningful, and intimate relationships. 

“Having an honest conversation with ourselves can be a recommended way to deal with this type of fear. However, once we acknowledge and accept that there is an issue, we need to look for help.”

Talkspace Therapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S

It’s through therapy that you can learn to:

  • Value your self-worth
  • Come to terms with where your fear of intimacy comes from
  • Communicate in an effective manner

What if your partner has a fear of intimacy? 

Note that if your partner is the one who exemplifies intimacy avoidance, all hope is not lost. You can help them identify and overcome their fears by focusing on communication in your relationship. 

It’s important to not push one’s partner too hard, but you should definitely let them know that you’re there for them and willing and able to listen whenever they need you. Keep in mind that their intimacy issues might be so painful they can’t open up right away so avoid any negative attitudes. Encourage your loved one to seek therapy, and be patient. Ask your partner how you can help them feel safe. Above all, remember that their fear of intimacy isn’t personal.

Sources:

1. Feiring C, Simon V, Cleland C. Childhood sexual abuse, stigmatization, internalizing symptoms, and the development of sexual difficulties and dating aggression. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2009;77(1):127-137. doi:10.1037/a0013475. https://doi.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fa0013475. Accessed December 2, 2021.

2. Schoenfelder EN, Sandler IN, Wolchik S, MacKinnon D. Quality of social relationships and the development of depression in parentally-bereaved youth. J Youth Adolesc. 2011;40(1):85-96. doi:10.1007/s10964-009-9503-z. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-009-9503-z. Accessed December 2, 2021.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

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