How To Overcome Intimacy Issues

By Sarah Cocchimiglio

Updated September 27, 2019

Reviewer Lauren Fawley


Although it's not a topic most people would discuss freely, or maybe even talk with their doctors about, it is believed that as many as 17 percent of adults in Western cultures live with intimacy issues, fear of intimacy, or intimacy avoidance.

What Are Intimacy Issues?

Intimacy is the ability to share true closeness and connection with another person - this includes romantic relationships and sex, of course, but other types of relationships can also experience intimacy and intimacy issues. Many people with intimacy issues have few close relationships outside of their families, and even familial relationships may be distant.

It may seem like the banter that gets tossed around the locker room or at the office water cooler - like "Boy, does he have intimacy issues," - but it's a serious thing. It's not imagined, and it's not something that your partner is using as a lame excuse not to commit. Fear of intimacy is classified as social phobia, a bona fide anxiety disorder.

Sometimes people push away people they care about without meaning to, or without realizing they are doing it. Your intimacy issues might even prevent you from attracting the right kind of people into your life. And although intimacy issues won't kill you-you can, of course, live without intimacy in your life - it will likely be a lonely and unhappy life, perhaps even a shorter one. Research shows that lack of intimacy may lead to a shorter lifespan, not to mention the negative impact it has on your relationships.

Other effects of intimacy issues can be social isolation, increased risk for depression or substance abuse (or both), short-term serial relationships, and relationship sabotage.

Signs You Might Have Issues With Intimacy

  • Your relationships tend to be short-lived
  • You push people away when they try to get close to you
  • You sabotage relationships when they begin to get serious
  • You avoid physical and sexual contact
  • You have an insatiable sexual appetite
  • You have low self-esteem
  • You experience inexplicable bouts of anger
  • You have difficulty establishing close relationships
  • You have difficulty trusting other people
  • You have difficulty sharing feelings with others
  • You struggle with showing your emotions
  • You avoid commitment
  • You usually seek out partners who are obviously not right for you or relationships that are unstable
  • Your partner accuses you of not being there for him or her
  • You are a perfectionist
  • You have anxiety at the thought of being touched
  • You are consumed with the fear of being rejected or abandoned

Of course, not every single one of these indicators is a sure sign that you have intimacy issues, but if you think any of the above apply to you, it might be worth a bit more self-reflection on the subject.


What Causes Intimacy Issues?

We don't know any direct causes for difficulties with intimacy, although certain risk factors may be present.

Childhood experiences, such as neglect or a history of abuse, may contribute to intimacy issues in adulthood. Another common issue that can lead to intimacy problems is the fear of abandonment or fear of loss. If the thought consumes you that your partner might leave, it makes sense that you would shy away from investing your whole self as a means of self-preservation. Avoiding intimacy as a defense mechanism is probably one of the more common causes. You can't get hurt by anyone if you don't let them get close to you.

Other possible risk factors for intimacy issues include:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Physical neglect
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional neglect
  • Loss of a parent
  • Lack of self-confidence
  • Abandonment by a parent
  • Illness or mental illness in a parent
  • Substance abuse in a parent
  • Unhealthy family relationships
  • Rape
  • Personal history of depression


What Are The Different Types Of Intimacy?

You might think intimacy issues are limited to relationships with romantic partners, but in truth, intimacy issues can affect your relationships with future partners, family members, coworkers, and friends.

Examples of types of intimacy that may be upset if you or your partner suffer from intimacy issues:

  • Intellectual - this is being able to share your thoughts and ideas with someone else.
  • Emotional - this is being able to share deep feelings and connections with someone else.
  • Sexual - this is being able to immerse yourself sexually, in a romantic relationship fully.
  • Experiential - this is being able to share experiences and activities with someone else.

When You're The One Experiencing Intimacy Issues

You may not even be aware that you have intimacy issues. If your partner raises the issue, don't overreact, or get angry or defensive.

Know that issues with intimacy are common and normal but treat your partner with grace: it can't be easy to be in a relationship with someone who withdraws and shies away from the genuine connection or even outright rejects your partner's sincere love and affection.

Here are some tips to help with overcoming intimacy issues:

  • Be open to your partner's observations and concerns. Be willing to talk openly and honestly and get help from a professional therapist either on your own or with your partner, if it becomes necessary.
  • Start thinking about why you feel this way. Giving your feelings a name can help you to process your memories and experiences.
  • Be brave. Opening yourself to others, exposing your true self, and allowing yourself to be vulnerable, take courage. Intimacy is a leap of faith, where you jump and hope that someone will catch you. Don't let the fear of people you care about not being there to catch you keep you from taking that leap of faith.
  • Try cognitive behavioral therapy. If you rework and reframe negative thoughts, you might be able to shut down your inner critic.
  • Tension and intimacy issues are a vicious cycle. The more stressed and anxious you are, the more you'll avoid intimacy, and the more you avoid intimacy, the more stressed and anxious you'll feel. Try yoga or meditation to relieve tension and agitation. If that's not your style, just setting aside some time for something you enjoy every day, should help.
  • Reflect on your history. Identifying where your intimacy issues began and where they manifest in your current life are the first steps to overcoming them.
  • If your partner has indicated, he or she is willing to stay the course with you while you work through your intimacy issues, appreciate his or her dedication and commitment to making an effort to overcome your fears.
  • Make small changes. Practice being vulnerable. Talk to new people, gently push your emotional envelope. Over time, you'll be able to work your way up to taking larger risks and making bigger changes. Eventually, you'll learn that there are benefits to intimacy and to sharing your authentic self with the world, rather than hiding behind a mask of fear.
  • If talk therapy isn't enough, in extreme cases, supplemental medication may be an option to reduce anxiety.


When Your Partner Is Avoiding Intimacy

If you think or know your partner is dealing with intimacy issues, or if you feel your partner is pushing you away, resist the temptation to abandon ship or overcompensate by smothering them. If you chase after someone with intimacy issues, chances are it will make them withdraw even further from you. If you value the relationship and think your partner does too, try to be supportive, composed, and non-judgmental. Maintain a balanced distance until your partner lets you know that he or she is ready to work on overcoming these intimacy issues and on improving your relationship.

If you care enough about your partner and your relationship to put in the effort and see things through, talk to your partner openly and honestly. Let him, or her know you want to understand their feelings and fears, without judgment, and that you're willing to work through these issues as a team.

Don't force your partner to talk about the past or experiences they aren't comfortable discussing but let him or her know you'll be ready to listen if and when they ever do want to talk about it.

Don't give up. Healthy relationships take time and effort, on the parts of both parties, and as long as you're both willing, you can make it work.

If open dialogue, patience, and understanding haven't been enough to resolve your partner's intimacy issues, you might also offer to make an appointment to speak with a therapist who specializes in couples' therapy, who can help you navigate the veritable quagmire of intimacy issues. Couple's counseling offers a safe environment for partners to express themselves. Some people find it easier to open up to a therapist than on their own with their partner, and the therapist can also give feedback and advice.

If you think it would be helpful to chat with a professional either on your own or with your partner, BetterHelp can connect you with a licensed therapist specializing in intimacy issues who can help you work through your vulnerabilities, fears, and concerns.

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