The fear of intimacy causes incalculable harm, not only undermining romantic relationships but affecting friendship, family life, even the way people raise their children. Though you can live without intimacy, you cannot grow and thrive.
As with so many of life’s problems, you can only address this fear once you recognize it. Be under no illusion, the fear of intimacy is very common. It is also very destructive. And this is something people underestimate. Those who fear intimacy can be aggressive and cruel. When people get too close, they feel threatened. And, like a cornered animal, they will defend themselves.
The most obvious sign is avoidance. Such people skim the surface in social situations. They smile, ask about work, chat about books, etc., but as soon as the conversation becomes deep and personal they freeze and then break away. The barriers go down and you can get no further. Unfortunately, others then grow curious. What does this person have to hide? They begin to probe, which of course intensifies the fear and avoidance, initiating a vicious cycle.
When someone shows interest and affection, they react in an odd and irrational way. Instead of being flattered, or excited, they feel trapped. Other people are dangerous rather than good and loving. Misanthropy is common. Like many misanthropes they often have an extreme love for animals. Human beings need intimacy. If they cannot find it among their own species, either because of fear, shame or dislike, they will turn to horses, cats and dogs.
They also dislike physical contact. Indeed, they may literally flinch or pull away when someone touches them. And that touch needn’t be sexual. If they are joking with a group of friends, for example, and someone pats them on the back, they will shake them off or move away. In extreme cases, they may not even like sitting too close to people.
The fear of intimacy often manifests in someone’s posture or movements. Such people tend to be stiff and rigid, especially around the unpredictable, like children or drunks. Children have little sense of decorum or restraint. They will blurt things out, pointing and yelling “that man’s got a big nose,” or “why don’t you smile?”, etc., thus shattering the formalities of adult conversation. They may not like dancing either. Again, dancing means relaxation. To dance you must let go and expose yourself to ridicule. Their body language will also be cold, withdrawn and hostile: folding their arms across their chest, sitting bolt upright, leaning away from you when they talk, and so on.
Obviously, people fear intimacy for different reasons. In general, we fear others getting too close when we have been hurt. Bullying, for example, often leaves people afraid of intimacy. Some bullies are simply violent thugs, but others are more subtle and cunning. They inflict harm through ridicule and exposure instead. So, for example, a girl who was constantly humiliated at school, sometimes with the whole class laughing at her, may fear being exposed.
Shame is often at the root of this fear. Some people associate shame with intimacy, to the point where the two become synonymous. The only way to avoid shame is thus to avoid intimacy.
Social anxiety is also common. The socially anxious dread making fools of themselves. After any social interaction, they are relieved that they “got away with it,” meaning they were not embarrassed or belittled. This does not mean they are socially incompetent. In fact, people who fear intimacy can be good at social interaction. They have to be. Indeed, the most witty and interesting use these skills as a defense. Since people are a threat, you need to know how to handle them.
Often, there will be a history of abuse and neglect. Someone who was sexually abused in childhood, for example, may suffer a lifelong fear of people. Some victims literally cannot sleep in a house or apartment. When they do, they feel trapped. Sexual abuse, or systematic violent abuse, has taught them one bitter lesson: people cannot be trusted. Sadly, the abuser is often someone close, like an uncle or stepbrother. It may even have been someone they loved or admired. They let people get too close and were hurt.
Abandonment is another common experience. For example, a little girl adores her father. When she is 12, and needs him most, he has an affair and leaves. Soon, his new partner is pregnant and he moves to another city. She tries to stay in touch but he isn’t interested. In effect, she has been abandoned. For the rest of her life she struggles in romantic relationships. As soon as she begins to fall in love, she pulls away. She cannot face a repeat of that pain and rejection.
But this sort of abandonment need not occur in childhood. Many people fall in love in their late teens or early 20s. This love is mixed with sexual obsession and, being naive, they assume everything will stay the same. But their partner then cheats on them. The pain is so intense they never fully recover and retain a lifelong fear of it happening again. Even a late life infidelity can make intimacy difficult to re-establish.
Of course, there need not have been any dramatic event in someone’s past. Some people are naturally cautious and wary. Others grow up with a cynical, misanthropic parent. Over time, they absorb his dark and pessimistic views and begin to see other people as dangerous and threatening.
The consequences of all this can be devastating. People who fear intimacy often sabotage their relationships, usually without understanding why. For example, a girl is raised by an abusive, drunken mother. When she is seven, her father leaves. The mother then blames her child for ruining her body, for driving her father away, for draining her of money, and so on. Her mother has a string of boyfriends, one of whom abuses the daughter. First, he wins her trust by posing as a substitute father. When she is 20, she meets a kind and loving man and they move in together. A few weeks before the wedding she has an affair with someone she doesn’t even like.
The explanation is simple: her childhood made her feel both frightened and unworthy of intimacy. She learnt never to let anyone get too close. When they do, they hurt you. By having an affair she has driven away her boyfriend and wrecked her life, or that is how it appears to outsiders. To her, however, it was a rational, defensive act. If her boyfriend gets too close, she will love and depend on him, then he will do what her father, mother and abuser all did – hurt her. Best drive him away before it’s too late! Consciously she may not realize what she’s doing, but subconsciously that’s the plan.
People who fear intimacy can often be aggressive, sarcastic or rude. Social interaction is dangerous. Like a boxer they are trying to keep you away, to get in the first blow before you hurt them. Others try to stir up emotions in those around them (for example, a man flirts with other women in front of his partner). Again, this can only be understood if you delve beneath the surface. At a conscious, rational level they have no idea why they behave in this way. At a subconscious level, however, they reason “I don’t like these emotions. All this love creates fear and insecurity. Here, you deal with them instead.”
How to Overcome Your Fear of Intimacy
First, you need to understand why you feel this way. Once you have identified intimacy as the problem, you can look back over your life and try to make sense of it. The fear of intimacy is just that – a fear. And when we fear something we do what we can to defend ourselves. Children and adolescents are especially vulnerable. When you are young, you have little defense against the world around you. The bullied and abused, the socially awkward and shame-filled, etc., develop coping strategies. Unfortunately, these persist long after they are useful.
Once you have uncovered the ways you avoid intimacy, you can begin to challenge them. The woman in the above example meets a new man. Again she seems happy. But this time she goes into the relationship with eyes open. She recognizes the danger. She knows that she sabotaged that last relationship because she fears intimacy, and she is determined not to repeat the pattern.
It is important to realize that bad feelings are ok. You needn’t be ashamed. Too often, people seem to believe that suffering is unnatural, even a sign of failure. But it is normal to feel vulnerable, sad, scared and fragile, etc. People fear intimacy because they fear pain. But pain is a part of life. And it isn’t something you can avoid. Embrace intimacy and, yes, you may get hurt. But run away from intimacy and you will simply be lonely.
Make an effort to live as authentically as possible. In other words, respond as you feel. If you feel sad, cry; if you feel angry, be angry. Instead, people tend to put up barriers, engaging with the world through a mask or false self. Ultimately, you must take a chance. To be intimate means to trust, and that means accepting vulnerability. Yes, the woman you are in love with may cheat on you. That is something you must accept. Yes, this child you love could be hurt. The people you love are fragile and flawed, and life is harsh and unpredictable. Only when you accept this will you be able to love fully and openly.
To be human means to love and commit to other people. And that means intimacy. But to be intimate means to risk pain, which is why ultimately the most important quality is simple courage.