Fear of intimacy

Nicky Lock

A young Christian woman complained to me recently “What is it about young Christian men – why won’t they step up. Are they frightened or something?”

The fear of intimacy or commitment is a common relationship pattern in both women and men where someone is only able to allow themselves to release into loving when there is no danger that increasing intimacy and commitment might become part of the relationship.

It may show up in clients may come complaining of a series of unsuitable relationships over years which have never worked out. Examination of many of these disastrous relationships reveals a pattern of becoming involved with someone who is never going to be available for relationship: they’re married, an alcoholic, divorced but still entangled with their ex spouse, living in another city, completely committed to completing their PhD, or are highly conflictual etc. 

Alternatively, they are social people, but end up flitting around like a social butterfly from one short term relationship to another. If they are able to own that their failure in relationships is something to do with them, they often discover that they are baulking at taking relationship beyond a social level that connects around activities and information, and they shy away from sharing more deeply with the other person.  They are unable to share more personal information, and may prevent the other person from taking the relationship to a deeper level. It is not intimacy itself that they fear, but the possibility of getting hurt if they allow someone to get close to them.

John Powell’s classic “Why am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am?” gives an initial answer to his title question of "because if I tell you who I am, you may not like who I am, and it's all that I have." We see hints of this in Adam and Eve’s behaviour in Genesis in their hiding from God.  Their fear also drives them to hide themselves from each other. The difference in their case in relation to God, is that they knew that they had been disobedient.

However for many who fear intimacy, it is a false fear and shame, not based in reality, which keeps them from being close and intimate with others. They fear being rejected for who they are: often this fear is unconsciously based on some historical context where they were rejected (or perceived that they were rejected). Children in large families can come to believe that they are being rejected by one or both parents if they get less attention than their siblings. Others may have experienced actual rejection in their growing up years through bullying, emotional abuse in their family or the loss of a significant relationship.

Another aspect of fear of intimacy is the fear of engulfment by the other: that in allowing themselves to get too close and open with another that they might lose their ability to be themselves, to retain their independence. People who have experienced controlling relationships in the past ranging from judgemental ones to loving smothering, fear getting too close to another for fear of losing themselves.

Finally, fear of intimacy may arise from avoidance of the possibility of a relationship breaking down. Seen in those who may have lost a parent through death or divorce, they avoid forming intimate relationships in order to avoid having the deal with the pain and hurt of an ended relationship. 

The remedy? Becoming fully aware of what the problem is and taking steps towards healing the fear and self doubt, most fully realised in a deep understanding of the Gospel message. Sounds easy, but undoing years of living with, and reacting out of, fear is never easy.