How to Resolve Your Fear of Intimacy

Spending too much time alone? Here are a few things to consider.

By Sean Grover

Sure, intimate relationships improve your life—but do you know they also extend it?

In an article in the New York Times by Jane E. Brody, “Forging Social Connections for a Longer Life,” study after study found that people in intimate relationships were consistently healthier than those who remain socially isolated and avoid intimacy. Here are a few of the key points:

People with close social ties and unhealthy lifestyles actually lived longer than those with poor social ties but more health-promoting habits.

In a study of men who had survived a heart attack, those with strong social connections faced only one-quarter of the risk of death of those not socially connected, even when factors like smoking, diet, alcohol, exercise, and weight were taken into account.

People who were not intimately connected to others were three times more likely to die over the course of nine years as those who had strong social ties.

The Roots of Your Apprehension

Allowing yourself to be intimate with someone can be quite harrowing, especially if you’ve had negative experiences with closeness. What makes intimacy so difficult?

Intimate relationships expand your capacity to feel; in fact, they add rocket fuel to your emotional life.  Elation, dejection, euphoria, helplessness—these feelings intensify with intimacy. How you manage these powerful feelings ultimately decides if you will sustain intimate relationships or flee from them.

If intimacy triggers anxiety in you, consider two possible sources:

Early History

In addition to food and shelter, children require emotional nutrition for healthy psychological development. The most basic emotional need that children require is trust. They need to trust that their parents will care for them, protect them, and love them. When a parent breaks that trust by being unresponsive, neglectful or abusive, children fail to develop a solid sense of self. As a result, when they get close to others, they may experience a loss of identity, a fear of losing themselves in another person. Without trust, they have poor psychic boundaries; closeness causes them to feel invaded, even assaulted, and elicits flight/flight responses to affection.

Social Trauma

Social experiences shape your view of relationships; in other words, you take your whole history into every new relationship. Negative past experiences with peers, siblings, and romantic partners leave behind highly sensitive emotional wounds. Closeness triggers painful feelings from the past and activates psychic defenses. Pulling away from others, isolating yourself, choosing solitude over socializing—these are all efforts to avoid pain. While avoiding others may reduce anxiety, an overly controlled life looses vitality. Life is safer—but infinitely duller.

Individual Therapy: A Healing Intimacy

If you want more intimate relationships, individual therapy offers you a safe place for rebuilding intimacy.  Working one on one with a skilled therapist, expressing and exploring your feelings week after week, opens up new pathways in relating. As you develop an intimate relationship with your therapist, you begin to rebuild the faith that you lost in relationships. If you have a conflict or misunderstanding with your therapist—even better! It’s gives you an opportunity to practice working through disagreements rather than fleeing them. Good therapists aren’t passive, they challenge their patients and help them to become more assertive so you can take that sense of security and confidence into your future relationships.

Group Therapy: A Place to Practice

After spending time in individual therapy, consider joining a therapy group. Group is the most effective treatment for gaining mastery over social anxieties and fears of intimacy. People who complete an effective group treatment is a way to stay true to themselves and develop intimacy and be fearless in their interactions with others.

Group gives you a place to practice closeness. Week after week, group members learn to express themselves fully, set boundaries, and become more assertive in relationships. They develop improved attunement and emotional mastery.  (See the articles: How Group Helps& What Happens in Group.) Group also offers you an experience that individual therapy can’t offer you: the chance to interact and relate with all kinds of people without losing yourself or yielding to old anxieties.

Toward Healthier Relationships

Resolving your fears of intimacy won’t be easy. But as long as your past experiences define your present relationships, you’ll never break out of the cycle of fear. To build more empowered relationships, you need to learn to let go of your history and make new choices.

Countless studies have shown that the fountain of youth flows in the healing power of positive relationships. When you invest all your energy into forging greater intimacy in your life, and take responsibility for the nature of the relationships, you can break the shackles of your negative experiences. What have you got to lose? Life won’t only be more joyful, it may even last even longer.