We need to develop, build and experience relational bonds and experience closeness from another person. For some people, however, intimacy is not so simple, and for some people, it can be a source of fear, worry and difficulty. In this article, we look at possible reasons for why people might develop a fear of intimacy and how to overcome in this situation.
What is fear of intimacy?
A fear of intimacy can be triggered by positive emotions or closeness more than by negative responses, and being chosen by a partner, experiencing their loving feelings, can bring about deeply held fears about intimacy.
In simple terms, a fear of intimacy or closeness with others is an often unconscious process, which frequently and significantly impacts an individual’s ability to form or maintain close relationships. This fear is of both physical and emotional intimacy and tends to show up in people’s closest and most meaningful relationships.
A fear of intimacy could also be understood as a set of highly complex behaviors, emotions, feelings and thoughts which can prevent people from having meaningful long lasting relationships or that disrupt existing relationships. These fears do not only occur in romantically intimate relationships but within platonic or familial relationships too.
Fearing intimacy is also not as simple as just a fear, and often holds within it a range of other difficulties, such as ambivalent feelings or uncertainty about these relational experiences. It is this complexity which means that these processes are difficult to understand and manage.
Due to the unconscious nature of having fears of intimacy, people do not intentionally reject love or care from another person. Instead what may happen, is during times of closeness, people may find ways of reacting with behaviors that create tension, strain or discomfort in the relationship, often leading to a premature end of a relationship, or one ending before it has had time to fully begin or develop, in essence, before a deep level of intimacy has had time to form.
How or why does a fear of intimacy develop?
A fear of intimacy can develop for a number of different reasons, but for many people, it has its roots in childhood and stems from the relationship between the infant and the primary caregiver. Infants express their needs (hunger, sleep, safety etc.) via crying or interacting with the caregiver or parent.
Over time, infants learn whether or not their needs will be met with either consistent responses of warmth, or with anger or irritation. Sometimes needs aren’t met at all, and as this cycle of expressing our needs and having them responded to develops in those first few years of our lives, we develop strong and lasting connections in our minds related to what relationships mean to us which stay present in adulthood.
These core beliefs developed in childhood can relate to a feeling we have about ourselves that we are in some way not enough, not good enough or somehow lacking in loveable qualities, or that we are bad, unlovable or in some way deficient. While these attitudes may be unpleasant, difficult or painful, they are also familiar to us, and to an extent maybe even comfortable. We can get used to their presence in our unconscious mind, driving our behaviors or creating patterns and processes in our relationships.
How to over in this situation?
Even though the fear of intimacy is a largely unconscious process, we can still observe how it effects our behavior. When we push our partner away emotionally or retreat from their affection, we are acting on this fear of intimacy. Holding back the positive qualities that our partner finds most desirable is another way we act on this fear. We often try to make ourselves less lovable, so we don’t have to be as afraid of being loved. These distancing behaviors may reduce our anxiety about being too close to someone, but they come at a great cost. Acting on our fears preserves our negative self-image and keeps us from experiencing the great pleasure and joy that love can bring.
However, we can overcome fear of intimacy. We can develop ourselves to stop being afraid of love and let someone in. We can recognize the behaviors that are driven by our fear of intimacy and challenge these defensive reactions that preclude love. We can remain vulnerable in our love relationship by resisting retreating into a fantasy of love or engaging in distancing and withholding behaviors. We can maintain our integrity, learn to “sweat through” the anxiety of being close without pulling away, and gradually increase our tolerance for being loved. By taking the actions necessary to challenge our fear of intimacy, we can expand our capacity for both giving and accepting love.