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What is a Fear of Intimacy? Understanding the Effect of Trauma on Relationships by Dr. Lukin

Updated: Oct 14, 2022

What is a Fear of Intimacy? Understanding the Effect of Trauma on Relationships by Dr. Konstantin Lukin, Bergen County Moms

Have you ever been romantically interested in someone but as soon as things begin to get serious you feel as though you should turn around and run? Believe it or not, a basic fear of intimacy is common for many people. But when you’ve suffered from significant trauma, a fear of intimacy can not only be limiting, but it can also make any relationship that you enter into seem difficult – if not impossible — to maintain.

Traumatic events reshape our psyche in many ways. Often, these changes are so subtle that we rarely notice them until a problem is evident. And if you’ve suffered any sort of relationship-related trauma, such as the death of a significant other, then fear of intimacy may seem like an insurmountable obstacle. Thankfully, fear of intimacy can be overcome with a little help. And in the following, we’ll take a deeper look at what causes a fear of intimacy along with the tools that you can use to cope.

What is Fear of Intimacy?

In a nutshell, fear of intimacy is often a limiting effect of your subconscious mind that causes anxiety when close relationships begin to form. And this limitation can also affect a person’s ability to build or maintain relationships – whether long or short-term.

It’s also worth noting that even with a fear of intimacy, you may still desire a relationship. And you may even be comfortable getting to know someone and allowing yourself to be vulnerable in the beginning. But chances are, you’re limiting yourself to just how far you’ll actually go, or just how vulnerable you’ll allow yourself to be.

Fear of intimacy is also referred to as avoidance anxiety, or more closely defined as intimacy avoidance. It can be common to avoid intimacy for brief periods after a relationship or marriage has broken. However, even though the characteristics of this behavior are often universal, the causes usually are not.

Fear of Intimacy Causes

A fear of intimacy can be caused by a variety of factors that often stem from your childhood. For example, your early childhood experience with parents or caregivers typically offers you your first examples of how relationships work. And if these experiences were not positive, or if they went unnurtured, then fear of intimacy may result later in life.

In addition, any trauma you may have experienced related to a relationship can create walls that may be difficult to tear down, and this can lead to an overall fear of commitment. But trauma can also be indirect or subtle; not directly linked to a significant traumatic event. This is often the case with emotional neglect – where parents or caregivers may have been physically present and capable but never available (or supportive) emotionally.

Traumatic events, on the other hand, can create the most complex and difficult cases of intimacy avoidance. And a few examples of these events include the following:

  • Physical or sexual abuse

  • Verbal abuse

  • Extreme neglect

  • Witnessing the death of a loved one

  • Loss of a parent

  • Loss of a child

If you’ve noticed a pattern emerge when relationships begin to form in your life and you have suffered from a traumatic event such as those listed above, talking to a therapist to help you understand how and why you have problems with forming or maintaining relationships is highly recommended. Fear of Intimacy Signs

A fear of intimacy can manifest in several ways in just about any type of relationship you enter. And it can also be a limiting factor in your existing relationships as well. It doesn’t matter if these relationships are familial, romantic, or completely platonic. If fear of intimacy is evident, you may have noticed one or more of the following signs.

Relationship Sabotage

Just when you think you’ve found the perfect relationship, something always happens to make you think you’ve been fooling yourself. But this may be exactly the case because those with a fear of intimacy often sabotage their own relationships in many ways.

You may be overly critical of your partner, scrutinizing their every move until you find something wrong with them. Or you may begin practicing avoidance when you feel that your personal space is becoming smaller. This sabotage can also come in the form of wild accusations, or even making excuses to avoid physical contact.

Serial Dating and Preference for NSA Relationships

You’ve likely heard of a No Strings Attached (NSA) relationship. And though these types of relationships seem convenient – often like the best of both worlds – they are largely preferred by those who have a true fear of intimacy.

Serial dating is also common among those who prefer the NSA relationship. And as mentioned, even though you may feel completely comfortable with getting to know a new potential partner, once the relationship begins to grow, fear begins to arise. At this point, you’ve likely ghosted your partner and have moved on to talking with someone else.

Inability to Express Yourself Emotionally

You may have extreme difficulty expressing yourself emotionally if fear of intimacy is a root cause. This may come in the form of being unable to express needs, wants, or wishes to your partner. And you may find yourself going without what you need to feel secure in a relationship due simply to your own fear of intimacy.

Additionally, when your needs go unfilled, this may also reinforce a feeling of being unworthy – or ignite a suspicion of your partner’s perceived unfaithfulness. And as trust is a basic foundational element of relationship building, if you’re unable to express yourself emotionally, this foundation will likely never take shape.

How To Cope with Trauma-Related Fear of Intimacy

Learning how to cope with a fear of intimacy is no easy undertaking, especially if a traumatic event has reshaped your idea of what relationships are or should be. In fact, depending on the nature of the event, you may need significant time to heal before you’re ready to embark on a new relationship. But there is help available.

Professional therapy is often a highly recommended step if trauma has caused an increased fear of intimacy. And though you may understand that time will allow healing, there may also be underlying factors that you simply can’t get around without professional guidance.

A competent therapist can help you come to terms with any past (or present) events that may be impeding your ability to build and maintain relationships. In fact, with a therapist’s help, you may also be able to implement a plan in small, actionable steps that allows you to work toward positive relationship building incrementally – without the fear and anxiety that often comes from diving headfirst into a new relationship.

Intimacy is important in any relationship, and so is being able to share yourself fully with the people that you love dearly. With this in mind, seeking help for your fear of intimacy may prove to be a necessary step as you heal from past events – before you embark on your next journey with another person.

Fear of intimacy can be limiting in any relationship. If you’re having trouble building or maintaining relationships, contact Lukin Center for Psychotherapy today.

Konstantin Lukin, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist psychologist and founder of Lukin Center for Psychotherapy in Ridgewood, Hoboken, Montclair, Jersey City, Englewood and Westfield. He has extensive clinical and research experience spanning individuals of all ages, in both inpatient and outpatient settings. He specializes in men’s issues, couple’s counseling, and relationship problems. His therapeutic approach focuses on providing support and practical feedback to help patients effectively address personal challenges. He integrates complementary modalities and techniques to offer a personalized approach tailored to each patient. He has been trained in cognitive-behavioral, dialectical behavior, schema-focused, and emotionally focused therapy, and has also been involved with research projects throughout his career, including two National Institute of Mental Health-funded studies. He is a member of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, New Jersey Psychological Association, Northeast Counties Association of Psychologists, New York State Psychological Association, The International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy, The New York Center for Emotionally Focused Therapy, the International OCD Foundation, the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACSB) and a regular contributor to Psychology Today.

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