Intimacy is necessary to form close relationships with others and, as a social species, we crave it! Intimacy can make it possible to share your feelings with your friends and partner(s) and allow them to be open and vulnerable with you. And, in a romantic relationship, the sharing, and openness associated with intimacy can make sex more satisfying.
However, suppose you have a fear of intimacy. In that case, deepening connections can cause fear, anxiety and may even result in you trying to blow the whole relationship up and running in the opposite direction.
We chatted with sex therapist Soribel Martinez, LCSW, who shared that intimacy can take time to develop and reinforced that it’s a key part of satisfaction in romantic relationships. If you’re afraid of intimacy, you may avoid getting close to others, which means your sex life may be suffering.
The good news is you don’t have to hold on to your fear of intimacy forever. Learning about roadblocks to intimacy can help you overcome this relationship hurdle. Read on to discover what causes some people to be afraid of close relationships, what fear of intimacy looks like, how you can heal your fear of intimacy, and how to support someone you love through their healing.
What is intimacy?
Intimacy is more than a euphemism for sexual contact. Intimacy encompasses feelings of closeness, connectedness, and bonding. It can be emotional, intellectual, experiential, spiritual, and more. When someone fears intimacy, they may be afraid of one or many types of intimacy.
Every type of intimacy involves vulnerability, sharing, and being open with another person. Intimacy usually deepens as relationships increase in duration. If you’re afraid of intimacy, the reason you struggle is likely complicated.
Let’s dive into four main types of intimacy.
Emotional intimacy is sharing and being vulnerable about your feelings with another person. When you're emotionally intimate with someone, you can share past and present difficult experiences with them and trust their response will be empathetic. In a relationship with emotional intimacy, talking about issues within the relationship results in partners feeling closer.
Intellectual intimacy is a strong mental connection and the sense that another person just seems to “get you.” You can share all of your thoughts with them and feel accepted and connected.
It can also be an ability to listen to differing points of view and embrace them as valid. A desire for intense discussions of philosophy or current events is a sign of intellectual intimacy in a relationship for some people.
Experiential intimacy is the cache of shared experiences between friends, family, or partners resulting in inside jokes and "remember the time" stories. The longer people know each other, the greater their ability to rely on experiential intimacy.
Spiritual intimacy is about revealing your spiritual beliefs to your partner. It doesn’t have to involve attending organized religious services (although it can!). Taking a walk and enjoying the beauty of nature (and maybe pausing to make out against a tree trunk) or discussing your value systems is a sign of spiritual intimacy. Sharing your spirituality with a partner without fear of judgment means you have this type of intimacy.
Sexual or physical intimacy is a willingness to share erotic experiences with your partner(s). And according to Martinez, fear of intimacy with yourself is often the biggest hurdle. Sometimes people with a fear of sexual intimacy even avoid masturbation. Cultivating sexual intimacy with yourself often helps deepen your connection with others.
True sexual intimacy requires an ability to identify and express your sexual needs and desires. Sexual intimacy also requires you to be open to hearing about and exploring your partner's needs and wants.
Fear of any type of intimacy above can cause people to avoid physical intimacy with themselves and their partner(s).
5 signs you're afraid of intimacy
People who are afraid of intimacy may react to deepening connections with others in different ways. This non-exhaustive list of signs you may fear intimacy can serve as a starting point for a conversation with a therapist or loved one. A fear of intimacy has deep roots in mental health concerns like anxiety and depression, so remember, you can always reach out to a professional if you think you’re experiencing issues cultivating the kind of deep personal relationships you want and deserve.
1. Are you afraid to share your ideas, thoughts, needs, or feelings?
If you have a fear of intimacy, you may find it difficult or impossible to open up about your emotional world. This can make it difficult for people to share emotionally trying details about their workday or personal relationships with a significant other. You may find it hard to tell your partner you need a hug or some other type of physical intimacy.
Fear of sharing your emotional world can make it difficult to talk about what you want and need during shared sexual experiences. It’s really common to deal with frustration from partners due to them not knowing what you need, but it’s not an insurmountable challenge. If that sounds like you, keep reading—you’re not alone!
2. Are you afraid to share yourself sexually?
For some, especially survivors of sexual abuse, physical touch can be triggering. But even if your fear of sexual intimacy doesn’t cause physical pain, worrying about sharing your fantasies or keeping quiet about your sexual needs can be a sign you're afraid of sexual intimacy.
Not all people afraid of sexual intimacy avoid physical contact, but if you avoid touching your partner, even when you want to and have their consent, it may be cause for concern.
3. Do you leave before you get left?
Serial monogamy, or hopping from one relationship to the next, isn't always a symptom of a fear of intimacy. Leaving a relationship that isn't working is healthy and necessary.
However, if you leave when the relationship gets serious, and you're afraid of getting attached and then being left, you might be afraid of intimacy. When someone has a fear of abandonment, they may avoid intimacy because they don’t want their partner to leave first and hurt them in the process.
4. Are you a perfectionist?
If you’re afraid of intimacy, you may use perfectionism in external achievements to prove to yourself you are deserving of love. The relentless pursuit of perfectionism in your career, personal relationships, fitness, or any area can be a symptom of a fear of intimacy.
To deepen our connection with someone, we must embrace vulnerability and let others see our messy internal world.
5. Do you sabotage relationships?
When you get close with an intimate partner, does the way you treat them change? If so, you may try to push people away before they can get too close. Purposefully damaging a relationship through overly critical behavior is a symptom of fear of intimacy.
Some people sabotage relationships by making themselves unlovable. They may cheat or stop putting effort into themselves or the relationship, so their partner(s) leave them first. When the relationship ends, it only serves to reinforce the fear of intimacy.
What causes fear of intimacy?
While every situation is unique, you might identify with one of these three common causes of fear of intimacy.
When children have caregivers who can’t or won’t provide a stable, loving environment, they may grow into adults with intimacy issues. Fear of intimacy is attributed to anxious and avoidant attachment styles and often originates from early childhood experiences of abandonment or neglect. These attachment styles and a fear of intimacy may involve depression and anxiety disorders.
Suffering childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse, or neglect can cause low self-esteem and attachment issues, leading to problems in adult relationships. A fear of intimacy from childhood trauma can manifest as fear of abandonment or fear of being controlled.
Negative experiences in prior relationships can contribute to a fear of intimacy. Past experiences of relationship violence or infidelity can contribute to intimacy anxiety and avoiding close relationships.
Victims of sexual assault are more likely to be afraid of deep connections with others. They may feel unworthy of being loved or avoid emotional intimacy to avoid physical touch.
6 ways to overcome your fear of intimacy to build healthy relationships
If your fear of intimacy stems from childhood trauma, which it often does, you may require the help of a therapist to work through these issues effectively.
“Healing your fear of intimacy is the greatest gift you can give yourself; it allows you to self-discover, deepen understanding, and embrace healing,” Martinez said.
Use these tips as a starting point for your healing journey.
1. Learn your worth
When you understand you are valuable and worthy of love just as you are, it will be easier to accept the positive emotions resulting from deep connections with others. Building intimate relationships is a rewarding experience, and you deserve it.
To start learning your worth, you need to identify your inner critic-that voice that says you aren’t good enough, strong enough, or lovable enough. Then, you can start challenging it with affirmations such as “I am enough just as I am.” The more you challenge your inner critic, the quieter they’ll become.
2. Identify and process emotions
If you avoid intimacy, it may be because you have difficulty naming and processing emotions. Inability to deal with your emotions can cause you to withhold affection from your partner or make it difficult to receive it. Learning how to identify and move through emotions will make it easier to cultivate emotional and physical intimacy with yourself and your partner(s).
For example, if not hearing from your partner while they are with friends causes you to worry that they’re no longer interested, it’s important to identify the source of the worry. Maybe the worry stems from something that happened in a past relationship and is not about anything to do with your current partner. Perhaps it's a signal that you need to have a conversation about how much communication you and your partner(s) expect from each other.
3. Set appropriate boundaries
It’s never too early or too late in a relationship to set boundaries. A fear of intimacy may have kept you from maintaining clear relationship boundaries. If you fear vulnerability will cause someone to leave you, it’s difficult to advocate for your needs.
Boundaries are clear statements of your needs and the behavior you expect from a partner. Boundaries can include everything from how and what you communicate with each other to what sexual things you are and aren’t willing to try. If you want to establish boundaries with a new or existing partner, try beginning with a statement about what you need. Saying something like, I need to spend quality time with you before I’m able to be sexually intimate can help ensure the relationship meets your needs.
4. Listen to your intuition
A fear of intimacy can make it difficult to trust yourself and your feelings. If you've ignored red flags in past romantic relationships, it's time to turn inward and pay attention to how your body responds to certain people and situations.
“They forgot my birthday. They were probably just busy. I need to get over it.” This is self-talk that ignores a red flag.
“They forgot my birthday, and I feel extremely sad. I want to be with someone who celebrates me.” This is self-talk that trusts your feelings and gives you a starting point for a conversation with your partner.
Meditation is often helpful in figuring out what your internal voice is saying and learning to listen to it. This is true for sexual desire and the rest of life. Try guided meditation if you're new to this practice to help you learn how to pull your mind back from distracting thoughts.
5. Be self-compassionate and patient
You didn't develop a fear of intimacy overnight, and undoing it won't be a quick process either. When (not if) you misstep, give yourself some grace. Remember, we're trying to do away with perfectionism here!
6. Accept that you can't control everything, especially other people
A fear of intimacy can cause us to try to control the people around us. Undoing this tendency can release you from the fear of abandonment, causing you to avoid intimate adult relationships. Aside from the sort of control partners in a BDSM relationship agree to, control is toxic to relationships.
If you’ve been controlling your partner(s), you may need to ask them for support and forgiveness as you learn to release the need to control your environment.
What if your partner has a fear of intimacy?
If you're involved with someone who has a fear of intimacy, don't lose hope! Learning to embrace intimate relationships takes time and energy, but it’s totally possible. Your partner will need your compassion, encouragement, and the space necessary to get professional help (if necessary) and work out their concerns related to intimacy. There will likely be setbacks, so it’s essential to manage your expectations.
The reward for your patience will hopefully be a close, fulfilling, intimate relationship. You'll both be able to enjoy a renewed sense of emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and experiential intimacy. This closeness can lead to a greater willingness to explore physical or sexual intimacy within your partnership.
Embracing sexual intimacy in healthy relationships
Sexual intimacy is a willingness to explore your sexuality with a partner. It requires being open to sharing your fantasies, desires, and needs with your partner and listening to theirs.
According to Martinez, “Intimacy is the greatest gift we can give ourselves. It allows us to self-discover, gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and our partner(s), and can help us heal.”
If you're new to sexual intimacy and aren't sure where to start, Dipsea's partner pleasure series offers a guided experience to help you explore with a partner. You'll learn how your partner likes to be touched and learn how to tell your partner what you want.