Do You Have A Fear Of Intimacy? What To Explore In Therapy

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Last updated on August 28, 2023 by Randy Withers

“My friends tell me that I have an intimacy problem. But they don’t really know me,” comedian Gary Shandling joked.

What Shandling didn’t say was that fear of intimacy is often the problem. It can prevent people from experiencing connection, satisfaction, and security in their closest relationships, and in its most severe forms, it can be the reason someone feels deeply lonely and unhappy.

The good news is that therapy can help people address and even overcome their fear of intimacy. I have seen this transformation firsthand in my own work with clients. In the following sections, we’ll take a closer look at fear of intimacy, its signs and causes, avenues to explore in therapy, and what therapies may be especially helpful.

Fear of intimacy: a common problem in relationships

Ask the average person to name their top fears and they will most likely say death and public speaking, followed closely by spiders, snakes and heights. What can be omitted from your list is a prevalent and growing relationship problem: fear of intimacy.

Intimacy is closeness and familiarity with another person. An intimate relationship is a closeness that can involve both physical and emotional connections. Healthy intimacy is a strong connection with another person that allows you to feel free to be yourself:

  • Core values ​​are expressed, understood and accepted.
  • Different beliefs, perspectives and opinions are discussed openly without fear of abandonment, judgment, contempt or ridicule.
  • Love is given and received with an open heart.

Examples of fear of intimacy, from subtle to extreme

Fear of intimacy means that having a physical and emotional connection on a deeper level with another person gives us goosebumps. There are extreme and more obvious examples of this, as well as more subtle manifestations.

A more extreme example could be those who intentionally live isolated from others and avoid contact with others: the world’s loners. Your fear of intimacy may involve social phobia and intense or even debilitating feelings of anxiety around other people.

Then there are the more subtle examples of fear of intimacy:

  • Putting up your guard when asked to share thoughts and feelings that make you feel vulnerable.
  • shut down when discussing topics involving conflict and disagreement
  • lie or cover up the truth about your values, opinions and beliefs

Signs of fear of intimacy

Some signs to look for could mean you have a fear of intimacy:

  • move back or jump when touched
  • excessive use of alcohol or mind- or mood-altering substances
  • false personalities or putting up facades
  • addictive behaviors (i.e. working, gambling, having sex, eating)
  • distracting yourself from others through television, the Internet, games, or social media
  • focus too much on materialism
  • expectations of perfectionism or never making mistakes
  • Constant disagreements, arguments and/or physical altercations with others.
  • Using lies and excuses to avoid sex.
  • Need to control others, results and situations.

Possible causes of fear of intimacy to explore in therapy

There are many reasons why someone would develop a fear of intimacy, whether this happens

during adulthood or in childhood development:

Traumatic incidents: Traumatic incidents are events and situations that leave someone with painful psychological scars. When a crisis occurs, the perceived threat to your life and safety triggers a “fight, flight or freeze” response. They may develop PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) with symptoms of nightmares, flashbacks, and avoidance of anything that might remind them of the trauma. In the absence of healthy responses, exposure to trauma can cause someone to have an irrational distrust of others and a negative worldview.

Child abuse: Child abuse can take many forms, including physical, sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse. Abused children become fearful of others and suffer from low self-esteem. When children grow up in abusive homes, they can grow into adults who distrust others and expect to be hurt or exploited.

Losses and separations: Experiencing death and loss can lead to a widespread and pervasive fear of reaching out to others. Separations and divorces can model a lack of commitment and an inability to resolve problems. Abandonment problems can arise from multiple losses and separations: in anticipation of people abandoning them, the individual puts up his emotional guard.

Alcoholic families: When alcohol becomes part of the fabric of a family, family members can end up walking on eggshells and waiting for the next shoe to drop. Alcohol and drugs cause unstable and unpredictable behaviors that can cause anxiety and depression in children. Alcohol becomes a way to avoid and ignore problems, instead of learning to deal with them in a healthy way.

How therapy can address fear and improve intimacy

Seeking professional help with intimacy problems is crucial to overcoming them. Therapists can help you as an objective person identify signs and symptoms of fear of intimacy. Often, a person may not understand why they are unhappy in a relationship, have commitment issues, and/or have excessive conflict in a relationship.

Therapists can also help uncover the root causes of fear of intimacy. A good therapist will understand how unhealthy childhood development can lead to difficulties connecting with others. They should also be able to identify the behaviors, thoughts and attitudes that contribute to fears of intimacy.

Once they have helped identify these issues, the therapist will develop strategies with their client on how to overcome the barriers that stand in the way of true intimacy. When alcohol or drugs contribute to the problem, a substance abuse counselor can suggest and encourage some healthier coping skills to deal with intimacy problems. Therapists can also help their clients develop a long-term, sustainable recovery program for intimacy disorders.

Recommended Therapies to Address Fear of Intimacy

With the many therapies available today, it can be difficult to know which will be most effective in addressing fear of intimacy. From my own work with clients, I have found these three to be helpful:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps explore thought patterns that cause negative emotions and destructive behaviors.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) desensitizes and reconsolidates traumatic memories and replaces negative core beliefs with positive beliefs.
  • Family Counseling teaches couples and families how to better communicate and resolve conflicts.

A real life example of how therapy can help

Overcoming the fear of intimacy may seem daunting, but with therapy, people can experience life-changing breakthroughs in their relationships. Here’s just one real life example:

One of my previous clients, a Chicago firefighter, came to treatment after developing post-traumatic stress disorder from daily exposure to crises and emergencies. When he saw me, he was also addicted to alcohol and used alcohol to numb the pain of traumatic flashbacks.

This man had a long history of toxic relationships, including a second marriage to a woman who had been sexually abused as a child. When the two met, they developed a strong physical attraction almost immediately and she became pregnant.

They also had issues with emotional intimacy and were in a constant cycle of arguing, breaking up and getting back together. After the firefighter received treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism, he was able to share with his wife the trauma he had suffered. She entered therapy herself and they were able to work together to understand each other better and improve their intimacy.

In an age where texting and social media dominate our ways of relating to each other, true intimacy is increasingly difficult to achieve. Social anxiety disorders have become more common every year, experts say, and rates of loneliness have never been higher. When disconnection from others is the new disease of modern society, the cure is to find a deeper, more intimate connection with others. Addressing the fear of intimacy can be the start.

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