You are in love. The guy that you met is perfect. Handsome. Smart. Kind. Gentle. But somehow, you keep putting off his suggestion to move in together. You start changing the subject every time he wants to do some future planning with you. And you can’t help but pick fights with him over trivial differences, especially around the times when you seem to have just grown closer to each other.
What you are experiencing is likely to be a deep fear of intimacy. It protects you from getting hurt in relationships. However, it also creates emotional distance. Here you will find some answers on how to overcome fear of intimacy.
What is the fear of intimacy?
You feel like you are potentially sabotaging the best relationship you’ve had. You can’t understand why you just can’t enjoy the journey of getting close to your partner. Even though you don’t want to lose this man, the risk of letting him in and then having your heart broken seems too great for you to bear.
The fear of intimacy is essentially the fear of revealing your true self to the other person. Being scared of having sex, being unable to use the toilet when your partner is outside, not wanting to share your emotions or thoughts with your partner are signs that you have intimacy issues.
There are many elements of intimacy – sexual, emotional, or intellectual. Nearly any activities that feel ‘revealing’ to you can fall within the realm of intimacy issues. Such issues prevent you from engaging in any new experiences for fear of getting caught off-guard and losing control. Fear of relationships, especially those of a long-term nature, is probably the most common form of intimacy issues.
In a relationship, there are plenty of opportunities for your true self to be seen and to get rejected. To manage this, you are likely to adopt a variety of coping mechanisms. For example, you may insist on hanging out in groups rather than in a one-on-one setting. You may work or study excessively to avoid the strike of loneliness as well as social interactions. You may notice that you are never 100 percent you in front of other people. You may also realize that as soon as you are in the presence of another person, you are under pressure to be ‘perfect’ for them. Otherwise, you feel rejected, ashamed, and worthless. No wonder you don’t want to get too close to anybody!
The fear of intimacy drives you to keep people at arm’s length even though they are somebody you really like. When the fear of intimacy and the desire to connect with your partner are simultaneous, you often experience ‘ambivalent swings.’ You pull the other person close and then push them away shortly after, before enticing them to get close again. This can be very exhausting both for you and for your partner.
Sometimes, a severe fear of intimacy can develop into types of intimacy disorders, involving various overcompensating behaviors such as alcoholism or sex addiction. Research has shown that intimacy fear correlates with substance addiction. Excessive doses of alcohol or drugs can be incredibly comforting when the fear of intimacy makes emotionally close relationships with other people unbearable.
Learning how to manage the fear of intimacy can provide significant benefits for your relationships and mental health.
What causes fear of intimacy
For many people, the fear of intimacy is not necessarily caused by previous abuse or mental health conditions. Instead, you are simply afraid of intimacy because you are scared of revealing who you really are. The fear mostly comes from the fact that your partner may not love you if you show your true self.
The fear of intimacy may be related to low self-esteem, where you think that your true self is not good enough. Or it may stem from the fear of abandonment. Psychologists have also found intimacy fear to be closely related to a sense of shame towards oneself. The fundamental truth is that fear only arises because your love for yourself still has room to grow. The more you have a genuine, deep appreciation of your true self, the less likely you will be devastated by others’ disapproval. So the fear of intimacy essentially arises from a lack of self-love.
A more profound question to ask, however, is how did you develop the lack of self-love? This most likely dates back to your childhood.
There is nothing more satisfying than living a life of your heart’s genuine desire. And all of us more or less start in this way. When we were children, we naturally followed our true desires and feelings without filtering. We cry when we are hungry, and we run towards our parents when we are scared. We go for our favorite toy unapologetically and do not hold back from getting angry if someone else took it first. But somehow, on the often-painful path of growing up, we are taught that we should not reveal our true feelings not to become inconvenient or hurtful to others.
We then start burying our desires and feelings, carefully selecting only those that are socially acceptable to put on display. We were taught to recognize as ‘selfish’ or ‘unlovable’ are either hidden or denied.
Anger is one of the most common feelings that people hide or deny when asked. Because most parents do not like angry children and, in one way or another, they punish their children for throwing a tantrum. Over time, children learn that it is dangerous to show any anger in front of others and start to hide or deny it. By the time you reach adulthood, considering yourself ‘not a very angry person’ simply becomes an integral part of your belief system. However, the denial of a feeling does not make it go away. It becomes suppressed and is often boiling under the surface, looking out for ‘safe’ opportunities to be expressed. This is why you often hear stories about people who are never heard so much at work, but they go home and have violent rows with their spouse or children.
When you don’t allow yourself to feel anger, you inevitably struggle with an intense inner conflict between your anger and your compulsion to suppress it. This can make intimate relationships very unappealing to you. Having to hide your true feelings all the time in front of another person is exhausting. And the closer to your partner you get, the harder it is to hide them.
How to overcome fear of intimacy: 5 steps
Intimacy issues can take many forms. It might be a fear of sexual intimacy that you are struggling with. Or you may have remained single for many years while secretly longing for romance and relationships. Or, like many people, you may have formed many relationships, but very few partners have really ‘known’ you.
Regardless of the type of intimacy issues that you have, the fact that you are reading this article means that you recognize the problem and wish to make changes. I want to congratulate you on this critical insight and effort.
The tips below may help you overcome the fear of intimacy and feel more comfortable getting close to another person, whether physically or emotionally.
1. Affirm your desire for intimacy
Reminding yourself of how much you want a meaningful, lasting relationship can be an excellent first step. By affirming your willingness to do so, you can remove some of the ambivalence that often arises from a fear of intimacy.
An example of positive affirmation would be changing your attitude from ‘I may or may not want a relationship anyway because my single life seems fine. So it doesn’t really matter whether I get close to him or not. We’ll just see how it goes.’ to ‘I like this guy. Actually, I think I love him. I want to get close to him. I believe that it is beneficial for me to have an intimate relationship. So I am going to give it a shot by working on my fears.’
Regardless of the outcome of this particular relationship, your attempt to overcome your fear of intimacy will bring you many insights into who you are and what you want. This will be crucial for growth, expansion, and building a fulfilling life for you.
2. Embrace your inner child
As we grow into adults, childhood fears and beliefs don’t necessarily go away. Because they often served us well when we were children, helping us avoid our parents’ criticism or ridicule. Therefore, each of us has an inner child holding onto the fears and beliefs even though they no longer benefit our adult life.
Embracing your inner child can provide an incredible amount of comfort that helps ease the fear of intimacy. John Bradshaw’s book Home Coming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child provides valuable insights into how to do so. Healing the wounds from your childhood and helping your inner child restore the belief that she is loved unconditionally can open the gateway to embracing real intimacy.
3. Remember your partner is scared too
One of the mistakes that many people make in relationships is to assume that there must be something wrong with them when they experience rejection from their partner. They often forget that there are two people in a relationship. And therefore, any hurt or pain experienced within a relationship results from the dynamics between two people rather than one person alone. Understanding this and really letting it sink in can help you feel less fearful of the rejections, doubts, and hurts that inevitably come with intimacy.
Here is an example. In the search for some family holiday photos, Amy mistakenly opens a folder that contains photographs of her husband Brian’s ex-girlfriend. She then jokingly asks Brian why he still has those photos and says that she will delete them. Brian, feeling caught and interrogated, does not recognize the light-hearted nature of Amy’s comment. He immediately assumes that Amy purposefully fished for those photos to give him a hard time. So he snaps back and tells Amy that he would never delete those photos and that she had completely broken his trust in her. They then got into a big argument that ended with Amy and Brian not speaking with each other for three days.
Whose fault is it that led to the argument? Neither Amy nor Brian. It is merely a phenomenon that occurs between two people whose individual fears interacted in a way that triggered hurt and pain in both of them. Amy attempted to express her fear of ‘losing’ Brian to another woman in a light-hearted way. It was, unfortunately, met with Brian’s fear of being seen as a disloyal husband. They then each put on their defenses and got angry at each other instead. It is all perfectly normal, and neither partner is ‘bad.’ They are simply human.
4. Separate the present from the past
Often, when you push your partner away, it happens because of your past experiences. Remind yourself that your current partner is not your ex, nor is he one of your parents. Those people may have hurt you in the past when you trusted them. But your partner is a different person. Try to separate the present from the past. It will allow you to respond more adequately to the current situation.
Of course, there might be times when your fear of intimacy is triggered by your partner’s conduct. I’m not saying that your partner shouldn’t adjust his behavior. However, when this happens, consider that your fear of intimacy goes back much further than your current relationship. Search for old wounds and articulate your concerns to your partner. Request his understanding and sensitivity as you work on your intimacy issues.
5. Write a letter
Fear of intimacy is often hard to vocalize. You might feel silly or merely unable to express yourself when talking face-to-face with another person. Writing a letter can help you feel more in control as you don’t have to deal with the other person’s immediate reactions. First, write a letter to yourself about your fears, where they stem from, and what you’d like to accomplish. Then, write a letter to your partner about how you feel, your desire to be closer, and the things you fear the most. Give it to him to read and consider it to be the first step towards a mature conversation.
Sometimes it may be beneficial to ask your partner to write a letter to you about his fears. You may discover that he fears intimacy too. This shared feeling may bring you closer and help you feel safer around him.
The foundation of fulfilling relationships
Revealing yourself can be terrifying, especially in front of someone whose approval means a lot to you. However, to find that special someone with whom you can really build a rewarding relationship, the only way is to reveal who you really are. Because when you don’t, your connection will be created on the wrong foundation. It would never be you with whom your partner falls in love, but a false version of you. There is a risk that your true self isn’t what your partner wants. But wouldn’t you want to find that out sooner rather than later, so that you can move on and find the real Mr. Right? Revealing yourself helps you filter out those with whom you can never have fulfilling relationships anyway.
Take each relationship, whether a 10-year marriage or a one-night stand, as an opportunity to learn something about yourself. The more you understand yourself, the less you will experience the fear of intimacy. Because ultimately, if you are open to finding the reasons behind your uniqueness, you will discover that you are nothing but a human being. And there is nothing scary about that.
Ultimately, the most intimate relationship you are going to have is the one with yourself. The key to overcoming your fear of intimacy is learning to love your true self, no matter how deeply it is hidden. And I can assure you that it is very much worth loving.