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. 

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 affects 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 fearing 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 relationship, 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 needs
  • 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.

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.