For anyone who’s struggled with getting close to someone (even someone you want to be close to), listen up. What causes fear of intimacy? Let’s get into it.
Do you tend to withdraw from a partner as soon as things start to get deep? Do you find your relationships tend to stay on the surface? If the thought of intimately connecting with a partner makes you uncomfortable, it’s time to find out why. To build a healthy, happy, relationship, it takes a certain level of intimacy to be able to grow and trust in a partnership.
Let’s look at a few common reasons why intimacy can be so downright terrifying.
It’s all in your head.
Your brain may be wired to avoid intimacy. As infants, we develop something called an “attachment style” which stems from the bond between a child and a primary caregiver.
When we are babies, we express our needs (needs for hunger, sleep, safety, etc.) by crying or interacting with a primary caregiver or parent. Over time, we learn whether our needs will be met with warmth and consistency, with a negative emotion like anger or irritation, or with inconsistent responses. Sometimes, our needs aren’t met at all. As this cycle of expressing and responding to our needs is repeated thousands of times in those first few years of life, we make powerful connections in our brains that tell us what relationships mean to us.
We essentially learn whether it is safe and comfortable to depend on others, or whether it is better to keep a distance because our needs are never met in a positive way. A child who’s needs are rarely met, or that their needs are met with negative emotion or consequences, will often develop an avoidant attachment style. This style will make you feel very uncomfortable with intimate relationships, and your brain will react in ways that keep you distanced from your partners.
If you have a pattern of only having short term relationships, or feeling like you sabotage relationships when you get close to someone, it might be worth learning more about having an avoidant attachment style to see if it fits for you. Working with a coach or therapist who understand attachment can be very beneficial, as can reading books to educate yourself about how your brain works in relationships.
If you’ve had a broken heart or two, you may have good reason to fear intimacy. If you generally feel comfortable with intimacy, but you’ve been hurt by a partner in the past, you may consciously and subconsciously be protecting yourself by avoiding intimacy with someone new. If this is the case, it’s time to do some healing.
Everyone has a different way to heal a broken heart. Some simply need time to grieve. Some need therapy to help sort through the pain of a past relationship. You may simply need to change your story about heartbreak. If you hear yourself saying things like “I don’t trust anyone,” or “There’s no one out there for me,” know you are choosing that belief. It doesn’t have to be your truth. You can build resiliency to heartbreak by developing beliefs that help you focus on the abundance of love that’s possible for you. Another helpful belief is that every heartbreak serves an important purpose to help you get closer to your life partner.
Your brain is powerful. Where your attention goes, your experiences and emotions will follow. You can choose to focus on pain and heartbreak, or love and hopefulness. What will your focus be?
You had no role models.
Did you grow up in a home with parents who avoided intimacy, or you never had any positive adults who role-modeled intimacy? If you don’t know what it looks like, you may feel awkward and uncomfortable learning how to do it in a relationship.
If this is the case, fixing this is a process of taking emotional risks. Begin with noticing when you feel awkward with a partner in an intimate moment, and talking about the fact that you feel awkward. When you feel yourself avoiding closeness or commitment, take that as a signal that you need to lean in, instead of out of a relationship. Seek out people who seem to have healthy, intimate relationships in your life, or in movies, and observe how they seem to relate to each other.
You can learn a lot by watching others, but getting comfortable with intimacy still requires you to do the work with a partner. Think of how many things you’ve learned in your life that you didn’t know when you were born. You can learn intimacy too. It just takes vulnerability, courage, and a willingness to go deeper.
Another reason you might be afraid to go deep is you struggle with feelings of inadequacy, or nor feeling good enough in some way. Intimacy requires being seen on a deep level by a partner, and if you can’t even accept yourself, it can feel incredibly vulnerable to expose yourself to a partner, and run the risk of them rejecting you.
If you can identify with this, it’s important to learn to love and accept yourself. Once you can value yourself, it’s important to remember that even if you let someone in, and they reject or disapprove of you, it’s up to you to own the rejection. Eleanor Roosevelt once said “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
Becoming comfortable with intimacy takes time, courage, and self-awareness. It is possible for anyone to learn if you can lean in to your fear and trust that there is happiness, fulfillment, and love in an intimate relationship.