Intimacy is one of those things that can be equally coveted and feared at the same time. As human beings, we intensely desire true love and connection while simultaneously fearing emotional vulnerability. Intimacy is a special type of closeness and familiarity that an individual has with another person. Intimacy can pertain to various types of relationships including romantic relationships, peer friendships, or familial relationships. Intimacy can be physical or emotional in nature and is necessary for long-lasting deep and meaningful relationships.
Infants enter the world with an innate instinct to seek closeness, protection, and love, especially during times of distress and danger. The nature, consistency, and frequency of responses from a caregiver during these moments will have a direct and lasting impact on a person’s level of attachment. As children, if emotions are continually rejected or met with negative responses, a child learns to compensate by stifling them or by not allowing themselves to experience them. They become emotionally shut down and learn to rely solely on themselves. If an individual is hurt during critical relationships in childhood, they become fearful of experiencing hurt again in the future, causing considerable impact to their adult relationships.
A fear of intimacy can result from a broken heart or from past romantic relationships that have failed. After being emotionally hurt, a person can counteract their pain by ensuring that they do not get hurt again. The way that they go about this is to completely prevent the possibility of anyone getting too close. This plan will indeed prevent them from getting hurt, but will also sadly preclude them from the prospect of love and closeness again in the future.
Fearing intimacy can encompass a mixture of anxiety, mistrust, and concern over rejection and negative outcomes. Paradoxically, a fear of intimacy does not usually surface from negative emotions, but rather, intensifies from positive sentiments. Reciprocal love can flare insecurities and make it challenging to sustain close relationships, especially if a person sees us differently than we view ourselves. Some people believe that they are unlovable or undeserving of intimacy, which becomes part of their self-image. Thus, when love and intimacy are offered, it shakes the very framework that their identity has been built upon and causes dissonance.
A person struggling with intimacy will immediately withdraw and retreat if they sense that another person is getting too close. This can be hurtful and frustrating to both parties, as the person advancing can feel slighted, rejected, and unloved, while the person withdrawing can feel bewildered that their love is being questioned and as if too much is being asked of them emotionally.
A fear of intimacy can present in a variety of ways, including holding back feelings, reacting poorly to compliments and attentiveness, and being hesitant to become too close. A fear of intimacy can cause a person to either become skeptical and mistrustful of their partner, or to become openly disparaging towards them.
Like most fears, anxieties, and phobias, a fear of intimacy can be challenged, worked on, and overcome. An individual must be willing to confront negative self-perception and painful childhood experiences, while being open to exploring their identity. They must consider the possibility that another person’s positive viewpoint may actually be accurate and become comfortable with emotional vulnerability. They have to be willing to endure the inherent risks that come with intimacy and control their knee jerk reactions to automatically push others away. They must cope with their anxiety when one gets close and learn how to put trust into another person. Over time and with patience and a supportive partner, a person can heal emotional wounds that will enable them to experience and enjoy true intimacy.
Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.