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Signs of Fear of Intimacy

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 23, 2020

What is Fear of Intimacy?

Intimacy is complex. It's emotional, the sharing of feelings with each other. It's intellectual, the sharing of ideas and thoughts. It's physical, with not just sexual but also non-sexual contact. And it's experiential, the sharing of activities together.

A fear of intimacy is often unconscious and affects a person's ability to form or maintain close relationships. They don't intentionally reject love from another. Instead, they may behave in ways that create stress in a relationship, resulting in an early end, before any deeper intimacy can develop. This affects not just romantic relationships but also friendships and family relationships.

This fear can develop for many reasons. But for many people, it may stem from their childhood relationship with caregivers. Babies cry to express their needs, and some caregivers may respond insensitively or may not respond at all. This is the first social attachment that babies have, and it becomes a pattern that they learn from. Over the years, this early attachment develops into the way we understand relationships and affects how we behave in adult relationships.

Fear of intimacy can also be due to childhood trauma, such as the loss of a parent or abuse. This causes the person to have difficulty trusting others. It could also be because of a personality disorder, such as avoidant personality disorder or schizoid personality disorder. People with personality disorders have patterns of thinking and behaving that are different from what society expects, which makes it hard for them to form close relationships.

Signs of Fear of Intimacy

Several signs can indicate that you or someone you know may have a fear of intimacy. Here are some signs to watch out for:

Sabotaging Relationships

Someone with a fear of intimacy may sabotage their relationships with others. Some might avoid maintaining relationships, pull back from conflicts, or hold back from being emotionally close to the other person. Others may react intensely to situations, such as being controlling or overly critical, using guilt on their partner to express hurt, or being clingy.

A History of Short Relationships

Some people might call this being a "serial dater," where, after a few dates, the person seems to lose interest and the relationship ends. But this could also refer to someone having many friends but none who really know them. 

Perfectionism

Perfectionists can find it hard to form intimate relationships. They demand a lot of themselves and sometimes of others. They have extreme concern about how others see them. They may see their partners as holding impossible expectations for the relationship, leading to anger and conflict.

Dealing with Fear of Intimacy

Relationships are not easy, and a fear of intimacy may be more common than you'd expect, as not many people would own up to it. A survey has shown that loneliness may be on the rise, with 42% of people saying that they have felt depressed because they felt alone.

Create a Safe Space

A person who fears intimacy may act in ways that push their partner away. They may shut down or run away. Try not to take it personally. It's sometimes easier for them to behave in ways that are familiar to them. They may need space and time. Try not to react with anger or frustration but be patient and supportive.

Confront your Fears and Emotions

This will feel uncomfortable at first, but it's important to start expressing your feelings and fears. Say what you feel and not what you think you should say. Learning about feeling words can help you express yourself. 

If you're in a relationship with someone who has a fear of intimacy, learn to gently tell your partner what they might be feeling and why you think they're feeling this way. This could help them become more aware of their feelings.

Look into Your Past

An important step in building intimate relationships is looking back at your early relationships with your family. Research has shown that childhood experiences with our parents or main caregivers are linked to our expectations and beliefs about adult relationships. 

If we don't understand and confront our past, we'll end up repeating the patterns that resulted in this fear. 

Therapy

Therapy can offer a safe space for you to discuss issues and identify challenges. A therapist can help you understand the emotions behind your behaviors and teach you coping techniques. There are many different kinds of helpful therapies available, such as talk therapy or psychotherapy, marital counseling, and cognitive therapy. 

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Family Perspectives: "Relationship Sabotage in Adults with Low Self-Esteem from Attachment Trauma in Childhood."

Harley Therapy: "Fear of Intimacy: A Help Guide."

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Personality Disorders."

Journal of Family Relationships: "Caught in a Bad Romance: Perfectionism, Conflict, and Depression in Romantic Relationships."

Journal of Social and Personal Relationships: "Meanings for Closeness and Intimacy in Friendship."

Mental Health Foundation: "The Lonely Society?"

Sex Roles: "Psychological Intimacy in the Lasting Relationships of Heterosexual and Same-Gender Couples."

The Albert Ellis Institute: "Dealing With Your Partner’s Fear of Intimacy."

The Chelsea Psychology Clinic: "When You’re Terrified of Relationships: Overcoming Fear of Intimacy."

The New School Psychology Bulletin: "Are Childhood Experiences with Parents Linked to Feelings in Romantic Relationships During Adulthood?"

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