We have talked a lot on our mental health sites about relationship issues. Eileen Bailey, our community leader here on AnxietyConnection and ADHD Central has written a not to be missed five part series on how ADHD affects relationships. On MyDepressionConnection I have written on how depression affects relationships. And here on AnxietyConnection we have written about everything from how to deal with social anxiety and dating to how to deal with a spouse who has anxiety.
In this post we are going to talk about a specific fear with regard to relationships and that is the fear of intimacy.
What is the fear of intimacy?
Intimacy anxiety is the fear of emotional closeness with another. It can also include the fear of being sexually intimate with a romantic partner. The individual who fears intimacy will be reluctant to open up and be genuine for fear that they will be rejected for being their true self. They wish to avoid hurt and pain at all cost. There can be two underlying fears contributing to intimacy anxiety and they are the fear of ultimately losing their partner or the fear of being controlled and losing one’s freedom or identity.
What are some of the signs or symptoms of intimacy anxiety?
• The feeling that you don’t feel worthy of love.
• Avoiding close relationships because you feel that you will ultimately be rejected.
• Sabotaging a relationship when deep feelings develop. This can mean creating drama or instigating a fight when your partner shows signs of becoming emotionally close to you.
• Clingy and sacrificial behavior in order to keep the other person to remain in the relationship.
• Reluctance to commit to your relationship.
• Attempting to get your needs met within a romantic relationship with as little emotional investment as possible.
• Constant “testing” of your partner to see if they will leave you. Yet even if your loved one passes your emotional tests, the fear remains that they will abandon you.
• A lack of trust to be yourself in front of the other person and instead, trying to be what you think the other person expects.
• Constantly choosing the “wrong” people to date or have a relationship with, knowing that it will lead nowhere.
• Serial dating or lots of casual sex.
• Frequent break ups with romantic partners.
• Creating emotional distance with cool or aloof behaviors.
• Problems in the bedroom. The fear of intimacy can result in male impotency or erectile dysfunction. The fear of intimacy in women may also affect their ability to enjoy sexual relations or to reach an orgasm.
What causes the intimacy anxiety?
There are many different life situations which can contribute to a fear of intimacy. Some arise in adulthood where you have experienced painful romantic relationships. For anyone who has been hurt or damaged by a bad break-up, you may feel extremely fearful of opening your heart to someone new. Social Anxiety Disorder can also include a fear of becoming close to people within a relationship. People who have been emotionally, physically, or sexually abused may feel frightened at the prospect of trusting someone enough to be emotionally or sexually intimate.
But probably the best explanation for the fear of intimacy comes from our childhood and what we learned from our parents about relationships. In a 2009 Psychology Today article, “Fear of Real Intimacy,” author Frances Cohen Praver, a clinical psychologist and relational psychoanalyst, explains that our parent’s relationship can set the scene for how we view intimacy in adulthood. If you saw mom and dad constantly fighting, having extra-marital affairs, or getting a divorce, you might think twice about committing to a relationship in your adult years. Many people wish to avoid becoming just like their parents especially if the relationship ended in pain and misery.
In childhood we also learn how to trust or develop attachment to the people we love. Dr. Paula Bruce, a clinical and forensic psychologist, and author of the blog The Pocket Psychologist, wrote an enlightening post entitled “Cat and Mouse Games in Relationships” to explain how attachment theory can explain a fear of intimacy. Dr. Bruce attributes a fear of intimacy with an underlying ambivalent attachment of childhood. The child who is ambivalently attached to their parent will show great distress when separated from their caregiver but does not feel comforted or reassured upon the parent’s return. Children with this type of insecure attachment may even reject the parent or show aggression. The child struggles to feel comfort and closeness within a primary relationship and this can extend to adulthood.
As children we may also experience having a parent who is emotionally smothering. Enmeshment is a psychological term used to describe an unhealthy relationship where one person becomes dependent upon another to meet all of their emotional needs. There are no boundaries to ensure growth and independence. Some parents are unable to separate themselves from their child and allow the child to become their own person with their own thoughts, ideas, and desires. The child involved in such a relationship with a parent may be incapacitated to make decisions and choices without the parent’s involvement. The child may grow up to be resentful of any perceived attempts of a romantic partner to control them. The fear of enmeshment and losing one's identity may be at the root of people who are considered commitment phobic.
If you are ever wondering about your partner’s intimacy fears, asking about their childhood views of their parent’s relationship as well as their attachment to mom and dad, may yield some answers.
What does the fear of intimacy do to a relationship?
Intimacy anxiety can basically kill most relationships. The reluctance to be genuine, the great distrust, and the refusal to commit can prevent the possibility for a healthy closeness. The relationship may never have a chance to develop because it is cut off before bonding can occur. In some cases the person with a fear of intimacy may choose a mate who he or she deems as “safe” as in emotionally nurturing but not sexually exciting or romantic. This trade off ensures that if abandonment does happen it will not be as painful as a relationship involving romantic and sexual feelings. On the other hand, there are those who will choose to have a string of meaningless sexual affairs with no emotional closeness as another way to deal with their intimacy fears. A constant lack of satisfaction in relationships may signal the need to look within and see if there are any psychological reasons for never achieving true intimacy.
How do I know if I have a fear of intimacy?
One clue is your relationship history. If you are a serial dater but you never give a relationship time enough to blossom, intimacy anxiety may be the culprit. You may also have people tell you outright that you don’t give others a chance to get to know the real you. There are also psychological tests and scales to help assess intimacy issues. The Fear of Intimacy Scale (FIS) was developed by Descutner and Thelen (1991) to determine one’s level of fear of intimacy. Remember that this is just a screening device and a true interpretation of results would have to come from a therapist or mental health professional.
Do you feel that you or your partner may have a fear of intimacy? What do you think caused it? How does this anxiety affect your relationships? Your story could help someone else who is going through the same thing. We hope to hear from you.