When you’re terrified of relationships: overcoming fear of intimacy
27th September 2019
Do you feel like your partner is always making unnecessary demands of you? Trying to encroach on your personal space or constantly trying to talk about their emotions? You might be asking yourself, “What more could they possibly want from me?” Or maybe you’re a lone warrior, and the idea of a relationship fills you with a sense of terror…
If you relate to any of the above, then you might be suffering from a fear of intimacy.
But what exactly is a fear of intimacy?
The word intimacy stems from the Latin word “intimus” which means “innermost”. To be intimate with someone means to share your innermost with that person.
Fear of intimacy then is a deep-seated fear of getting emotionally – and sometimes physically – connected to another person. This fear typically has the effect of driving a person to pull away anytime a relationship gets too close for comfort.
If you suspect you have a fear of intimacy, know that you are not alone. In fact, it’s thought that around 17% of people struggle with this.
One of the biggest problems is that it tends to be the kind of thing which is difficult to recognise in oneself. That’s because blocking out emotions becomes second nature, and it’s very difficult to identify something that’s not there; a non-experience. It normally takes a series of unstable, non-committal relationships, losing an important relationship or being dragged into couples therapy by a partner to understand that there’s something up.
What causes fear of intimacy?
It’s important to say that a fear of intimacy is not something someone chooses. So first off, this isn’t something you should be blaming yourself for. As humans, we’re built to connect on a deep level. In fact, we need connection. Fear of intimacy is ingrained from childhood, and is normally a biological response to the way in which someone was parented.
Perhaps the best way to understand fear of intimacy is through attachment theory. Attachment theory is the psychological model of how we form emotional bonds. These attachments (or bonds) are formed first with our parent/s (or primary caregiver) and we adopt and carry this way of relating with us into adulthood.
Fear of intimacy usually happens as a response to abandonment or engulfment – and occasionally both.
On the one hand, you might have had parents who were very emotionally detached and aloof. Perhaps they reprimanded you for crying or shut you down whenever you tried expressing the things that were important to you. Or perhaps you had a parent who was emotionally unstable and you feared that by expressing your needs you would end up tipping them “over the edge”. Instead, you learnt to counterbalance this by ridding of your own needs.
Or maybe you had a parent who was overbearing and never gave you any personal space. The only way you could escape that feeling of engulfment was to shut down and disappear…
Whatever the case, all these situations lead to the same place: a deep-seated fear of emotional connection and of being vulnerable. How does a person manage this fear? By ruling out their emotions completely.
Signs of fear of intimacy
- You’re a serial dater – maybe you find the first throws of dating fun and exciting but as soon as things crank up a notch you get uncomfortable and run for the hills. And then the same cycle repeats itself all over again. This kind of behaviour is likely to leave you feeling empty inside – but also safe.
- You’re a perfectionist who demands a lot from themselves – many people with a fear of intimacy are high achievers who throw their focus into external achievements. Your parents probably had high standards and performing well would have been one of the main ways to receive their attention. The problem is that growing up without emotional support is going to leave you feeling like you can’t be loved simply for being you.
- You sabotage your relationships (knowingly or unknowingly) – getting close to someone makes you feel uncomfortable so it’s only natural that you’re going to try and escape that situation. Maybe you over-criticise your partner, nitpick or nag over the small things or end up creating problems in the relationship that don’t exist.
- Deep down you fear being abandoned – we all have a fear of abandonment to some degree but if that fear has stripped you from experiencing connection altogether then it forms part of a wider issue. You might find yourself avoiding any kind of relationship so that you protect yourself from having to face rejection.
- Talking about your emotions fills you with a sense of dread – no one enjoys challenging relationship talks but if you have a fear of intimacy these kinds of conversations are going to feel especially difficult. You might not even recognise that you have emotional needs, let alone understand how to communicate them to a partner.
How to overcome fear of intimacy
The good news is that your past experiences do not have to dictate your present. It doesn’t have to stay this way. With some effort, you can work to unpick the past and form healthier ways of identifying and communicating your needs, and building a relationship that is emotionally fulfilling.
1.Get up close and personal with your emotions – this is probably going to feel fairly foreign and uncomfortable at first but start by labelling your emotions when they come up. Instead of saying “I’m fine” you can say something like “I’m actually feeling anxious and low today”. Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions is a good starting place.
2. Practice staying emotionally present as much as possible – it might help to remind yourself that the more you pull away from your partner, the more likely they are to get anxious and clingy. The better you get at staying in your emotions and expressing them clearly, the more secure you’ll both feel.
3. Prioritise your relationships – if you have a fear of intimacy you’ve probably invested a large chunk of your energy into your work. For some, it actually forms part of their identity (which is not a good place to be in). Relationships are a central component of what it means to have a happy, well-rounded life. Try drawing your focus there as much as you can.
4. Deep dive into your past – what was your relationship with your parents like? Did you feel heard and understood? Were you the type of family that talked about issues when they came up or simply buried them away? Acknowledging that these first childhood relationships were lacking is an important first step towards building healthier, more fulfilling ways of connecting.
Why therapy’s important
Blocking emotions like this can have a detrimental effect on not just your relationships but also your mental health e.g. anxiety, depression, substance abuse. Because fear of intimacy is usually rooted in the past, it can take some time to unravel – working with a therapist is going to get you there much faster. In therapy, you’ll get to explore these fears and identify where they stem from, and work towards creating the necessary steps towards change.