Fear of Intimacy? You’re Not Alone!

Fear of Intimacy

Is a fear of intimacy hurting emotional intimacy and sexual connection in your marriage/relationship?

For many of the couples I work with, this is indeed the case. Let’s explore how a fear of intimacy negatively impacts relationships and how couples can overcome this all-too-common experience.

Overcoming a Fear of Intimacy: A Lesson from Therapy

One of the central tasks of therapy (whether working with individuals, couples, families or groups) is to create an atmosphere of safety for the client. Without the backdrop of emotional safety, the client will never be able to fully let his/her guard down and share the most hidden and wounded parts of him/herself. A truism that guides emotional healing is that when a client feels emotionally safe, when s/he expects and is met with compassion and understanding rather than indifference and criticism, then emotional healing is possible (a fear of intimacy and rejection is diminished through the power of a safe connection with another). Any therapist who has worked in the field for any substantial length of time can attest to this fact.

And how does emotional safety with another facilitate healing?

An important aspect of one’s psychological/emotional healing journey centers around our capability to be vulnerable with another (often with a therapist, but just as important, if not more so, with our partner or spouse). Inherent to emotional vulnerability is the ability to relinquish the protective emotional armor that we’ve erected throughout our lives—an armor that may take the form of numbness; emotional distance; anger; righteousness; hiding/withholding parts of yourself; needing to be in control (being in control and being vulnerable are incompatible emotional stances); superficial-surface relating; deliberate avoidance of potentially intimate moments; as well as others.

But it’s not just our psychological defenses that block the vulnerability needed for emotional and sexual intimacy.

The familiar roles and scripts we inhabit act as important guide-posts that direct our lives. These roles bring a sense of order and predictability to our world, the emotional footing that grounds us in the face of life’s twists and turns. However, these roles/scripts can also restrict us in unhelpful ways; when we fail to question or reflect upon our roles/scripts they can turn into an emotional strait-jacket that prevents the openness and risk-taking needed to discover other possibilities and ways of being in the world. When your predominant role is too rigidly adhered to, when it prevents you from sharing the deepest parts of yourself and doesn’t allow for emotional vulnerability, then the psychological house you reside in may be the very thing that is interfering with deeper levels of sexual and emotional intimacy.

Why Is Vulnerability So Central to Emotional and Sexual Intimacy?

The experience of vulnerability is unique because whenever we become vulnerable, our deepest yearnings to be seen, accepted and understood intensify. Vulnerability stirs within us the desire for meaningful connection with another.

To be vulnerable—to let down your protective armor, to break from the customary scripts that direct you—is to be emotionally exposed, so the ante is raised whenever vulnerability enters into the relationship landscape. That’s why emotional wounding is more likely when we are vulnerable with another person. Powerful gifts are also possible when we swim toward the deeper emotional waters where opportunities exist for greater emotional connection and sexual fulfillment. But when these waters appear dangerous, when we fear being pulled under with no life-jacket to protect us, then we’re more likely to remain in the shallow waters where greater safety lies.

Our earliest developmental experiences involved us being profoundly vulnerable with one another (for our very survival as well as our psychological and emotional development). Whether we like it or not, emotional vulnerability was, at some point, central to who we were and central to our experiences with others. Before we could even string words together to form sentences, we were being profoundly impacted and shaped by how others responded to our unfolding needs and experiences—others were the choreographers of these early relationship dances, and it is these fundamental-core relational experiences that shaped how you would later handle the experience of vulnerability with your spouse/partner. Research shows that these early attachment patterns have an enduring quality to them, deeply shaping our experiences of intimacy in our later relationships.

Emotional vulnerability is central to who you are—it exists at your core, most authentic self. Yes, you may have learned to cover up your vulnerability, letting no one close to these tender parts of yourself. You might have even had to remove yourself from these experiences to the point that making yourself vulnerable feels totally foreign, an impossible task without any clear directions. Or making yourself vulnerable may conflict with the role/script you are most comfortable with (e.g., the protector; the problem-solver; the decisive-helper). But becoming estranged from your vulnerabilities doesn’t make them any less important and relevant to you and your relationship.

To be intimate is to be vulnerable, whether the intimacy is emotional, sexual or some combination of the two. To become emotionally close to another, to open yourself up to a deeper level of sharing (to share your hopes, dreams, longings, fears and to be open as your partner shares his/her experiences), is to step into our most authentic, primary state of being.

To be vulnerable (and connect with another while vulnerable) is to recapture and relive our earliest relational experiences.

Fear of Intimacy Or Fear of Getting Hurt?

We all fear intimacy at some level. If you are concerned about being rejected, if you’ve ever made yourself so vulnerable with another that you experienced a twinge of worry about being so emotionally exposed, if you ever felt humiliated and ashamed about something you did or said, then you know what’s it’s like to fear intimacy—or more accurately, you know what it’s like to feel anxious about taking the risk inherent to intimacy.

But you also may crave intimacy (like so many of us), since to be in emotional connection with a loved one is to return to who you are at your most fundamental-core. How can you not want this at some level?

It’s important for couples to acknowledge that intimacy is difficult work: Recognizing the potential risks involved and understanding that emotional wounding is elevated whenever you and your partner share yourselves more fully with one another will set the relationship conditions needed to feel safe with each other.

We must practice being more empathic and sensitive whenever our partner reaches for us emotionally or sexually. Even if we cannot be available in the way s/he may want us to be in that moment, this should get communicated as sensitively and compassionately as possible. Couples reject each other all the time (deliberately or inadvertently; in dramatic and very subtle ways), and these wounds leave a residue, they accumulate and separate, solidifying the defensiveness and protective walls that are designed to reduce the pain of rejection; however, these walls also sever the emotional connection that is so vital to a meaningful relationship and intimacy in general.

How To Spice Up Your Marriage Or Relationship Action Step

As a psychologist and couples counselor, I’ve seen both emotional and sexual intimacy suffer because couples do not feel emotionally safe enough to open themselves emotionally and fully to one another. But it may not be apparent that one or both partners are struggling in this way. They may feel lonely or sexually unfulfilled, yet not make the connection that a fear of intimacy (or more accurately, a fear of rejection and judgment) is at work.

Without emotional safety and the ability to be open and vulnerable with one another, the level of intimacy created will always be limited.

Take a few moments to reflect upon the questions below:

  • Do the conditions of your relationship support sexual and emotional intimacy?
  • Do you feel emotionally safe enough with your partner to lower your emotional armor? Safe enough to step out of your emotional comfort zone and the typical roles you inhabit each and every day?
  • Are you able to make your emotional needs and sexual desires known to your partner rather than cover them up out of fear rejection? At some level do you believe that your needs can be met and taken seriously by your spouse/partner?

If appropriate, share these questions with your partner. Hopefully you can use them and your responses to facilitate a meaningful discussion about how to make emotional safety and shared vulnerability a regular part of your relationship landscape.

(Featured [top] image  “Scared Woman” by Ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)