8 Signs You Have A Fear Of Intimacy & What That Really Means
Have you ever dated someone but as soon as intimacy escalates, you begin to feel uncomfortable–as if they're getting too close and asking for too much too soon? Although they're great, now you can't help but imagine how the relationship could go horribly wrong. You think maybe this means they're not the right person for you because if they were, you wouldn't feel this uneasy about letting them in. You feel overwhelmed, so you respond by backing away, then ultimately shutting down the connection and moving on. Better to end it now before you can get really hurt.
If you crave intimacy but have a pattern of sabotaging connections when it starts to matter, it may be because of a fear of intimacy. We asked therapists to explain what causes a fear of intimacy, how to recognize if this is what's happening to you, and what to do about it.
What does it mean to have a fear of intimacy?
When someone has a fear of intimacy, they struggle with forming and maintaining significant relationships because it's difficult for them to be vulnerable with themselves and with others. They might seem emotionally open and have a lot of friends and family around—but always within limits.
When someone wants to connect on a deeper level, the person with intimacy issues may even want it too, but the fear of possible hurt is stronger. So, they respond with a set of avoidant behaviors designed to protect their inner world. As they're reacting, they may not be aware that they're even pushing people out. They're just doing what feels safe.
"All of this is not a conscious decision to hide these parts of yourself. It's survival," licensed marriage and family therapist Alison Gomez, LMFT, tells mbg. "A misconception is that it should feel easy to be intimate with people you care about, but that's not necessarily true. Intimacy is not always safe with everyone, even if it is someone you love."
Intimacy means we're able to honestly reveal our true self to others and connect profoundly in that way. Intimacy can be nurtured through sexual, emotional, intellectual, experiential, and spiritual experiences. There are many different types of intimacy that we can holistically share with someone else, including:
- Emotional intimacy: Telling each other your deepest fears, dreams, disappointments, and most complicated emotions, as well as feeling seen and understood when you do.
- Intellectual intimacy: Communicating beliefs and viewpoints without worrying about potential conflicts. Each person in the relationship has the freedom to think for themselves and believes that their opinions are valued—instead of feeling pressured to agree.
- Experiential intimacy: Participating in shared experiences that lead to inside jokes and private moments that escalate a connection. The act of teamwork and moving in unison toward a common goal while creating an experience also establishes a feeling of closeness.
- Spiritual intimacy: Having poignant moments with someone. It can look like enjoying the beauty of nature, sharing awe-inspiring moments, as well as discussing ethics, sense of purpose, or personal definitions of spirituality.
For intimacy to foster in each of these experiences, licensed marriage and family therapist Saba Harouni Lurie, LMFT, notes there's a genuine reciprocity of vulnerability, compassion, and care needed when sharing who we are with the people in our life.
But "if someone's never comfortably experienced this in their initial relationships or relationships later in life, this type of closeness is so unfamiliar it may feel threatening." Instead of wanting to relate and move closer, there's a feeling of shame. The person with intimacy issues feels unable to give and receive freely; it just feels futile to put themselves out there for potential hurt.
What causes a fear of intimacy?
A fear of intimacy could be caused by past abandonment, difficult ex-relationships, or anxiety disorders. According to Gomez, childhood trauma can also create obstacles around intimacy if they couldn't be authentic growing up. If someone grew up believing it was emotionally dangerous to share their needs and feelings, the experience of allowing oneself to be known can feel like anathema.
"In order to be able to be intimate, there needs to be a sense of safety to show those vulnerable parts," she says. "If the environment responds to vulnerability with punishment, shame, and guilt—like when children are overwhelmed with big emotions, make a mistake, mess or have their interests dismissed—then it lets the child know that it's not safe to show those parts if it happens on a consistent basis."
As an adult, without the early experience of safe intimacy, they repeat what they know. After a while, it becomes automatic to disengage and detach. Being extremely close with someone doesn't seem like an opportunity for worthwhile connection but an invitation for disappointment. "Disconnection from others, while lonely and distressing, can also be comfortably uncomfortable," Gomez continues. "You know what to expect. Being intimate when feeling unsafe is terrifying."
How intimacy issues manifest in relationships.
The relationship may progress normally until the connection becomes more real. As the relationship intensifies, instead of opening up to build trust, a person with a subconscious fear of intimacy might find themselves pulling away or nitpicking the relationship's perceived faults. Doing this creates tension and problems in the relationship.
"It can lead to feeling disconnected in a romantic relationship [by] not sharing feelings, thoughts, opinions, physical intimacy, dreams, goals, or even financial concern," Gomez says. The other partner can then harbor "feelings of resentment, guilt, shame, and sadness." But the harder they try for more, the harder the person with a fear of intimacy may forcibly keep up their boundaries to minimize the anxiety they're feeling, even at the cost of pushing their partner away.
Gomez does note that it's always OK for people to want to take their time in a new relationship and not want to rush into intimacy too quickly. Some people also simply prefer more casual relationships, and there's nothing wrong with that. The key is understanding the difference: A casual dater chooses not to get too invested because they want to explore their options or are just not looking to settle down, whether for now or at all. On the other hand, a person with a fear of intimacy actively wants commitment. But as soon as they come close to receiving it, their fear activates, and they push away the connection that they do ultimately want.
The role of attachment styles.
Fear of intimacy is often related to a person's attachment style. In the 1950s, psychologist Mary Ainsworth and psychiatrist John Bowlby proposed that one's attachment style is shaped and developed in early childhood in response to our relationships with our earliest caregivers.
If you grew up with your caregiver meeting your needs, Lurie says you develop a secure attachment style in which you feel worthy of love and confident in creating emotional connections. "They know that it is OK to need or depend on others, and they value being needed in return," she explains. "Intimacy and vulnerability are not a challenge, as a securely attached individual has a strong sense of self and isn't dictated by fear of rejection or a fear of losing themselves."
However, if you didn't experience that safe early connection, it can lead to an avoidant, anxious, or fearful attachment style in which you're respectively fearful of people being too close, too far, or both at the same time. Someone with an avoidant attachment style is terrified of engulfment, so they push people away, while someone with an anxious attachment style has a strong fear of abandonment, so they pull people in tightly. A fearful attachment style is a combination of anxious and avoidant styles, so a fearful attacher's behaviors can be doubly confusing in the face of intimacy.
"A fear of intimacy is most common with those who have an avoidant or fearful-avoidant style," Lurie notes.
Common signs someone has a fear of intimacy.
Here are some common signs someone may have a fear of intimacy:
1. You don't share the big stuff.
"You may withhold information about [your] feelings, thoughts, and opinions," Gomez says. You're fine sharing anything low-stakes: your day-to-day life, friends, hobbies, work. Anything higher-stakes, like your private thoughts, is shared only if it's asked or absolutely necessary. It's not like you don't want to talk about the important things, but your instinct is to hold back and take care of yourself on your own.
2. You're secretive about your true feelings.
"Instead of sharing things that are making you unhappy or asking for more, you may stay quiet or engage in passive-aggressive behaviors," Gomez says. It's hard to advocate for what you want. Besides, you feel OK keeping certain things to yourself because you want to keep expectations low and manageable. As a result, you could be with someone for years yet still feel like you're strangers in some capacity because intimacy remains superficial.
3. You don't take big risks in dating.
Have a history of short, unstable relationships? There might be a reason for that. "Someone with a fear of intimacy [has] a hard time sharing certain parts of themselves. They may even choose to only engage in casual, fling-like encounters in order to avoid the vulnerability that comes with a deeper connection," Lurie says. Even when you are able to invest in a long-term relationship, you may still keep them at arm's length. For example, you avoid making future commitments like labeling the relationship, moving in together, or getting married.
4. When the connection grows, you go.
You went away for a weekend trip with your new S.O. and had an amazing time. But back in the comfort of your own home, you feel a vulnerability hangover. The discomfort could become so overwhelming that you begin pushing off their requests to hang out again, opting to isolate to feel better. "A common vulnerability is sharing how much you care about the person or how you are enjoying or valuing their time with them," Gomez says. For someone with a fear of intimacy, though, feelings of excitement, joy, and hope are synonymous with being hurt. To love is to feel loss.
5. You withdraw when they want more.
You want a relationship and you might actively put yourself out there to make it happen, but when your partner shares more, you may feel awkward, frustrated, or annoyed by their intense emotions. "Being asked to give yourself this way seems like too much and this type of closeness off-putting," Lurie says. "This is [often] the case for those unfamiliar with true intimacy and interdependence." The impulse is to reject, which blocks trust in the relationship, subconsciously confirming your fears that it's unsafe to share.
6. The grass is always greener on the other side.
Lurie notes that even when you are able to get into a relationship, you may find yourself fantasizing about your ideal partner—daydreams of the perfect connection where you'll be able to have your needs met without feeling overwhelmed, uncomfortable, or afraid. When things get rocky in your current relationship, you may drift off to these other possibilities instead of working on what you have.
7. You're perfectionistic in your personal life.
There's a tendency to hyper-focus on imagined demands and perceived criticisms in the relationship. People with a fear of intimacy can often have low self-esteem and believe they have to be perfect to earn love. Because of that, you might default to cognitive distortions like all-or-nothing thinking (For example, "I can only date when I have a six-figure job or when I lose 10 pounds!") and project those feelings of inadequacy on your partner.
8. You have a complicated relationship with sex.
It can go two directions: Gomez says you might prefer having sex and having one-night stands because physical intimacy feels safer than sharing vulnerable emotions. Or you might be fearful of sexual intimacy and avoid it altogether because you're scared physical contact would escalate the relationship. Either way, it's hard for you to be embodied during sex because of those insecurities.
Resolving the issues & healing.
If you have a fear of intimacy, it's helpful to get to the root of it. "Taking the time to explore and understand one's attachment style and relationship patterns is likely the first step," Lurie says. "Once there is a clearer understanding of one's attachment style and how they engage in their relationships, they can be more thoughtful about how they want to engage in the future and slowly challenge themselves to seek out safe relationships to be vulnerable."
If your partner has a fear of intimacy, healing can happen. But not until they can practice what it's like to communicate their thoughts out loud safely.
"The most important thing is safety. If you're going to talk to your partner about how you want to be intimate, you need to make sure to leave your judgments, assumptions, accusations, and problem-solving at the door," Gomez advises. "It's about being open and honest with your feelings, having compassion for yourself and your partner, and listening."
As you listen, hold them with generosity and try to avoid personalizing what they're telling you. "It takes time to build that trust. It doesn't necessarily say anything about you if they have trouble being intimate," she adds. "This is not the time or place to convince them why it's safe to be open because that will lead to 'yeah but...' or them shutting down if they're not ready. If you're even able to get to this part in the conversation, that is already a new level of intimacy."
In self-examination, Lurie recommends looking at the overall patterns. "Attachment theory creates the illusion that we all fit neatly into these boxes [when] in reality, many of us display some different attachment traits in personal relationships or at different times of our lives," she says. If you're feeling blocked in your introspection, she suggests finding a therapist who can help you compassionately connect the dots and create new healthy patterns.
The bottom line.
Patience is important as you embrace vulnerability, so take your time understanding what safety and intimacy mean to you. It'll be a heart-opening journey to let people in and feel happiness, instead of fear, to take the risk—because the connection is worth it.
"As a reminder, it takes time for people to be intimate with others because it does require a level of trust. It's not healthy or safe to share every vulnerable thing when there is no evidence of safety," Gomez notes. "When dating, it's OK to not be vulnerable 100% all the time but to increase intimacy as time goes on if the person is safe."