Can you imagine, this moment, you are walking side by side with your partner, at the seaside, feeling the golden sand under your feet, and the warmth of your partner’s hand in your hand. Then, you and your partner sit on the picnic mat, marvelling at the beauty of the sunset. This scenario is one example of spiritual intimacy.
Pietrangelo and Legg (2019) defines intimacy as “to share close emotional or physical ties. Fearing intimacy means fearing becoming too close to others.”
What will pop up in your mind when you think of intimacy? Often intimacy is associated with sex. Intercourse is about to be as close as possible to another human that we can physically get, however there are other forms of intimacy that don’t involve sex or touch at all – but just as poignant in a romantic partnership (Deadwiler & Overstreet, 2020).
According to a marriage therapist, Hilda De La Torre (2020), long-term commitments usually require sustainable rapport beyond just chemistry in the bedroom. Without the types of intimacy beyond physical, “the relationship can start to drift apart or remain at a very superficial level.”
Below are the other types of intimacy that you should emphasise on fostering to create a more holistic connection and closeness with your partner.
- Emotional intimacy : Involves candid, authentic sharing of thoughts and feelings, being able to tell each other your deepest fears, dreams, disappointments, and most complicated emotions, as well as feeling seen and understood when you do.
- Intellectual intimacy : Comfort with communicating beliefs and viewpoints without worrying about potential conflicts. Each person in the relationship has the freedom to think for themselves and believes their opinions are valued – instead of feeling pressured to agree.
- Experiential intimacy : Shared experiences lead to inside jokes and private memories that can intensify a connection. The act of teamwork and moving in unison toward a common goal while creating an experience also establishes a feeling of closeness.
- Spiritual intimacy : This closeness forms when you share poignant moments with your partner, not necessarily limited to praying or worshipping as a couple. It can be when you are watching the sun rise together, taking a walk through the park or discussing ethics, sense of purpose and personal definitions of spirituality.
So, what are the reasons that a person can be so closed off towards intimacy?
- Fear of rejection and fear of engulfment
You are texting a new guy, introduced by your friend, then suddenly he is ghosting you with no news. Poof! Gone like the wind. Why did he do this, you wonder?
One of the probable reasons is that he fears rejection and fears of engulfment, which means afraid of being controlled, dominated and “losing themselves” in a relationship.
According to a psychologist and the co-founder of Inner Bonding, Dr Margaret Paul (2020), most people have underlying false beliefs that, when triggered in their relationship, cause fears that lead to controlling, protective and avoidant behaviour. These false beliefs include :
- I’m not lovable enough or smart enough or attractive enough for my partner to stay interested in me, so I have to control them to get them to stay with me.
- I have to give myself up to not lose my partner’s love.
- There is no way for me to be myself and be in a committed relationship, so I need to withdraw or resist to protect myself from losing myself
These fears of rejection, together with the resulting controlling behaviours are kindled by these false beliefs, which will eventually can make the love crumble.
How to resolve this? Communication is the key, and try to keep the love alive by being open to learn about yourself and your partner. When you are open to learning about your fears and underlying false beliefs that ignite your fears, your relationship becomes an ever-evolving one that continually brings newness into the relationship (Paul, 2020).
- Fear of abandonment
Fear of abandonment and struggling to ask for help might seem like two segregated character traits, but they actually share one common thread. Most people who identify with these behaviours have the same attachment style, characterized by insecurity, called insecure attachment style (Moore and Hallett, 2020).
A psychotherapist, Chamin Ajjan (2020), states that an insecure attachment style can be a hindrance for people to make deep emotional and intimate connections with a partner.
According to a holistic psychologist, Nicole Lippman-Barile (2020), an individual who has an insecure attachment to another typically feels anxious about the relationship and whether or not their own needs or desires can be met by the other person. They may expect the person to abandon them or hurt them in some way.
Lippman Barile says, “Typically these attachment styles (if unresolved) play out in adulthood. Being insecure as a child looks similar to being insecure as an adult in the sense that the anxiety and fear of being abandoned is still present.” For instance, a child who is clingy toward their caregiver will generally be clingy towards a romantic partner later in life. Similarly, a child who learns they can’t rely on their caregiver may end up never willing to rely on a partner as an adult.
How to fix this insecure attachment?
You can take a test to comprehend your own attachment style : anxious, avoidant, or fearful-avoidant.
Ajjan (2020) states that therapy can help people unpack these underlying factors, learn new coping skills, become more mindful of their thoughts, feelings and needs.
Apart from that, it is crucial to invest in healthy and supportive relationships, whether with friends, loved ones, mentors or a partner. In order to develop a secure relationship, both partners will need to trust each other and feel secure as independent individuals (Lippman-Barile, 2020).
- Avoidant personality disorder
You are sitting at a table in the cafeteria, eating lunch to your heart’s content, suddenly, your crush is passing by. He looks at you, flashes his amazing smile and greets you and asks, “What are you eating?” Your heart skips multiple beats and your head feels so dizzy that you feel you can pass out at any given moment. After getting his lunch, he sits in front of you and joins you for lunch…and he confesses that he likes you. Initially you feel over the moon, however the feeling of insecurity washes over you, you have a sense of inadequacy, you feel yourself is unappealing and how can an amazing guy like him likes you? As a result, you tend to push him away.
According to Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5), avoidant personality disorder (AVPD) is characterized by extensive avoidance of social interaction driven by fears of rejection and feelings of interpersonal inadequacy.
Symptoms of avoidant personality disorder include
- Avoids occupational activities that involve significant interpersonal contact, because of fears of criticism, disapproval or rejection.
- Is unwilling to get involved with people unless certain of being liked.
- Shows restraint within intimate relationships because of fear of being ashamed and ridiculed.
- Is preoccupied with being criticised or rejected in social situations.
- Is inhibited in new interpersonal relationships because of feelings of inadequacy.
- Views self as socially inept, personally unappealing, or inferior to others.
- Is usually reluctant to take personal risks or to engage in any new activities because they may prove embarrassing.
According to a psychologist, Maria Andreadis (2018), the onset of this disorder is a combination of both genetic and environmental factors. Studies have shown that AVPD holds positive correlation with neuroticism as well as a negative relationship with extraversion. This suggests that these people tend to be more anxious, fearful, and understandably more introverted and closed off.
Talk therapies and medications are proven to be useful in treating such a disorder. You can try asking your therapist about the treatment option. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may be useful in challenging the negative, pervasive beliefs about oneself (feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, etc.) and others (feelings that others cannot be trusted, will reject or ridicule them etc.)
- Childhood sexual abuse
There are many forms of childhood sexual abuse, which can involve seduction by a beloved relative or it can be a violent act committed by a stranger. Sexual abuse can be hard to define because of the many different forms it can take on, the different levels of frequency, the variation of circumstances it can occur within, and the different relationships that it may be associated with. Maltz (2002) gives the following definition : “sexual abuse occurs whenever one person dominates and exploits another by means of sexual activity or suggestion”.
Survivors of sexual abuse may experience difficulty in establishing interpersonal relationships. They might experience difficulties with trust, fear of intimacy, fear of being different or weird, difficulty establishing interpersonal boundaries, passive behaviours and getting involved in abusive relationships (Ratican, 1992).
If your partner has a fear of intimacy due to this reason, keep the lines of communication open. Support them in seeking therapy. Ask what you can do to help them feel safe. In therapy, the therapist might subject your partner to cognitive-behavioural therapies, with several common cross-cutting elements. These elements include psychoeducation about trauma and its impact and gradual exposure to trauma memories. Gradual exposure appears to be a particularly important treatment element, where it involves repeated exposure to details of the trauma as a way to extinguish trauma-related emotional and behavioral responses (Hanson & Wallis, 2018).
- Previous emotional or physical abuse
Slap! You feel your right cheek burns after receiving a slap from your boyfriend. He then punches you in the gut, and slaps you repeatedly. After feeling imprisoned in the abusive relationship for a few months, you finally take up on the courage to leave him.
Fear of intimacy can also be stemmed from emotional and physical abuse which are committed against intimate partners; current or former spouses, boyfriends and girlfriends (Catalano, 2000).
Emotional abuse can include verbal assault, dominance, control, isolation, ridicule, or the use of intimate knowledge for degradation (Follingstad, Coyne, & Gambone, 2005). It targets the emotional and psychological well-being of the victim, and it is often a precursor to physical abuse. There is a high correlation between physical abuse and emotional abuse in batterer populations (Gondolf, Heckert, & Kimmel, 2002), and verbal abuse early in a relationship predicts subsequent physical spousal abuse (Schumacher & Leonard, 2005).
Apart from that, children who are emotionally abused may grow into adults who fear being ridiculed or verbally abused if they share anything with others, which can lead to an inability to share things and be vulnerable in relationships with other people (Frotscher & Gans, 2021).
What is the best method of treatment for such conditions? When you visit the therapists or counselors, they will pay close attention to controlling, isolating behaviours of partners as precursors to emotional abuse. They would then emphasise on couples’ ability to maintain healthy, stable relationships with family, friends, and colleagues independent of the primary romantic attachment, as becoming “lost” within the relationship is a common reason women remain in abusive entanglements, along with the fear of being alone (Engel, 2002).
- Parental neglect
Your parents are working day and night, trying to make end meets. You remember that most of the time you spend your childhood alone in the house, playing by yourself.
According to a licensed clinical psychologist, Ayanna Abrams, a person’s attachment style is the way they behave in a relationship, which is based on the way they were cared for as a child. According to Abrams, not feeling secure or close in your relationship with a parent or caregiver can lead to avoidant, anxious, or disorganized attachment style, depending on the reasons behind why you’re not close.
- Avoidant attachment style : tends to avoid intimacy with others, and it usually forms when a child has caregivers who are largely unavailable. One study, published in the International Journal of Sexual Health found having unavailable parents might even lead to sexual difficulties later in life.
- Anxious attachment style : tends to crave intimacy with others, and it usually forms when a child has inconsistent caregivers who were sometimes there for them and sometimes not. As stated by a clinical psychologist, Bobby Wegner, this leaves a child not knowing what to expect and hungry for attention and connection.
- Disorganized attachment style : both craves intimacy and avoids it, and it tends to form when a child grew up afraid of their caregiver. That’s why it’s also called fearful-avoidant attachment, and it’s been linked to poor coping skills, erratic behavior, and difficult or volatile relationships.
How to heal from a distant relationship and its effects?
All parties must be willing to do some emotional and relationship work, reconciliation is possible in families, even after long-term hostility. As long as you and your parents are all willing to grow closer, changes can be made. Start with reaching out, having compassion, actively listening, and setting boundaries. You cannot force someone to change. You can offer them an opportunity to connect with you according to your needs and see if they can meet you there, and vice versa (Abrams, 2020).
- Separation issues involving overdependence on parents and family
Finally, you have graduated from your University. However, you found it difficult to find jobs and eventually you return to your hometown and stay with your family. Consequently, you also found that you have limited chances in pursuing a romantic relationship.
As defined by Hungarian-born U.S. child psychoanalyst Margaret Schönberger Mahler (1897–1985, separation-individuation is the developmental phase in which the infant gradually differentiates himself or herself from the mother, develops awareness of his or her separate identity, and attains relatively autonomous status. The term “individuation” refers to the process of developing a sense of individuality. This individuality manifests itself as personal perspectives, emotions, and beliefs, separate from those of friends or family. Individuation is an ongoing, and some would argue lifelong, process.
Steirlin (1974) noted that a very close relationship with parents may hinder romantic relationships in adolescence and therefore the establishment of these relationships in young adulthood. If the young person does manage to establish a romantic relationship, it is possible that the effects of a close relationship with parents may influence the quality of their romantic relationship. The quality may be diminished if the separation-individuation process remains unresolved. Those young adults who have not achieved separation-individuation from their parents, may be in a particular type of romantic relationship. For example, the male or female could be a “mummy’s boy” or a “daddy’s girl” respectively, constantly visiting, phoning and checking in with their mother or father about every decision they make instead of talking it over with their partner and coming to a decision independently.
Therapy can help individuals suffering from individuation and separation issues practice setting boundaries, communicating assertively, and building confidence to express their genuine selves. Additionally, in therapy these individuals may explore the possible factors that contributed to their stunted individuation, as well as address possible underlying mental health concerns. Family therapy is also important, to address dynamics directly with family members that may be preventing a child from separating and individuating.
Andreadis, M. (2020, August 13). What is avoidant personality disorder? Retrieved April 12, 2021, from https://www.mindintertwined.com/avoidant-personality-disorder/
Catalano, S. (2007). Intimate partner violence in the United States. Bureau of Justice Statistics Intimate Partner Violence in the U.S.
Deadwiler, A., & Overstreet, K. (2020, September 20). Every relationship needs these 4 types of intimacy (beyond the physical). Retrieved April 12, 2021, from https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/types-of-intimacy-besides-sex
Engel B. (2002). The emotionally abusive relationship: How to stop being abused and how to stop abusing. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.
Follingstad DR, Coyne S, Gambone L. (2005). A representative measure of psychological aggression and its severity. Violence and Victims. 20:25–38.
Fritscher, L., & Gans, S. (2021, February 12). How a fear of intimacy can cause you to avoid or sabotage relationships. Retrieved April 12, 2021, from https://www.verywellmind.com/fear-of-intimacy-2671818
Gondolf E.W., Heckert D.A., Kimmel C.M. (2002). Nonphysical abuse among batterer program participants. Journal of Family Violence, 17, 293–314.
Hanson, R. F., & Wallis, E. (2018). Treating victims of child sexual abuse. American Journal of Psychiatry, 175(11), 1064-1070. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2018.18050578
Lampe, L., & Malhi, G. S. (2018). Avoidant personality disorder: Current insights. Psychology Research and Behavior Management, 11, 55-66. doi:10.2147/PRBM.S121073
Maltz, W. (2002). Treating the sexual intimacy concerns of sexual abuse survivors. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 17(4), 321-327.
Moore, A., & Abrams, A. (2020, October 15). Distant from your parents? How it affects your attachment style. Retrieved April 12, 2021, from https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/how-strained-parent-relationship-affects-attachment-style
Paul, M. (2020, August 18). What makes LOVE fade in long-term relationships? A Psychologist Explains. Retrieved April 12, 2021, from https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/what-makes-love-fade-in-long-term-relationships
Pietrangelo, A. (2019, January 10). Defining and Overcoming a Fear of Intimacy (1304603331 959798568 T. J. Legg, Trans.). Retrieved April 12, 2021, from https://www.healthline.com/health/fear-of-intimacy
Ratican, K. (1992). Sexual abuse survivors: Identifying symptoms and special treatment considerations. Journal of Counseling & Development, 71(1), 33-38.
Schumacher J.A., Leonard K.E. (2005). Husbands’ and wives’ marital adjustment, verbal aggression, and physical aggression in early marriage. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 73, 28–37.
Steirlin, H. (1974). Separating parents and adolescents: A perspective on running away, schizophrenia and waywardness. New York: J Aronson.