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Men and Intimacy: How Do Our Families Shape Us?

men and intimacy

“The need for love and intimacy is a fundamental human need, as primal as the need for food, water, and air.”  – Dean Ornish, MD, physician and founder of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California

Seth’s natural impulse was to shy away from showing his feelings to his girlfriend. That made perfect sense to me, since he grew up with a father who rarely showed affection to anyone in the family.

How would a little boy learn that it was all right to express intimacy and affection if his own father chose reserve emotional expression? Answer: A little boy would not.

Children take their cues from their parents. When we are little, we watch our parents relate to the world. They model for us what is right for them and what is wrong for them. Little minds don’t have an understanding of subjectivity yet. Little minds live in black and white worlds of good and bad. If their parents are doing something, by definition, it is good. And, conversely, if they are not doing something, it is bad.

The feelings and actions that our parents freely expressed when they were raising us come to be the feelings and actions that we freely express as adults. Early brain wiring makes us very aware of unfamiliar experiences. The things we didn’t see our parents do or value, our brain learned to see as risky or different. To our brains, safety means mimicking our parents.

Changing is a challenging task for most of us. Our brains are designed to seek and protect us from danger. Doing something different than we saw our parents do initially triggers a sense that we are risking rejection, humiliation, or embarrassment. We are out in proverbial left field when we demonstrate feelings and behaviors not part of our family culture.

Seth, however, was trying to grow beyond what his father modeled. During one of my sessions with Seth, he shared, “I can feel that part of me shies away from intimacy, just like my father. Every bone in my body wants to retreat. That part of me feels very embarrassed showing any public display of affection. But when I’ve forced myself to place my arm around the shoulder of my girlfriend when we are out with friends, I can see how much that means to her. Seeing her happy makes me happy and overrules my discomfort. Each time I show affection, I grow more comfortable.”

I was impressed and moved by Seth’s courage to do the opposite of his impulse. He was courageous to demonstrate his tenderness and showed caring by wanting to please his girlfriend. He liked the connection and intimacy even though he struggled to accept that part of himself. He came to learn he wasn’t weak for wanting and showing intimacy, even though he felt weak.

All people have the ability to grow their capacity for intimacy. When you tap into your desire for more connection, embrace the opportunity.

Here are 5 tips to help you overcome your past and grow your capacity for intimacy:

  1. Expect and welcome the discomfort that doing something different will evoke.
  2. Start off with small steps to minimize discomfort.
  3. Share with your partner of friend that you are trying out a new way of being and ask for support.
  4. Learn more about human emotions and the biological need for intimacy and attachment to so you have the validation that your needs for love, connection and intimacy are totally normal.
  5. Remember that you are worthy of love and connection even if you feel unworthy because you didn’t get much as a child.

As Bertrand Russell, British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic and political activist, once said, “Those who have never known the deep intimacy and the intense companionship of mutual love have missed the best thing that life has to give.”

Father and son photo available from Shutterstock

Men and Intimacy: How Do Our Families Shape Us?

Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW

Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW, takes the complex world of emotions and makes them easy to understand for all. She is author of the award-winning self-help book, “It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self” (Random House & Penguin UK, 2018). She is a certified psychoanalyst and AEDP psychotherapist and supervisor. Hilary’s blog on emotions and how to use them for wellbeing is read worldwide.For more FREE resources on emotions and emotional health, visit:

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APA Reference
Jacobs Hendel, H. (2018). Men and Intimacy: How Do Our Families Shape Us?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 23 Mar 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.