Humans depend on each other for safety, support, resources, and intimacy. Even though this connection should come naturally, it can be difficult for many people to connect with others in an intimate way, especially if they need to initiate it.
A fear of intimacy is a block that keeps people from initiating or accepting closeness in their relationships.
It can look like an aversion to emotional, physical, and/or sexual intimacy, and can show up in their romantic relationships, family, and friendships.
It can be caused by stress and mental health issues, trauma, past relationships, and issues within the current relationship.
Some tools to overcome a fear of intimacy are building communication skills, therapy, and re-evaluating the relationship.
Understanding how to overcome this fear or work with a partner who has this fear is key to having fulfilling and meaningful relationships. In this article we will explore ways to overcome the fear of initiating intimacy.
Intimacy vs. sex
We need to clear up a common misconception before diving into overcoming a fear of intimacy. Intimacy doesn’t just mean sex. Sexual contact can be a big part of intimacy in many relationships, but there’s a lot more to it than that.
Intimacy can also mean:
- Cuddling and hugging
- Having vulnerable conversations
- Conflict resolution
- Spending quality time together
People experience intimacy in their friendships and family dynamics, not just romantic relationships. Another example is people who are on the asexual spectrum. They may still crave intimacy and romance, even if they do not want to have sex, or only have sex with certain people. For the sake of this article though, we’ll be focusing mainly on romantic and sexual relationships.
What is a fear of intimacy?
A fear of intimacy is typically a subconscious block that keeps people from initiating or accepting closeness in their relationships. In romantic relationships this can look like a fear of physical intimacy, emotional intimacy, or both.
For example, someone may initiate sex and want to have it, but avoids deep conversations and talking about their feelings. On the other hand, someone may be comfortable being emotionally vulnerable but be closed off sexually, and may also avoid cuddling and other forms of physical intimacy. These types of intimacy tend to go hand in hand, and that emotional intimacy tends to increase sexual desire and vice versa.
This fear typically shows up in your closest relationships, and the ones where you may crave intimacy the most, but not know how to initiate it or accept it. This can be incredibly frustrating, and prevent you and your loved ones from having your interpersonal needs met.
What causes a fear of intimacy?
Humans are complicated and so are their relationships, so it can be difficult to pinpoint an exact cause of a fear of intimacy. Sometimes people can trace it back to a specific instance or issue from their childhood or a prior relationship, or understand that their current mental health is affecting their relationships.
It’s not always that straightforward though. Even if you know the cause, you may not know what to do to move forward and overcome it. Let's discuss some of the most common reasons people develop a fear of intimacy.
Stress and mental health
Stress, whether it be from work, a big life event or a lack of tools to handle the stress of everyday life can all impact intimacy in your relationships. Of course there’s a difference between low libido and a fear of intimacy, but there can be crossover.
Mental health disorders like depression and anxiety can keep people from feeling like themselves and deeply impact their interpersonal relationships. Researchers have found a connection between depression and anxiety in early adulthood and poorer partner relationship quality in the future.
Mental health disorders can stem from traumatic events that someone may have experienced in the past. A traumatic event or period of any nature can impact your ability to connect with someone intimately. This is especially true if the trauma came from an interpersonal relationship like with parents or a prior partner.
Experiencing trauma, whether it leads to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), can leave people feeling betrayed or have difficulty trusting or connecting with others. Ironically, interpersonal relationships are one of the most important tools when recovering from traumatic stress.
Even if someone hasn’t exactly experienced trauma in a relationship, their prior relationships can affect their current one, and cause them to keep an emotional distance. If in the past you were made to believe that your needs were too much or if you didn’t feel like you had space to comfortably express your feelings, it can keep you from being comfortable with intimacy now.
Past experiences don't necessarily mean romantic or sexual relationships. Issues with parents, caregivers, and friends can all affect your current intimate relationships.
Your attachment style forms in childhood and continues to impact your relationships as an adult. There are four main attachment styles to be aware of:
|You have healthy boundaries, can comfortably advocate for your needs, and develop trust and support in relationships.
|You may have low self-worth in relationships, have a fear of abandonment, or need constant validation.
|May have “commitment issues”, avoids intimacy and vulnerability, and is closed off emotionally.
|Disorganized or fearful avoidant
|May have a fear of rejection, low self-esteem, and difficulty trusting people in relationships.
These attachment styles exist on a spectrum, and can be changed throughout your lifetime. Without addressing them, insecure attachment styles can have a big impact on intimacy.
Issues with the relationship
If it feels like there’s a wall between you and your partner, is this wall coming from your own trauma, mental health, or experiences, or are there issues in the relationships that need to be addressed?
Issues within the relationship doesn’t mean that any one person did something wrong. It could just come down to incompatibility or having different needs, which is something you may or may not be able to overcome.
It can be helpful to reflect on whether your hesitation to initiate intimacy is coming from a fear, or if you’re just not interested in your partner. Do you desire intimacy from other people? Was there a certain scenario or life event that affected how to approach intimacy? These questions can help you get clear on the difference between fear and lack of interest.
Symptoms of a fear of intimacy
How do you know if you have a fear of intimacy? It may seem obvious, but there are subtle signs that can often be overlooked. Some of the first things that come to mind for most people are avoiding having sex or not being able to share their feelings, but there’s a lot more to a fear of intimacy.
- Avoiding conflict resolution
- Feeling tense during physical contact
- Holding back affection
- Avoiding sex
- Shutting down during sex
- Trust issues
- Irritability with or being critical of a partner
- An indifference towards positive or negative experiences in the relationship
- Feeling like you "have a wall up"
- Feeling isolated or lonely despite having people around you
What to do when you're afraid of getting intimate
Relationships are one of the most beautiful and nurturing parts of being human, and it can be incredibly frustrating and isolating to feel like you have trouble connecting with people in the ways you want to.
Here are some tips if you desire intimacy but have trouble initiating it:
- Figure out the cause. The first step in overcoming a fear of intimacy is figuring out what’s causing it so that you can heal that and move forward.
- Talk to a therapist. A mental health provider can help figure out the root cause of your blocks and give you tools to help overcome them.
- Go to a couples therapist. You may also want to go to a couple’s therapist instead of or in addition to individual therapy so that you can face these fears together, especially if the root cause is issues within the relationship.
- Talking to your partner. It seems simple, but it can be hard to have these conversations when you feel closed off. The more you can share with your partner, the more space you create for intimacy.
- Reevaluate the relationship. As difficult a pill as it is to swallow, a lack of intimacy may mean that the relationship needs to be evaluated. That could mean a break-up, or changing the dynamics of it.
If you’re experiencing a fear of intimacy, know that you’re not the only one. It’s more common than you think, and there are so many steps you can take to help you heal this and feel fulfilled from your relationships, romantic or otherwise.
Is a fear of intimacy more common with men or women?
A fear of intimacy can affect anyone, no matter their gender or what sex they were assigned at birth. Cultural norms and stereotypes can make it seem like it’s more common for men, but that isn’t necessarily true. One limited study found that men scored higher on a “Fear-of-Intimacy Scale” developed by researchers.
Why do I feel awkward being intimate?
Humans have limited exposure to positive examples of relationships, making it hard to know what to do in them. You may feel awkward because you really like someone and are nervous around them, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Remember that there’s a difference between feeling awkward and having a fear of intimacy.
How do I explain a fear of intimacy to my partner so they don’t think it’s from a lack of interest?
Your partner may be taking your fear of intimacy personally. It’s important to explain to them where this fear comes from and talk about ways you can be intimate together that don’t push you too far outside your comfort zone. If you need help having this conversation, it can be incredibly useful to go to a therapist alone or together.
Why doesn’t my partner initiate intimacy?
If your partner isn’t initiating intimacy you need to talk to them about whether it’s from a fear or if it’s because they’re not invested in the relationship anymore. Again a therapist can be very helpful. Go back to the potential causes section. Do they have mental health issues or traumas that are affecting your relationship? This comes down to their own internal processes, and is usually not a reflection of you.
- Sage Journals. The associations of intimacy and sexuality in daily life: temporal dynamics and gender effects within romantic relationships.
- The Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy. The relationship between daily hassles and sexual function in men and women.
- Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences. Depression and anxiety in early adulthood: consequences for finding a partner, and relationship support and conflict.
- Trauma Informed Care in Behavioral Health Sciences. Understanding the impact of trauma.
- Behavior Modification. Fear of intimacy among dating couples.
- Cleveland Clinic. The 4 Attachment Styles and How They Impact You.