How to Overcome a Fear of Intimacy

What causes someone to have a fear of intimacy?
on September 22, 2023
Read time: 10 mins
by Moraya Seeger DeGeare

A fear of intimacy can limit your relationship potential from the outset. 

As human beings, we naturally crave closeness with our romantic partners through both physical and emotional intimacy. If you struggle with intimacy issues, it can be difficult to communicate these fears to your partner for fear of damaging your relationship. 

With patience and perseverance, it’s possible to overcome a fear of intimacy and foster healthy and meaningful connections. With our expert Moraya Seeger DeGeare on hand to help, we’ve covered how to work through your intimacy fears below. 

What is intimacy? 

Romantic relationships are all about fostering a deep emotional connection with your partner, with intimacy a key part of this process. 

“Intimacy is the ongoing closeness between two or more people, usually in romantic relationships,” says Moraya Seeger DeGeare, a licensed marriage and family therapist and In-House Expert at Paired.

“The four types of intimacy that most experience in relationships are physical, spiritual, mental (or intellectual), and emotional intimacy. However, friendships, families, and many non-romantic or sexual relationships also involve a significant amount of healthy intimacy.” 

Research shows that couples that are comfortable with emotional intimacy have a higher relationship quality overall, with this affecting both partner’s well-being overall. When you’re in a healthy relationship, it’s easy to be authentically yourself, making it easier to build intimacy as a team. 

As you become more comfortable opening up to each other, intimacy naturally flourishes between you as a couple. 

“Intimacy is fostered in an environment of safety with another person, creating a sense of connection, bond, closeness, and openness in sharing one's true self,” says Seeger DeGeare.  

“It also involves a genuine curiosity to understand the other person in this process. Intimacy comes with healthy vulnerability, honest communication, and a shared desire to be in a community with another person.”

Is it normal to be scared of intimacy? 

While many people crave intimacy in their everyday lives, some people shy away from this kind of closeness and shirk away from this type of relationship. 

This kind of reaction is not seen as normal, as we are usually wired to desire this kind of partnership in our lives. 

“As humans have the desire to connect and be in relationships with others wired into our DNA for survival,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

“So a fear of intimacy comes from moments of neglect or pain that the person has authentically experienced. If someone’s fear of intimacy comes from a place of not having it modeled for them, that still suggests a certain level of neglect.” 

Therefore, you may fear emotional intimacy because you never witnessed it in your early life and therefore have no comprehension of these behaviors. 

While being vulnerable with someone in this way can be intimidating, being scared of intimacy suggests deeper-rooted insecurities and issues outside of the relationship itself. 

For example, you may refrain from intimacy because you were taught to believe you weren’t worthy of love or that intimate relationships are doomed to end in heartbreak. 

Why am I afraid of intimacy? 

While a fear of intimacy isn’t deemed a ‘normal’ reaction, this reaction to intimacy is certainly not uncommon — with a variety of causes responsible for these behaviors. 

“Your fear of intimacy is unique to your story. Often, this fear develops when the people closest to you, who should provide a sense of safety, demonstrate otherwise,” says Seeger DeGeare.  

In order to work towards overcoming a fear of intimacy, it’s important to understand where these fears originated and how they might be affecting your personal relationships. 

1. Childhood trauma 

Early childhood experiences naturally affect your development, with these first encounters with intimacy shaping your response in your adult life. 

“This can be especially true if a primary caregiver or close friend has been abusive, abandoned you, or caused significant distress,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

“Someone who has experienced childhood trauma and has a high ACES score could have a fear of intimacy in their adult relationships, with the authentic experience that the world can be unsafe and unpredictable.” 

If you experienced childhood trauma or childhood sexual abuse, it’s more likely that you will struggle with both emotional and physical intimacy as an adult. 

2. Attachment style

Attachment theory dictates that if you don’t receive the right kind of affection and attention from your early caregivers, it will mold the kind of attachment style you develop later in life. 

While securely attached people crave intimacy and can easily develop long-lasting and intimate relationships — this isn’t so simple for those with an insecure attachment style. 

Intimacy is particularly difficult for people with an avoidant attachment style, who naturally refrain from intimacy in their relationships due to their fear of abandonment or rejection. Therefore, avoidantly attached people may garner a reputation for serial dating, as they favor short-term romances that don’t require deep emotional or sexual intimacy. 

3. Grief or loss 

“Experiencing significant loss in life can lead to a lack of trust in others and difficulty relying on them for consistent emotional support,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

When you experience this kind of loss or pain, it’s easier to shut down rather than tackle your emotions head-on. This pattern of avoidance can translate into your romantic relationships, as you may develop a fear of intimacy to preserve your own mental health and emotional well-being. 

In simple terms, you don’t want to expose yourself to that kind of loss again. 

4. No positive examples 

As children, we naturally copy or repeat things that are showcased to us as we are growing up. If your parents had a mental illness, such as narcissistic personality disorder, this could have prevented them from showing you the right kind of affection — limiting your experience of this kind of human behavior. 

“When you haven't had positive examples of intimacy in your life and your only reference point is from movies or books,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

“The fear can stem from not knowing what it is, how to navigate it, or how to deepen intimacy even when you desire it greatly.”

This lack of intimacy in your early years can limit your understanding of these behaviors, making it more difficult to replicate them in later life. 

5. Fear of rejection 

Falling in love can be a very exciting, but also a very exposing experience. When you open up to someone on an intimate level, it leaves you open to rejection and hurt. 

These fears can cause people to shut down emotionally, keeping their partners at arm's length in order to preserve their own feelings. 

“Ironically, a profound fear of rejection can actually lead to rejection,” says Seeger Geare

“A partner may express feeling unable to get close to you or that they’re consistently lonely in the relationship. This fear prevents you from fully expressing yourself.”

6. Social identity 

Our daily experiences shape who we are, impacting how we handle intimacy in our close relationships. Even though we may have all the tools to enact intimacy, there could be another layer to the hesitancy to do so. 

“Digging deeper into the fear of rejection, if the person also belongs to a marginalized group, the feeling of being different can be a part of their social identity,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

“Even if they have experienced safe and loving relationships with secure attachments to their parents, there may still be a layer of hesitation for deeper intimacy. It is important for both partners to keep this in mind as they build trust in the relationship.” 

7. Anxiety disorders 

Aside from an anxious attachment style, other forms of anxiety can feed into a deeper fear of intimacy. For example, if you struggle with social anxiety, it’s natural that intimacy anxiety may manifest as part of this condition. 

“For individuals navigating anxiety, fears of intimacy may also arise,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

“They may struggle with vulnerability and opening up to their partner. Anxiety can cause fixation on the fear of being abandoned, being alone, or things going wrong. Therefore, even though they may maintain close relationships, the fear of intimacy can persist.”

10 signs of fear of intimacy in your partner 

When you’re in a romantic relationship, it’s normal to crave intimacy with your partner. 

However, if your loved one is continuously pulling away, this can be very disheartening when you’re trying to progress your relationship. This is why it’s important to spot signs of intimacy issues early on in your relationship so that these fears don’t haunt your relationship. 

According to our in-house relationship expert, Moraya Seeger DeGeare, these are a few signs that your partner may be struggling with intimacy in your relationship.

If your partner opens up to you, and then swiftly pulls away
Keeping parts of themselves hidden for fear of rejection or judgment
Avoiding situations that could lead to closeness or physical contact
Self-sabotaging tendencies to avoid deeper intimacy
Pushing people away when they try and get closer
The relationship feels very one-sided & actions suggest that feelings aren’t reciprocated
Very sensitive, tendency to cut people off if they offend them
Uses silence as a coping mechanism consistently in relationships
Prioritizes looking strong over crying or showing emotion in front of their loved ones

How do I overcome a fear of intimacy? 

Even in long-term relationships, overcoming a fear of intimacy can be easier said than done. 

In all our experiential relationships, we’re required to open up and share our life experiences in order to foster closeness and intimacy. If you struggle with these interactions, whether romantically or otherwise, it can make maintaining relationships very difficult. 

This is why it’s so important to be willing to tackle your intimacy issues head-on, working through trust issues and struggles in order to improve your relationship quality and your overall satisfaction. 

“Be willing to address what is blocking your desire to connect with others on a deeper level,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

“First, be open with yourself by attending to your trauma and neglect through journalling or therapy with a mental health professional. Once you have this outlet, it’s easier to express the desire for connection with your close friends or your partner. This will bring attention to your cravings for closeness and give your loved one an opportunity to respond.” 

When overcoming fear of intimacy, practice makes perfect. Our relationships define who we are, so you should choose to surround yourself with people who make you feel comfortable and understood. 

“When practicing intimacy, start with lower steaks people! Get to know a coworker more, or call an old friend that you haven’t spoken to in a while,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

“Even though it may not be easy, it’s important to choose who you want to keep in your life when you’re on this intimacy journey. End relationships that you know are unavailable or that are causing you harm.” 

These positive choices will make it easier for you to start practicing intimacy in your day-to-day life. Remember that perfectionism isn’t the goal here, be patient with yourself, and don’t rush into situations that you aren’t comfortable with. Why it may be tempting to combat your low self-esteem with overcompensation, overcoming these fears takes time and that’s okay!

If you’re surrounded by the right people, they will understand your need to take things slowly and will not hold your fear of intimacy against you. 

How can I help a loved one who has a fear of intimacy? 

Once you’ve spotted signs of intimacy issues in your partner, it’s difficult to know what to do next for fear of overwhelming your partner. 

However, rather than dancing around the issue, it’s best to approach it with patience, honesty, and understanding. Opting for open communication may seem daunting, especially if you’re afraid it will provoke a negative response from your partner. 

Even with these fears, offering your partner the opportunity to work together can be the first step towards renewed vulnerability and closeness. Listen to them as they figure out how to open up, and guide them through the process of emotional intimacy — with an awareness of their fears and how they might react. 

“Invite them to have opportunities to connect,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

“Ask your partner what they need from you to work through these issues, and be clear in your intention in order to model a healthy vulnerability with them.” 

While it’s important to offer to help your partner, it might be wise to attend couples therapy to work through issues in the correct environment. These sessions can equip you both with the tools you need to work towards a more intimate future — with renewed relationship satisfaction baked in. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why do I crave intimacy but fear it?

    As human beings, we naturally crave intimacy, but there may be other factors at work that make us uncomfortable with this closeness. “We as humans are born with the survival instinct to attach and find belonging. So closeness is wired into us from birth, at the genetic level,” says Seeger DeGeare. “At some point along the way, the world also gives you a message that it can be a cruel place. The cognitive dissonance that it creates of your desire to be close and also knowing that you could be hurt or abandoned leaves this challenging internal confusion at times in what to do.”
  • Is the fear of intimacy a disorder?

    Unlike other relationship issues, a fear of intimacy cannot be categorized by a disorder — meaning there is no clear treatment plan. "The fear of intimacy is not a diagnosable phobia recognized by the American Psychological Association and cannot be found in the DSM, the standardized diagnostic manual,” says Seeger DeGeare. “A therapist or psychologist could use The Fear-Of-Intimacy Scale (FIS; Descutner & Thelen, 1991) to help assess the severity of the fear. It is possible to find the fear of intimacy in individuals who have experienced trauma and have been diagnosed with mental health conditions such as complex PTSD, anxiety, or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.”
  • What is the difference between the fear of intimacy and the fear of vulnerability?

    Healthy relationships require both intimacy and vulnerability. If you’re struggling to open up in a relationship, or let someone in, what does this mean? “If you find you struggle to feel safe feeling open up to another, especially a close friend or trusted partner, you would identify with a fear of vulnerability,” says Seeger DeGeare. “Letting someone into your inner world and thoughts does not come easily and you worry if you share you will be rejected. When someone is navigating fear of intimacy they can open up and get close, but might find themselves pulling away even when the experience is positive.” Therefore, while both of these fears are valid, they should be distinguished so that they can be dealt with in the correct way. “In both fears, a partner might feel the impact of these behaviors, but if your partner fears intimacy you may wonder why they pull away after such a moment of connection,” says Seeger DeGeare. “If your partner fears vulnerability you might feel you are exhausted trying to get them to open up, you are preoccupied with wondering what they are thinking or if they truly feel comfortable. Both scenarios can leave a partner wondering if their partner really wants to be with them and the relationship could be filled with moments of doubt and disconnection.”
  • Am I bad at intimacy?

    If your relationship is on the rocks, it can be easy to point the blame at yourself. Intimacy may not come naturally to everyone, but there are ways to cope in order to foster a healthy relationship. "If you have had partners or even friends give you feedback that they feel lonely with you, that you don't open up, or that you lack desire to be with them, you might struggle with intimacy,” says Seeger DeGeare. “If it feels mysterious why you keep getting broken up with, with exes saying things such as they just don't feel close to you or that spark, it might be time to address what is preventing you from forming a deeper connection with someone.”
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