Updated: Mar 16, 2021
What is Fear of Intimacy?
Fear of intimacy is an often subconscious fear of closeness that frequently affects people’s personal relationships. This fear of physical and/or emotional intimacy tends to show up in people’s closest and most meaningful relationships.
Where Does This Fear of Intimacy Come From?
While there are times when we are aware of actually being apprehensive and distrusting of love, we are more likely to identify these fears as concern over potentially negative outcomes: rejection, the deterioration of a relationship, or feelings of affection that isn’t returned. However, our fear of intimacy is often triggered by positive emotions even more than negative ones. In fact, being chosen by someone we truly care for and experiencing their loving feelings can often arouse deep-seated fears of intimacy and make it difficult to maintain a close relationship.
Why Do Positive Feelings Trigger a Fear of Intimacy?
It may be surprising to learn that the real resistance to intimacy often doesn’t come from the acts of our partners, but from a lurking enemy within us. The problem is that the positive way a lover sees us often conflicts with the negative ways we view ourselves. Sadly, we hold on to our negative self-attitudes and are resistant to being seen differently. Because it is difficult for us to allow the reality of being loved to affect our basic image of ourselves, we often build up a resistance to love.
Where Do These Negative Attitudes Come From?
These negative core beliefs are based on deep-seated feelings that we developed in early childhood of being essentially bad, unlovable or deficient. While these attitudes may be painful or unpleasant, at the same time they are familiar to us, and we are used to them lingering in our subconscious. As adults, we mistakenly assume that these beliefs are fundamental and therefore impossible to correct.
How Does Fear of Intimacy Affect Us?
We don’t intentionally reject love to preserve a familiar identity. Instead, during times of closeness and intimacy, we react with behaviors that create tension in the relationship and push our loved one away. Here are some common ways people distance themselves emotionally as a result of a fear of intimacy:
Reacting indifferently or adversely to affection or positive acknowledgment
Becoming paranoid or suspicious of a partner
Losing interest in sexuality
Being overly critical of a partner
Feeling guarded or resistant to being close
How to Overcome a Fear of Intimacy?
In order to overcome our fear of intimacy, we must challenge our negative attitudes toward ourselves and not push our loved ones away. It is possible to challenge our core resistance to love. We can confront our negative self-image and grow our tolerance for a loving relationship. We can overcome our fears of intimacy and enjoy more loving and more intimate relationships.
More on the Fear of Intimacy
Love is not only hard to find but strange as it may seem, it can be even more difficult to accept and tolerate. Most of us say that we want to find a loving partner, but many of us have deep-seated fears of intimacy that make it difficult to be in a close relationship. The experience of real love often threatens our self-defenses and raises our anxiety as we become vulnerable and open ourselves up to another person. This leads to a fear of intimacy. Falling in love not only brings excitement and fulfillment; it also creates anxiety and fears of rejection and potential loss. For this reason, many people shy away from loving relationships.
Fear of intimacy begins to develop early in life. As kids, when we experience rejection and/or emotional pain, we often shut down. We learn not to rely on others as a coping mechanism. We may even begin to rely on fantasy gratification rather than actual interactions with other people; unlike people, fantasies cannot hurt us. Over time, we may prefer these fantasies over actual personal interactions and real positive acknowledgment or affection. After being hurt in our earliest relationships, we fear being hurt again. We are reluctant to take another chance on being loved.
If we felt unseen or misunderstood as children, we may have a hard time believing that someone could really love and value us. The negative feelings we developed toward ourselves in our early years, became a deeply embedded part of who we think we are. Therefore, when someone is loving and reacts positively toward us, we experience a conflict within ourselves. We don’t know whether to believe this new person’s kind and loving point of view of us or our old, familiar sense of our identity. So, we often react with suspicion and distrust when someone loves us because our fear of intimacy has been aroused.
Our capacity to accept love and enjoy loving relationships can also be negatively affected by existential issues. When we feel loved and admired, we start to place more value on ourselves and begin to appreciate life more. This can lead us to feel more pain about the thought of death. We fear both the loss of our loved one and of ourselves, and in the process, many of us unconsciously pull back from our relationships. Fear of death tends to increase the fear of intimacy.
Even though the fear of intimacy is a largely unconscious process, we can still observe how it affects our behavior. When we push our partner away emotionally or retreat from their affection, we are acting on this fear of intimacy. Holding back the positive qualities that our partner finds most desirable is another way we act on this fear. We often try to make ourselves less lovable, so we don’t have to be as afraid of being loved. These distancing behaviors may reduce our anxiety about being too close to someone, but they come at a great cost. Acting on our fears preserves our negative self-image and keeps us from experiencing the great pleasure and joy that love can bring.
However, we can overcome the fear of intimacy. We can develop ourselves to stop being afraid of love and let someone in. We can recognize the behaviors that are driven by our fear of intimacy and challenge these defensive reactions that preclude love. We can remain vulnerable in our love relationship by resisting retreating into a fantasy of love or engaging in distancing and withholding behaviors. We can maintain our integrity, learn to “sweat through” the anxiety of being close without pulling away, and gradually increase our tolerance for being loved. By taking the actions necessary to challenge our fear of intimacy, we can expand our capacity for both giving and accepting love.