Fear of Intimacy: Meaning, Causes and Treatment

By Danielle Boland

Have you found that you often push friends, family and partners away when you think they are getting too close? Do you find yourself ending each relationship you’re in because you always seem to find something wrong with it? Although there may be valid reasons for these feelings and actions, they can also be signs that you may have a fear of intimacy.

A fear of intimacy can be caused by many different things, including childhood experiences or a mental health condition. Fortunately, knowing the signs and learning about treatment options can help you overcome the negative thoughts and feelings associated with a fear of intimacy.

What Is Intimacy?

Intimacy does not just refer to a physical experience such as sex — it also speaks to an emotional connection. Intimacy is defined as an emotional connection and openness between partners in a relationship. This openness refers to sharing every aspect of a relationship with one another.

Types of Intimacy

There are several types of intimacy, including:

  • Emotional intimacy: Emotional intimacy refers to a feeling of emotional connection. It can be shown through listening to your partner, communicating and being supportive. Emotional intimacy can occur with romantic relationships, friendships and families. 
  • Physical intimacy: Physical intimacy refers to actual physical proximity. This type of intimacy is non-sexual, and it can be expressed through hugs, holding hands, high-fives, pats on the back and other types of non-sexual touching. Physical intimacy can occur with partners, friends and family. 
  • Sexual intimacy: Sexual intimacy includes a large range of sexual activity that may or may not include intercourse. Sexual intimacy includes kissing, cuddling, intercourse and physical touch of intimate body parts. It is often accompanied by both emotional and physical intimacy. 

What Is Fear of Intimacy?

Fear of intimacy can occur with physical, emotional and sexual intimacy. For people who have an avoidant attachment style, avoiding intimacy is a way of protecting themselves from being hurt in relationships. 

Those who have a fear of intimacy tend to be very independent and often uncomfortable with some or all kinds of intimacy. Fear of intimacy can also lead to a fear of commitment in relationships and make someone feel crowded or suffocated by those who want to be intimate with them. 

Fear of Intimacy Signs

Fear of intimacy can manifest in many different ways, and knowing the signs of intimacy issues can help you determine if you may be experiencing it. Signs that can indicate a fear of intimacy include:

  • Shutting down: You tend to shut down when things become difficult in a relationship or when someone in your life tries to get close to you.
  • Avoiding intimacy: You choose not to be in relationships or avoid letting people get close to you emotionally so you are not vulnerable.
  • Serial dating: You date a lot of people at once or bounce from relationship to relationship. By doing this, you avoid committing to one person.
  • Short relationships: You leave relationships after the honeymoon phase, when things can become more serious or when expectations increase within the relationship.
  • Fear of commitment: You have negative thoughts and feelings about long-term relationships, so you do whatever you can to avoid committing to someone.
  • Questioning your relationships: You look for issues in your relationships, even if they do not exist. By doing so, you are trying to justify why you want to end a relationship, even if there is no real reason to. 

What Causes Fear of Intimacy?

Understanding what can cause a fear of intimacy is important when trying to treat it. Fear of intimacy can occur for a few reasons, including past experiences, mental health diagnoses and trauma from childhood. 

Fear of Abandonment

Fear of abandonment is when someone is constantly worried that someone they care about will leave them. This may be due to having an absent parent during childhood, which can cause an anxious attachment style that involves a fear of abandonment. 

Fear of Engulfment

Engulfment refers to a fear that you will be taken over or smothered by something. In relationships, fear of engulfment is a fear that you will become smothered by your partner and lose your sense of self. This can lead to a fear of intimacy if someone is afraid they won’t be their own person anymore if they are in a relationship. 

Anxiety Disorders

Those who suffer from anxiety disorders may also suffer from a fear of intimacy. This can be due to the many emotional and physical symptoms of anxiety and how they may interfere with someone engaging in a relationship. There is also the anxious attachment style, which can cause a fear of abandonment and other fears of intimacy. If someone is suffering from an anxiety disorder, it is important to understand how this may affect their relationship. 

Childhood Abuse and Experiences 

Childhood trauma or abuse can severely affect the way someone interacts in their relationships as an adult. Depending on the situation, childhood experiences can cause anxious, detached or avoidant attachment styles. These can lead someone to become incapable of having intimate adult relationships.

How a Fear of Intimacy Impacts Your Relationships

A fear of intimacy can cause issues in both romantic and platonic relationships. If someone is afraid to get close to a partner or another important person in their life, it can be difficult to create secure bonds with those people. 

The experiences that can cause intimacy issues in a person’s life, such as trauma, poor parental relationships or mental health concerns, can also lead to other behaviors that impact relationships. Someone who is afraid of abandonment may be very clingy with their partner or display constant insecurity in the relationship. This can become very overwhelming to the partner, especially if they do not know this person has a fear of intimacy. 

The same can be said for someone with anxiety, as they may worry a lot or have a hard time communicating because they are afraid of how their partner might respond. These behaviors can make it difficult to feel secure in a relationship, and they can cause someone with a fear of intimacy to end a relationship.

How To Overcome Fear of Intimacy

Feeling like you can’t commit to relationships or connect with people you care about can be very disheartening. A fear of intimacy can make it very difficult to have relationships, but there are techniques that can help you become more aware of your thoughts, feelings and behaviors and learn how they may be affecting your relationships.

Explore Your Emotions

Exploring your emotions is an important part of identifying and dealing with a fear of intimacy. Knowing where your emotions and feelings about a relationship come from can help you determine whether they are actually true or based in fear.

If you start to question, sabotage or disengage in your relationship, take a look at why you are doing so. Is the way you feel based in truth, or is it coming from fear? Did your partner do something specific to make you feel the way you do, or is a fear of intimacy making you interpret situations as something negative? Taking a hard look at how you feel and determining whether those feelings are warranted can help you identify feelings and behaviors that are related to fear of intimacy. 

Communicate With Your Partner

If you know you have a fear of intimacy and have done the work to identify what emotions and behaviors it can cause, it is important to let your partner know what may trigger you or why you may act a certain way. Letting someone know that you are working to move past your fear of intimacy can help them be more understanding and supportive in the relationship.

Seek Professional Help

If you or a loved one is struggling with a fear of intimacy and needs additional support, speaking to a therapist separately or as a couple can be beneficial. Therapists can provide unbiased support, teach you coping skills and help you create a plan that addresses your fear of intimacy.

How To Get Close to Someone With Intimacy Issues

If someone you care about has a fear of intimacy but you want to get close to them, there are certain things you can do to help them feel safe and open with you. These can include:

  • Being supportive
  • Giving them space when needed
  • Taking care of your own mental health
  • Having a life outside of your relationship
  • Seeing a therapist, alone or together
  • Asking them about their fear of intimacy
  • Avoiding rushing or guilting them
  • Understanding they may not change

Speak to a Therapist About Fear of Intimacy

If you or someone you love is suffering from a fear of intimacy, seeking professional support can help. The Nobu app is a free and easy-to-use tool that can help you work through your fear of intimacy through guided lessons, journaling prompts, mindfulness exercises and more. For an additional fee, you can also connect with a licensed therapist to receive professional mental health support. Sign up for Nobu today and download the app, available on both Apple and Android devices.

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Edited by – Jonathan Strum

Jonathan Strum graduated from the University of Nebraska Omaha with a Bachelor’s in Communication in 2017 and has been writing professionally ever since. He has written, edited and published content for health care professionals, educators, real estate agents, lawyers and high-level university faculty… Read more.

Written by – Danielle Boland

Danielle is a licensed clinical social worker, currently living and practicing in central Connecticut. Danielle graduated from Columbia University in 2012 with a Masters of Social Work, and always had the goal of opening her own private practice. She specializes in women’s issues, maternal health and postpartum mental health. Danielle is passionate about empowering people of all ages and hopes to use her writing skills to provide more resources for those looking to improve their mental health… Read more.

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Medically Reviewed by – Dr. Angela Phillips

Angela is a licensed therapist and clinical researcher, and has worked in public, private, government, and not-for-profit organizations, across clinical and research-oriented roles. Angela’s clinical and research experience has included suicide prevention, cognitive behavioral… Read more.