Intimacy is a concept that is quite complex. Have you ever been in a position where it has been difficult to put into words how much you care for someone? Or maybe you’ve felt it to be nearly impossible to completely let your guard down and experience vulnerability with a partner?
Most people yearn for emotional, intimate connections and emotional bonds, but find themselves putting up walls that block them from building emotional intimacy. One of the common reasons people do this is due to an unconscious fear of closeness.
What is Emotional Intimacy?
According to the Centre for Emotional Education, emotional intimacy is the shared experience of disclosing thoughts and feelings between two or more people while feeling accepted and free to be who you really are. In addition, emotional intimacy also includes being self-aware, fostering trust between partners, creating emotional safety in the relationship, having a non-judgmental attitude, the ability to display empathy, acceptance, willingness, and most importantly, being vulnerable.
Emotional intimacy, for many people, is a strong foundation for long term relationship satisfaction, whether romantic relationships, familial, or platonic. Despite what many might think, intimacy does not only refer to physical intimacy. Emotional intimacy in relationships can be defined differently by each individual. You and your partner may even define intimacy differently, and that is completely acceptable.
However, if there is difficulty expressing emotional intimacy and being vulnerable with a partner, sexual intimacy most likely will be impacted. If you are at all questioning if emotional intimacy is lacking in your relationships, below are some examples of what may indicate you might be struggling with sharing your feelings, connection, or vulnerability:
- Low self-esteem
- Trust issues
- Fear of falling in love
- Actively avoiding physical/sexual contact
- “Serial Dating”
- Trouble forming close relationships (or having them last for a long period of time)
- History of unstable relationships (or relationships that are more surface level in nature)
- Unable to express emotions, ask for emotional support, or put what you’re feeling into words with your partner
This is not an exhaustive list, but these indicators may be a good start to exploring whether or not you may need to improve emotional intimacy. Given all the indicators above, it is understandable why emotional intimacy and vulnerability can feel like scary, unexplored territory.
Why is Emotional Intimacy Scary for Some?
Feeling exposed, both literally and figuratively, creates anxiety for many and can exacerbate self-limiting beliefs. Self-limiting beliefs are defense mechanisms that can look like self-sabotage, negative self-talk, and putting up walls to hinder expression surrounding emotional intimacy. One word that comes to mind, is risk.
This includes the risk of someone really seeing you, risk of abandonment, risk of rejection, and the thought of, ‘what exactly does this say about me, if I let you know all of me, and then I lose you?’ Check in with yourself and notice any thoughts or feelings coming up while reading this. Did reading this section evoke any anxiety in you?
As previously stated, connection is something that is innate, or in other words, we are built to crave connection with others. So why is it that some may tend to self-sabotage that closeness with someone? Let’s unpack that a little bit and identify some potential risk factors for fear of emotional intimacy.
- Fear of intimacy can be deeply rooted learned behavior from childhood and the way that you have built emotional connections with others, whether that be a relationship with a parent, significant other, sibling, or friend. One of the best ways to understand how we build bonds and connections with others can be through attachment theory.
- Being part of an enmeshed family in which boundaries and roles of the family dynamics may be blurred.
- Growing up with a parent(s) who portray narcissistic characteristics. This can lead to an inability to develop levels of emotional intimacy and build healthy relationships.
- Experiencing any form of abuse or neglect in childhood. Intimacy requires trust and abusive experiences can cause folks to have a lack of trust in others, feeling as if they cannot safely share parts of themselves with others.
- How did your family model intimacy? Human beings learn from what they see. If you do not see love being portrayed healthily, or if you see abuse at home, for example, you might see abuse as “normal” behaviors within relationships.
5 Tips for Overcoming the Fear of Emotional Intimacy
We can unlearn unproductive behaviors and recreate healthy ones that can foster closeness and connections. Below are 5 ways to overcome this fear of emotional intimacy.
- Healthy communication – explain to your partner exactly what is going on (what you are feeling, what you are struggling with, how to help you, etc). Your partner cannot read your mind, and it is helpful to communicate what it is you’re going through to continue to foster that closeness.
- Seek help from a professional (either individual or couples therapy) – a professional can help you search for the root of your fears surrounding emotional intimacy, help you navigate through them, and identify healthier coping skills.
- Don’t rush the process – being vulnerable is hard and it takes time. It is important to go at your own pace.
- Check in with your partner and yourself after an intimate conversation. How do you feel and how does your partner feel? This can help ensure not only that your partner was listening, but also can serve as a check-in for everyone. Do you still feel safe after sharing something vulnerable? Do you feel judged?
- Mindfulness, Mindfulness, Mindfulness – Check in with yourself daily – multiple times if necessary. Ask yourself how you’re feeling, not just emotionally, but also physically in your body when you decide to share, or when you identify that you are having a tough time with something. Oftentimes, prior to the thought, there is a physical reaction in your body. If something feels off, try getting curious and asking yourself why.
Overcoming intimacy struggles does not happen overnight, so do your best to be patient with yourself and with your partner. Research has shown that positive experiences within relationships may improve your ability to form secure attachments, therefore increasing the strength of the connections you can build with others. Your past does not have to dictate your present or your future. The change starts with you.