Fear of Intimacy: A Help Guide
The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) is an association for UK-based counselling professionals. It supports practitioners, enabling them to provide a better service.
Fear of intimacy involves difficulty and discomfort in letting others truly getting to know you for all that you really are.
A side of effect of having a fear of intimacy can be that you find romantic relationships difficult. But fear of intimacy is really a fear of closeness, and that can be both physical and emotional.
A fear of intimacy will thus affect all of your close relationships, including those with friends and family. It can also, in sublter ways, cause challenges in your daily relationships, such as those with colleagues.
Of course to trust others with all that you are, you also need to recognise and be comfortable with who you are. Those who suffer from intimacy issues often deep down also struggle to understand and accept themselves.
Having a fear of intimacy has nothnig to do with not wanting love. Often those who suffer from intimacy issues want love more than anyone else, or so it feels. It's just that no matter how much you long to be cherished and cared for, the second someone tries to offer you this, it's like something inside just won't trust love or believe that you deserve it.
If you struggle with a fear of intimacy you might seem, on the surface, like you are doing fine. Many people with intimacy issues actually hide them very well and even have many 'friends', or always have some kind of romantic relationship on the go.
But deep down you can be really suffering. Your inability to properly bond with or feel able to fully relax around others can lead to secret feelings of disconnection, alienation, and increasing loneliness. You also might be achieving far beneath your potential in life, because you are not good at asking for help and support when you need it. Over time, this can cause all sorts of problems, including anxiety, depression, or an identity crisis.
Fear of intimacy is probably far more common than is talked about. Modern Western society is sadly geared more and more away from intimacy, and England has been found to have the highest rates of loneliness in Europe. Family units are now mostly just nuclear, community spirit is second place to the cult of the individual, and the rise of social media encourages us to have a 'persona' that can move us further andf further away from our authentic self.
The internet, with its guise of connection, has instead been found by studies to be increasing loneliness and alienation, with platforms like Facebook encouraging a sort of false relating that does not lead to authentic relating. This is reflected in research by the UK's Mental Health Foundation which found that rates of loneliness are now higher in 18 to34 year-olds than the over-55's.
It's true that you can be born with a personality that naturally contain a high level of introversion.
And still others of us have what are known as 'personality disorders', patterns of thinking and being that differ from the norm and make relationships something we might have far less interest in than others do (see the section below on personality disorders and intimacy for more on this).
Exceptions aside, human connection is now seen as a biological need. Scientific studies show that if our social bonds are weak or threatened, we suffer. For example, children who aren't given proper support and love are found to often suffer educational, health, and/or behavioural problems, and to grow into adults who are more likely to suffer from anxiety or depression. And recent neuroscience research has found that the brain is actually wired to kick into social thinking whenever we are not analysing, almost like a built-in reflex.
If you have convinced yourself you simply 'don't need others', try to notice the feelings inside when you say this to yourself. Do you feel calm, relaxed, and happy? Or if you are honest with yourself, do you feel quite 'tight' inside, or numb, or even angry? This would all show that perhaps its time to be honest with yourself and see that although you've decided to overlook human relationships, it's not actually sitting well with you.
It can help, when considering if you should be concerned about your own commitment to developing healthy intimacy skills, to consider the benefits strong bonds with others can bring to your life.
- you are more likely to feel that life has purpose
- you will have higher feelings of self-worth
- you will feel less lonely
- you can experience lowered stress levels
- you are more likely to be in good physical health.
You might even increase your longevity. A 10-year study of almost 1500 older Australians funded by Flinders University found that those with good friendships lived longer, a result that was not found looking at good family relations.
While some people who suffer from fear of intimacy might exhibit obvious signs, others who have fear of intimacy might on the surface appear very personable and warm and manifest symptoms in a different, more subtle way.
Obvious forms of fear of intimacy can include:
- feeling uncomfortable if someone is too affectionate with you
- not liking others to depend on you or 'ask too much' of you
- few people in your life (if any) that you actually trust
- a history of short relationships, few relationships, or relationships that stick to the surface
- anxiety when in a romantic relationship
- a constant feeling that nobody understands you
But the following can equally be signs of a fear of intimacy:
- having many 'friends' but not letting any too close
- despite a busy social life secretly feeling 'lonely in a crowd'
- having many intense but short relationships that all seem to reach a point where you 'just lose interest'
- having long-term partners but choosing ones that take no interest in your passions, vulnerabilities, and real needs
- being in relationships where you hide many sides of yourself from your partner
- feeling you have many different 'you's' that come out with different people
- awareness that the 'you' everyone else sees is nothing like the 'you' inside
- a feeling other people are 'dangerous' that you can't explain
- always being there for others but never turning to others when you need support or help
- or never being there for others, believing that everyone should be 'independent'
- hiding your perceived 'weaknesses' from others
- or, hiding your positive qualities from others so they don't like you 'too much'
- finding yourself strangely edgy or angry if people ask you too many questions
And then there are 'coping mechanisms' that come into place when we are afraid to allow others too close to us, or that we create unconsciously to keep people away. These can be:
- being very critical of others (this stops others from getting too close)
- always being very busy (this is a way to hide from feelings of emptiness and loneliness)
- always being in a 'good' mood (being open about true feelings can be seen as too intimate)
- coming across as very 'together' (this way nobody can see your flaws and get to know you well)
- having very dramatic romantic relationships (drama leaves little time for real intimacy)
- having strong opinions (this can scare people back a little)
- being a perfectionist (so you can find reasons why nobody is 'good enough' to get close to you)
- having many fantasies about perfect love (to keep yourself safe from the threat of 'real' love)
Inevitably, it relates back to childhood, and both the ways you were offered love and affection and the examples your caregivers set around interrelating.
Attachment theory states that to comfortably bond with others as adults, we need to have experienced a trusting bond with a caregiver, chiefly between birth and the age of three. If we didn't, if our main carer was for some reason unable to love, cherish, and protect us, we will inevitably grow into an adult who either is incredibly anxious in relationships, or tries to keep love at arm's length, called being an 'avoidant' (read the next section on attachment issues and intimacy for more on this).
Beyond attachment styles, the way you were offered love is also of relevance. If you were only offered love when you were 'good', and were not offered unconditional love and taught that you were acceptable regardless of your emotional state, you were essentially taught not only to 'earn' love but that being yourself was not a good idea.
So as an adult these patterns, unless recognised and dealt with, will continue to pervade your relationships. You will feel scared to be yourself, meaning you can't let people too close. You will also likely have deep rooted unconscious core beliefs about not being loveable which means if someone tries, thus going against your true feelings about yourself, you will find it hard to believe them. OR you will try to win love by pleasing instead of being yourself (codependency) or only love somoone if they stay at arm's length (counterdependency).
Childhood trauma is another factor which can damage your ability to trust others as an adult, regardless of a secure attachment as an infant. All forms of abuse – sexual, physical, and emotional – can cause deep damage to a child's ability to trust others or feel safe to be themselves.
Other traumas which can cause intimacy issues can be the sudden loss of a parent or family member, a parent with addictions, witnessing domestic violence, or sudden change like parents divorcing.
As for examples set by caregivers, if your parents or guardians were themselves engaged in unhealthy patterns of relating, if they lied to each other, led separate lives, or were abusive to each other, then you would take on board the learning that love didn't involve trust but difficulties, which is something you might then recreate in your own adult relationships.
According to attachment theory, intimacy issues mostly stem from the years between birth and aged three.
To grow into an adult who can securely “attach” (trust and bond) with another, we need to have unconditional care, protection, and emotional support from a primary caregiver. This gives us a safe 'base' from which to then explore the world.
But sometimes a primary caregiver does not give us the care we need, or gives it in an unreliable fashion we can't trust. They are insensitive and unpredicatble, either because they have psychological or health issues, are handling extreme life stress like a divorce or poverty, have addictions, or are just incapable of parenting and tend to be too controlling or just unable to understand you.
As a child, in order to survive, you then learn not to rely on others. You might even decide not to even try to be loved because your fear of being hurt, rejected, or punished becomes so great.
The result is that you grow into an adult who doesn't have the 'secure' attachment style those with easy intimacy skills do. Instead, you are likely to suffer from 'anxious' attachment, meaning intimacy causes you anxiety that leads to patterns of pushing and pulling. Or, you'll have an 'avoidant” attachment style, where you don't believe in letting anyone too close, keep partners at arm's length, refuse to invest in another's needs even if deep down you desparately long for love, and possibly even treat those who attempt to love you with contempt.
Sometimes a fear of intimacy is a result of, or occurs in conjunction with, another pyschological issue or disorder. The following can all cause intimacy issues:
- social anxiety disorder
- low self-esteem
- childhood trauma
And then there are personality disorders, all of which tend to affect the way one relates to others, as outlined in the next section.
A personality disorder means you habitually think and act in ways that deviate from what is considered "normal". This means others don't know how to take you, and at the same time you might find the way everyone else acts confusing. Understandably this dynamic can leave someone with a personality disorder with great difficulty relating - in fact most personality disorders have at their heart issues with connecting with others.
Avoidant personality disorder sees sufferers longing to be liked, but with deep feelings of being unacceptable. This means they often believe that relationships cause such hurt they are better avoided.
Borderline personality disorder is focussed around a deep fear of abandonment. So those who have BPD have a history of short-lived dramatic romantic relationships which often cause severe anxiety, hypersensitivity, and impulsive behaviour. They are prone to pushing others away then chasing them and begging them back.
Histrionic personality disorder sees sufferers miss reality entirely, obsessed with romance, thinking someone is interested in them who isn't, and not realising when a relationship is over. They also deify their partners and miss obvious flaws. Their deep need for excitement also sees them act in overly sexual, inappropriate ways.
Dependent personality disorder entails a belief that you need others to survive, meaning you hold on to very unhealthy relationships or choose to be manipulated by others.
Schizoid personality disorder leaves you preferring to be alone with the world inside your head, which can feel more fascinating than other people, whose opinions you are not concerned with. This disorder involves not understanding or feeling emotions and finding sex difficult to be interested in.
Schizotypal personality disorder involves a belief that 'others are out to get you'. This of course means relationships cause anxiety.
Narcissistic personality disorder means you don't have the empathy others naturally have so take advantage of others over foster any form or real trust and intimacy.
Paranoid personality disorder leaves you deeply suspicious of everyone, especially sexual partners, and taking even casual comments as a form of belittlement.
Antisocial personality disorder causes you to be easily frustrated by the opinions of others and easily angered, meaning you can't sustain any close relationships as you are too volatile for others to tolerate.
Because having a fear of intimacy is so linked to difficult childhood experiences and trauma, it is not something you can just 'think' your way out of or 'decide' to no longer have.
Changing your ways of relating involves real commitment to looking at yourself and your life, as well as the strength and self-compassion to be honest about your personal patterns and where they stem from.
Self help can be a great start. Reading about what intimacy is and what healthy, authentic relationships look like can start to shift your ideas about relating (see the resources section below for places to start).
But even if you understand the mechanisms of fear of intimacy it can be hard to stop old ways of behaving. The anxiety and push/pull patterns that fear of intimacy can cause can be very powerful, and easily triggered no matter how hard you try to stop.
The support that counselling or psychotherapy offers is, therefore, highly recommended for those who struggle allowing others close. Therapy offers you a new perspective on yourself, a safe environment to discover your issues and challenge your old beliefs, support to stand firm in the face of your anxiety and not run from love, and clarity so you you don't revert to self-blame (quite common in those who suffer from fear of intimacy). Even better, the therapist-client relationship can be a way to try out new ways of relating and trusting.
But some therapies also focus almost exclusively on the way you relate to others.
Long-term therapies that work on your relating skills include:
Dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT) – this is especially recommended for those who suffer borderline personality disorder or who experienced sexual abuse as a child. It helps you regulate your emotions and impulses, which are often the very things that cause you to push the ones you love away.
Schema therapy- focused around the idea that we are all caught in self-defeating behavioural patterns called ‘schemas’, this form of therapy is recommended again for personality disorders, and also for those in a repeat cycle of destructive relationships. It helps you identify and change the pattern you are acting out with others.
Short-term therapies that have a focus on relationships include the following:
Dynamic interpersonal therapy (DIT) – this form of psychotherapy has the premise that functioning well in relationships means you feel better about yourself and the world and suffer less low moods. Deriving from psychodynamic therapy, it explores your past to see what caused you to act the ways you do now, and helps you explore alternative ways of relating.
Cognitive analytical therapy (CAT) - focused on looking at your habitual responses to others, and how these form patterns that connect all of your relationships, from partners to colleagues. CAT then works to understand how these patterns developed in your past, and also places importance on the relationship and interactions you have with your therapist as a sort of sounding board for your relating skills.
Not dealing with a fear of intimacy doesn't necessarily mean you won't be a functioning human being. You might be very successful in your career still, and you might even have many relationships in life, even if they are not as promising as you wish they were.
But fear of intimacy, and less than fulfilling relationships with others, do place you at a higher risk for anxiety disorders, depression, and addictions.
Again, the truth is that feeling understood and cared for does tend to benefit us both emotionally, psychologically, mentally and physically. It is easier to live life with the true support of others we can be ourselves around than to live only having ourselves to truly turn to.
Carter, Stephen and Julia Sokol. He's Scared, She's Scared.
Carter, Stephen and Julia Sokol. Men Who Can't Love.
Coleman , Dr. Paul. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Intimacy.
Grosz, Stephen. The Examined Life.
Miller, Alice. The Drama of Being a Child.
Welwood, John. Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships.
Weinhold, Barry and Janae. The Flight From Intimacy.
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Harley Therapy Ltd. “Fear of Intimacy • Help for Connecting With Others”. Harley Therapy, 13 Sep. 2019, https://www.harleytherapy.co.uk/fear-of-intimacy-help-guide.htm. Accessed 1 Dec. 2021.
Harley Therapy Ltd. (2019, September 13). Fear of Intimacy • Help for Connecting With Others. Retrieved from https://www.harleytherapy.co.uk/fear-of-intimacy-help-guide.htm
Harley Therapy Ltd. "Fear of Intimacy • Help for Connecting With Others." Last modified September 13, 2019. Accessed December 1, 2021. https://www.harleytherapy.co.uk/fear-of-intimacy-help-guide.htm.