Can you get close to someone with intimacy issues? There are several strategies to try if you know someone who avoids forming emotional connections.
Intimacy is at the heart of human connection. Families, friends, and couples share a closeness that enriches relationships and strengthens bonds.
But if you have someone in your life that has issues with intimacy, you may wish things could be different — and wonder if there’s anything you can do to help.
People who are afraid of intimacy (sometimes called intimacy phobia) don’t mean to create distance. They want connections just as much as you do, but experience intense anxiety from intimate encounters, so emotional unavailability may be present.
Although their anxiety may not make sense to you, learning more about why they might fear intimacy can help you understand your loved one and how you might help.
People living with intimacy phobia benefit if their loved ones help them feel safe. Just keep in mind that their self-imposed isolation stems from anxiety.
Consider these strategies for developing closeness:
Communicate your thoughts and feelings in a way that’s non-confrontational. When communicating:
- If you’re under stress, make sure they know it’s not their fault. You can specifically state the source of your mood, such as fatigue or frustration caused by work.
- If they find the courage to share their thoughts and feelings, resist the urge to react with correction, criticism, or judgment. Instead, find common ground to join the conversation.
When you’re empathetic, you understand or sense another person’s perspective. This can help them feel seen.
Some ways you can practice empathy include:
- Listen actively.
- Avoid withdrawing when they put up a wall. Instead, be present without infringing on their personal space.
- Remember that their challenges with intimacy are not your fault, so don’t take it personally or act defensively.
- Refrain from using manipulation strategies, no matter how well-intentioned.
- Pay attention to whether you’re pressuring them, and if so, adjust your approach.
You may want to consider raising the topic of therapy with the person who has intimacy anxiety.
They may not be ready to take this step, so you’ll want to make the suggestion without pressure. Offer to participate in couples therapy if it’s your partner. If you’re supporting a parent, sibling, or child, you can try family therapy.
The goal of therapy is to identify the root of anxiety, then figure out coping strategies. Sometimes, intimacy issues stem from complicated factors that take time for a therapist to decipher.
Labeling emotions is a tool mental health professionals teach to people living with anxiety. Rather than trying to suppress or ignore the fear, facing and identifying it can reduce its power.
Mindfulness can also help ease anxiety and phobias. Meditation is one way you can practice mindfulness.
When you meditate, you pay attention to the present moment and input from your senses. You might close your eyes and focus on your breath. As thoughts arise, let them pass. Return your focus to what you can hear, feel, and smell.
You could suggest mindfulness to your loved one as an activity you do together.
Fear of intimacy can significantly affect a person’s quality of life. After all, philosopher Aristotle described humans as “social animals,” a statement that recognized our need for connection.
Emotional connection is so powerful that its presence or absence can cause physical changes.
On the other hand, people who are isolated are more vulnerable to the health effects of the stress hormone, cortisol. High cortisol levels can lead to chronic disease, altered immunity, and disrupted sleep.
When someone has intimacy phobia, stress can occur from isolation and loneliness, interfering with socializing and forming friendships.
Intimacy fears affect couples the most because of the impact on multiple areas of intimacy — such as emotional, physical, and sexual. Sometimes, the fear of emotional closeness can expand to include a reluctance toward sexual intimacy.
It helps to know whether your relationship has stalled because of general incompatibility or a true intimacy phobia.
Here are some potential signs that intimacy anxiety is the culprit:
- relationship sabotage
- an unstable relationship history
- a tendency to be a “workaholic”
- fear of abandonment
- avoidance of physical contact
- a reluctance to discuss emotions or feelings
- issues with emotional regulation
- a lack of trust
- self-imposed social isolation
- challenges self-advocating
- extra sensitivity to criticism
While these signs might make sense, there are some others that you might not typically consider.
For example, perfectionists may not feel deserving of intimacy if they fail to live up to their own high standards. Meanwhile, excessively positive people avoid opportunities to bond over hardship and instead remain forcefully cheerful.
There are less well-known, hidden characteristics often shared by people who fear intimacy. Many things exist beneath the surface of the behaviors you can easily see.
Those who experience intimacy phobia sometimes:
- react to what they assume you’re thinking because they have too much anxiety to effectively communicate
- fear judgment if they share their thoughts and opinions
- are unable to trust themselves
- criticize themselves enough to lower their self-esteem
- fear losing themselves if they open up
- worry that feelings they share will be used against them
- anticipate rejection
- have previous trauma that damaged trust, such as abuse or the death or separation of a parent
The more you learn about intimacy issues, the easier it is to cope and come up with helpful strategies.
You could try a new shared hobby, or regularly scheduled one-on-one time to forge a connection. If it’s your partner, suggest a regular date night with no agenda other than to simply have fun.
Learn how to help them by investigating and reaching out — not only to mental health professionals, but also to people living with intimacy issues, if they’re able to share. You can connect with support groups, read blogs, and listen to podcasts.
Having intimacy phobia, or being in a relationship with someone who does, does not have to mean that you’ll never have a close relationship. It may take patience, time, and sensitivity on your part, but in the end, you might find the connection that works for you and your loved one.