Understanding fear of intimacy – A brief exploration

We as humans are relational beings, and inherent in all of our relationships is a need for physical and or emotional closeness and intimacy. 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, I aim to look at possible reasons for why people might develop a fear of intimacy, detail some of the symptoms people might exhibit and lastly, how psychotherapy can help those who may be struggling with a fear of intimacy.

What is a fear of intimacy?

At points, we all experience find ourselves contemplating the validity or meaning of our intimacy or closeness to another person. We may have concerns over the outcome of the relationship, whether we will be rejected, that the relationship will deteriorate or that our feelings of affection or care won’t be returned.

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 behaviours, 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 behaviours 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 behaviours or creating patterns and processes in our relationships.

Symptoms of fear of intimacy

There are a number of symptoms or responses related to a fear of intimacy in a close emotional and or physical, and this will vary depending on each individual. The below list is meant as a guide only and is not exhaustive.

  • Feelings of unease or discomfort when expressing emotional truths
  • Fear of revealing deep feelings, discussing difficult or unpleasant personal experiences
  • Difficulty discussing emotionally painful experiences
  • Difficulty in showing concern for a distressed partner
  • Unease or discomfort when expressing affection
  • Difficulty in trusting a partner with personal information
  • Difficulty in being spontaneous in the presence of a partner
  • Fear that a partner may need you more than you need them
  • Unease or difficulty in expressing personal need
  • Discomfort or unease with open communication in a relationship

How psychotherapy can help

 Psychotherapy provides an opportunity to explore past relationships and early childhood experiences, and think about how these may have shaped you. It provides a space to examine fears or worries about intimacy that you may have, think in depth about patterns which may have developed in your adult relationships. Psychotherapy will assist you in working on deeply held beliefs you may have about yourself, challenge these, and ultimately work towards once again having meaningful relationships.

 In closing

 As adults, we may make the mistake of thinking that our behaviours in relationships are set in stone, that we will be afraid of intimacy for our entire lives. However, despite these fears having deep roots, they are not so deeply set that they cannot change. It is possible to rethink how we view ourselves and how the worth we ascribe to ourselves. We can be intimate, share our feelings, express our needs and wants, and experience meaningful and satisfying relationships.


One comment

  1. Reblogged this on Life in a Bind – BPD and me and commented:
    I am really pleased to share this important post by psychotherapist Joshua Miles, and I am glad that he is writing again! I have shared some of his posts before, and initially what resonated with me in his writing was his emphasis both the therapeutic relationship, and on creativity in the therapeutic process.

    This post is on intimacy, and I suspect that many of those with BPD will recognise in themselves most if not all of the symptoms of fear of intimacy described above. I would add only, to the section on how and why that fear develops, that it can arise as much out of too much attention in childhood, as well as out of too little. My mother was not able to meet my emotional needs, but she was also very intrusive and tried to force a level of emotional intimacy that I did not want and that violated my own space. It was not, of course, genuine intimacy in any sense, but it still left me with a fear of being intruded upon and swamped by another’s needs and wants.

    Through the process of therapy, I have become much more conscious of my own fear of intimacy. I have always been used to throwing myself really quickly and seemingly ‘deeply’, into both romantic relationships and friendships. It was easy for this to masquerade as intimacy, but I tended to share facts rather than feelings, and as I tended to ‘chase’ rather than ‘be chased’, I didn’t have to deal with the fear of someone else wanting to draw closer than I was happy to allow. My therapeutic relationship was the first time I was involved in something where I became known, and got to know, slowly. Where the process involved conflict, as well as closeness. Where it took wrong turns and misunderstandings but got stronger rather than weaker. It helped me to realise that genuine intimacy can only take place in the two context of two people acting freely and openly, and it has little to do with the volume shared, and much more with the quality of the sharing.

    I hope you enjoy this excellent post!

    Like


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