Fear of Intimacy: Being Afraid of a Genuine Connection

"I know he loves me really, but he avoids me and the love he shows is full of emptiness and mistrust." The fear of intimacy causes great problems in relationships.
Fear of Intimacy: Being Afraid of a Genuine Connection
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Have you ever loved someone who didn’t let themselves be loved? Starting a relationship with a person who shows fear of intimacy is really difficult. You can’t genuinely connect with them. When you hold them in your arms you can feel them slipping away. In fact, you’re not even sure if they really love you, which means you have to live with constant doubts as well as feelings of great emotional emptiness.

It’s estimated that about 17 percent of the population demonstrates this type of fear of relational closeness. In other words, the fear or reluctance to establish an emotional, physical, and intellectual relationship and connection with someone. They’re the kind of people who, contrary to what you might think, do want and need proximity with their partner. However, without really realizing it, they end up sabotaging every one of their relationships.

This behavior is reminiscent of masochism. Why should they push away those who love them? Why be rude and cold with someone who truly loves and appreciates them? In reality, behind these personalities, lie extremely complicated realities. There can often be trauma and even the weight of a dysfunctional family. 

In our relationships, we really need to achieve a bond of intimacy and deep trust with our partners.

girl thinking fear of intimacy
Behind the fear of intimacy there may be a past of abuse or neglect by caregivers.

Fear of intimacy: characteristics and origins

One indisputable fact is that people who show fear of intimacy are suffering a form of romantic self-sabotage. This term first appeared in a study conducted by James Cook University (Australia). It defines those situations in which, despite the fact that a person wants to be in a relationship and love and be loved, they end up shattering that bond.

As we pointed out earlier, it’s difficult to understand these dynamics. Nevertheless, there are many who find themselves in this type of emotional situation. For example, you might fall in love with someone who behaves as if they’re not really interested in your relationship. They don’t take care of you and their behavior is ambiguous. In fact, sometimes you feel close to them, and then suddenly they’re like an iceberg.

The fear of intimacy is also known as relational anxiety. It concerns the impossibility of building a genuine connection with other people. Obviously, it’s especially harmful in the romantic sphere, but it can also appear in friendships.

How does it manifest?

We all know what fear is. It’s a paralyzing emotion caused by a stimulus that’s processed as a threat. In the case of people with fear of intimacy, the threat is this particular dimension. They feel an anguished fear of emotional connection, approaching others, being vulnerable, and revealing their thoughts, emotions, and needs

  • They don’t always share with their partner what they think or believe. Furthermore, they make decisions on their own, without discussing them with their loved one.
  • They don’t talk about their feelings as they believe that to do so would be a threat to them. They hate being vulnerable because they see it as a weakness. To them, it’s like being stripped naked, exposing themselves, and running the risk of being hurt.
  • They never reveal their needs, fears, and worries.
  • Their fear of intimacy is often accompanied by sexual anxiety. Therefore, relationships are often not entirely satisfactory.
  • They rarely share their past experiences. In fact, they avoid talking about them or might even lie about them.
  • They appear to be socially adept. They’re talkative, witty, and seem to have friends. However, those relationships are always volatile and, behind their apparent resolution, there’s always distrust.

The person with a fear of intimacy ends up sabotaging their relationship. They become fussy and critical, gradually marking increasingly more distance between themselves and their partner. This causes a great emotional void.

The origin of the fear of intimacy

As we mentioned earlier, behind the fear of intimacy there’s almost always a neglectful family. Colorado State University (USA) conducted a study that explains that, behind the lack of availability and emotional trust in a partner, there’s usually a type of dysfunctional attachment originating in childhood.

  • When parents aren’t emotionally available to their children or are aggressive toward them, a specific type of attachment develops that marks the individual’s life. This is avoidant attachment, which is directly related to the fear of intimacy.
  • A dysfunctional family or one that isn’t capable of providing what the children need to grow up healthily (physically, emotionally, intellectually) is another example of how a person develops this reality.
  • The traumatic loss of a parent can also bring with it a fear of intimacy.
  • Having really old or sick parents or having to take care of siblings can also promote the appearance of this type of emotional reality. These are children who grow up assuming that they can only trust themselves.

There’s a spectrum when it comes to fear of intimacy. There are those who only show certain insecurities and fear of connecting with others, while others are totally incapable of forming any kind of bond.

Hands of a couple holding each other overcoming the fear of intimacy
We all need to build bonds based on emotional, physical, and intellectual intimacy with our partners to be happy.

How do you deal with this kind of angst towards human connection?

You must understand that if you have a partner who isn’t building a real and satisfying intimacy with you, it’s not your fault. Also, don’t imagine that they’re rejecting you because they don’t love you. In fact, in reality, those who use emotional distance often do so as a protection mechanism.

They’re people who fear betrayal or abandonment. Therefore, in their minds, it’ll always be better not to become intimate with anyone so as not to get hurt. However, they don’t realize that, with their behavior, they achieve exactly the same thing they’re fleeing from, which is loneliness and heartbreak. The best thing to do in these cases is to provide them with support so that they can start psychological therapy.

Some will have to face the wound of their dysfunctional family, a past of abuse, or losses that they’ve been previously unable to face. Each case is unique. That said, the therapeutic purpose will always be the same. It’ll facilitate strategies to create satisfactory, happy, and lasting relationships. Indeed, trust, intimacy, and love without fear are the keys to happiness.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Feiring C, Simon VA, Cleland CM. Childhood sexual abuse, stigmatization, internalizing symptoms, and the development of sexual difficulties and dating aggression. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 2009;77(1):127-137. doi:10.1037/a0013475
  • Peel R, Caltabiano N, Buckby B, McBain K. Defining romantic self-sabotage: A thematic analysis of interviews with practising psychologists. Journal of Relationships Research. 2019;10:E16. doi:10.1017/jrr.2019.7
  • Saunders H, Kraus A, Barone L, Biringen Z. Emotional availability: Theory, research, and intervention. Front Psychol. 2015;6:1069. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01069
  • Stanton SCE, Campbell L, Pink JC. Benefits of positive relationship experiences for avoidantly attached individuals. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2017;113(4):568-588. doi:10.1037/pspi0000098

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.