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Last Updated on August 28, 2023 by Randy Withers, LCMHC
“My friends tell me I have an intimacy problem. But they don’t really know me,” the comedian Gary Shandling joked.
What Shandling didn’t say was that fear of intimacy is often the problem. It can keep people from experiencing connection, fulfillment, and security in their closest relationships and, in its more severe forms, may be why someone is profoundly lonely and unhappy.
The good news is that therapy can help people address and even overcome their fear of intimacy. I’ve seen this transformation firsthand in my own work with clients. In the sections that follow, we’ll take a closer look at fear of intimacy, its signs and causes, avenues to explore in therapy, and what therapies may be especially helpful.
Fear of Intimacy: A Common Problem in Relationships
Ask the average person to name their top fears, and chances are they’d say death and public speaking, followed closely by spiders, snakes, and heights. What may be omitted from their list is a prevalent and growing relational problem: fear of intimacy.
Intimacy is closeness and familiarity with another person. An intimate relationship is a closeness that may involve both physical and emotional connections. Healthy intimacy is a strong connection with another person that allows you to feel free to be yourself:
- Core values are expressed, understood, and accepted.
- Differing beliefs, perspectives, and opinions are discussed openly without fear of abandonment, judgment, contempt, or ridicule.
- Love is both given and received with open hearts.
Examples of Fear of Intimacy, from Subtle to Extreme
A fear of intimacy means that having a physical and emotional connection on a deeper level with another person makes one’s skin crawl. There are extreme and more obvious examples of this, as well as more subtle manifestations.
A more extreme example might be those who intentionally live in isolation from others and avoid contact with others—the loners of the world. Their fear of intimacy may involve social phobia and intense or even debilitating feelings of anxiety around other people.
Then there are the subtler examples of a fear of intimacy:
- putting up your guard when asked to share thoughts and feelings that make you feel vulnerable
- shutting down when discussing topics that involve conflict and disagreement
- lying or covering up the truth about your values, opinions, and beliefs
Signs of a Fear of Intimacy
Some signs to look for that could mean you have a fear of intimacy:
- recoiling or jumping when being touched
- excessive use of drinking alcohol or using mind- or mood-altering substances
- fake personalities or putting up fronts
- addictive behaviors (i.e. working, gambling, sex, eating)
- distracting from others through TV, internet, gaming, or social media
- overly focusing on materialism
- expectations of perfectionism or never making mistakes
- constant disagreements, arguments, and/or physical altercations with others
- using lies and excuses to avoid sex
- needing to control others, outcomes, and situations
Potential Causes of a Fear of Intimacy to Explore in Therapy
There are many reasons why someone would develop a fear of intimacy, whether this happens
during adulthood or in childhood development:
Traumatic incidents: Traumatic incidents are events and situations that leave someone with painful psychological scars. When a crisis occurs, the perceived threat to their life and security elicits a “fight, flight, or freeze” response. They may develop PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) with symptoms of nightmares, flashbacks, and avoidance of anything that may remind them of the trauma. In the absence of healthy responses, exposure to trauma may cause someone to have an irrational distrust of others and a negative worldview.
Childhood abuse: Childhood abuse can take many forms, such as physical, sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse. Abused children become fearful of others and suffer from low self-esteem. When children grow up in abusive homes, they may develop into adults who distrust others, with expectations of being hurt or exploited.
Losses and separations: Experiencing death and loss can lead to a pervasive and general fear of getting close to others. Separations and divorces can model a lack of commitment and an inability to work through problems. Abandonment issues can develop from multiple losses and separations: In anticipation of people leaving them, the individual puts up their emotional guard.
Alcoholic families: When alcohol becomes part of the fabric of a family, family members may end up walking on eggshells and waiting for the next shoe to drop. Alcohol and drugs lead to unstable and unpredictable behaviors that can cause anxiety and depression in children. Alcohol becomes a way to avoid and ignore problems, rather than learn to cope with them in healthy ways.
How Therapy Can Address the Fear and Improve the Intimacy
Seeking professional help with intimacy problems is crucial to overcoming them. Therapists can assist as an objective person to help identify signs and symptoms of a fear of intimacy. Often, a person may not understand why they are unhappy in relationships, have problems with commitment, and/or have excessive conflicts in a relationship.
Therapists can also help uncover the root causes of a fear of intimacy. A good therapist will understand how unhealthy childhood development can lead to difficulty connecting with others. They should also be able to identify the behaviors, thoughts, and attitudes that contribute to fears of intimacy.
Once they have helped to identify these issues, the therapist will develop strategies with their client for how to overcome the barriers that are getting in the way of true intimacy. When alcohol or drugs are contributing to the problem, a substance abuse counselor can suggest and encourage some healthier coping skills for dealing with intimacy problems. Therapists can also help their client develop a sustainable, long-term program of recovery from intimacy disorders.
Recommended Therapies for Addressing a Fear of Intimacy
With the many therapies now available, it can be hard to know which will be more effective at addressing a fear of intimacy. From my own work with clients, I’ve found these three to be helpful:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) helps with exploring thought patterns that cause negative emotions and destructive behaviors.
- Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) desensitizes and reconsolidates traumatic memories and replaces negative core beliefs with positive beliefs.
- Family Counseling teaches couples and families how to communicate better and resolve conflicts.
A Real-Life Example of How Therapy Can Help
Overcoming a fear of intimacy may sound daunting, but with therapy, people can experience life-changing breakthroughs in their relationships. Here is just one real-life example:
One of my past clients, a firefighter from Chicago, came to treatment after developing PTSD from daily exposure to crises and emergencies. By the time he saw me, he was also addicted to alcohol and was using alcohol to numb the pain of traumatic flashbacks.
This man had a long history of toxic relationships, including a second marriage to a woman who had been sexually abused as a child. When the two first met, they developed a strong physical attraction almost immediately, and she became pregnant.
They also had problems with emotional intimacy and were in a constant cycle of arguments, breaking up and getting back together. After the firefighter got treatment for the PTSD and the alcoholism, he was able to share with his wife about the trauma he had suffered. She got into therapy herself, and they were able to work together to understand each other better and improve their intimacy.
In an age when texting and social media dominate our ways of relating to one another, true intimacy is harder and harder to come by. Social anxiety disorders have grown increasingly more prevalent each year, experts say, and rates of loneliness have never been higher. When disconnection from others is the new disease of modern society, finding deeper and more intimate connection with others is the cure. Addressing a fear of intimacy may be the start.