With additions and revisions by Ricky Derisz

The desire to connect with others is at the very heart of the human condition. It’s no surprise deep, meaningful relationships are one the most important factors in happiness and health. Research has even shown the “world’s happiest countries” emphasize social support, community, and relationships. And intimacy is the glue holding relationships together.

As a result, the depth of a relationship is linked to levels of intimacy. Yet we live in an age where technology connects us more than ever before, yet the U.S in the midst of a loneliness epidemic — only worsened by corona-induced lockdowns and social restrictions. For a variety of reasons, opening our hearts to others is difficult.

The fear of intimacy, of truly being seen, is a barrier to close relationships. Intimacy goes hand-in-hand with vulnerability, and vulnerability is necessary to nurture meaningful relationships, from family, friends, colleagues and, of course, romantic partners.

How do you get the balance of vulnerability right? What are the different types of intimacy? How might the fear of intimacy sabotage your relationships? And how do you cultivate intimacy in relationships? Let’s find out.

What is intimacy?

Intimacy is a feeling of shared openness and closeness. Although commonly associated with sex and romance, intimacy comes in many forms and not all are sexual. Human bonds develop in a multitude of ways, at different levels, and at different speeds. Some relationships mature slowly over a long period of time, others reach deep levels quickly.

For example, you might have an attentive, caring relationship with a long-time work colleague. The relationship might involve mutual understanding, humor, encouragement, and support — all forms of intimacy. However, the relationship doesn’t include the degree of emotional vulnerability you might share with a close friend or romantic partner.

Kim Woods, an intuitive business mentor, identifies three “levels” to intimacy: circumstantial, shared interest, and personal. Circumstantial intimacy is the most spontaneous form of intimacy. You don’t have to work at being intimate, it happens organically through a set of circumstances. The next level is more intricate. A bond develops over a shared interest that forms the basis of the relationship. However, this type of intimacy can remain superficial if you don’t take action to deepen it.

The latter, personal intimacy, has the possibility of becoming long-lasting and deeply engaging. Woods notes: “To become truly intimate with another, you have to allow yourself to be vulnerable. Most blocks occur at this final layer of intimacy as being vulnerable is scary.”

So although there are different levels of intimacy, there are certain factors that have to exist in a relationship for intimacy to grow, including safety, trust, care, and empathy. The rest of this article will explore personal intimacy, the scary place where vulnerability is required.

The different types of intimacy

There are four main types of intimacy: emotional intimacy, physical intimacy, intellectual intimacy, and spiritual intimacy. All relationships are unique, and these expressions of intimacy overlap to varying degrees. For example, you could share a close spiritual bond with someone you have no physical contact with. More details on each type are:

  • Emotional intimacy: This is the big one. If not nourished in a relationship, it usually means the end, or at least the absence of satisfaction. The work involves looking inward as well as focusing on your partner. It requires brutal honesty with yourself and what your part is in your relationship. This type of intimacy is scary, as it involves sharing your innermost feelings.
  • Physical intimacy: This is “any touch intended to arouse feelings of love in the giver and/or recipient.” Although not exclusively sexual, physical intimacy is arguably most relevant in romantic relationships.
  • Intellectual intimacy: Psychotherapist Jennifer Kogan, LICSW defines this as “exchanging ideas and thoughts about things you think and care about,” such as your favorite music, books, or your outlook on life.
  • Spiritual intimacy: This includes beliefs about what it means to live a spiritual life, plus experiences that touch us on the deepest level — being present, connecting on a deeper level, feeling understood and seen. In addition, a spiritual bond includes the desire to explore the sacred elements of the relationship, and encourage mutual growth.

The role of vulnerability

With a TED talk with close to 35 million views, Brené Brown is arguably the world’s authority on vulnerability. “We wake up in the morning. We armor up. We go out into the world with this, ‘Hey, take no prisoners. You’re not going to see me. You’re not going to hurt me,'” Brené says. “We come home, and we don’t take that armor off,” she told Oprah.

“And so then, all of a sudden, you know, when you talk about sex or intimacy, you get in bed and all of a sudden, you know, it’s like two people in big honkin’ armor outfits,” she adds. Her wisdom highlights that without vulnerability, there’s a barrier around our hearts, and intimacy issues arise.

As Sufi poet Rumi said, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” Removing the armor isn’t easy, but absolutely necessary. To overcome the fear of intimacy, the first step is seeking and finding the armor.

The signs of fearing intimacy

In Meditation for Dummies, spiritual teacher Stephan Bodian identifies common barriers to opening the heart. They include unresolved grief, resentment, jealousy, attachment, and fear. Indeed, intimacy comes with risks. Pain can resurface when opening our hearts, and vulnerability makes us feel susceptible.

But relationships that thrive face that risk head-on. The opposite, chronic fear of intimacy, can sabotage relationships. This is referred to as attachment anxiety and often traces back to childhood. For example, growing up with a lack of boundaries within the family, being physically or emotionally abused, or losing a parent at a young age, all affect our attachment styles in later life.

The common fear with attachment anxiety is abandonment or engulfment. The former is the fear a partner will leave, the latter is the fear of losing oneself in the relationship. Depending on early relationships, these can both be present to different degrees, and manifest in different relationships. 

What are the signs of fearing intimacy? Common patterns to look out for include fear of commitment, serial dating, a fear of physical closeness, difficulty expressing needs, and, as this article explores, sabotage. Fortunately, there is work that can be done to overcome these fears.

Overcoming a fear of intimacy

Real fearlessness is the product of tenderness. It comes from letting the world tickle your heart, your raw and beautiful heart. You are willing to open up, without resistance or shyness, and face the world. You are willing to share your heart with others.

Chogyam Trungpa

Intimacy takes courage. You’re embracing the unknown and uncertain, that is scary! Recognizing the fear is the first significant step, and then the work begins. But it’s not something resolved overnight, and depending on the extent it interferes with relationships, may or may not need the assistance of a trained therapist.

Relationship expert Dr. Lisa Firestone highlights five ways to overcome such fears: look at your history, stop listening to your inner-critic, challenge your defenses, feel your feelings, and be vulnerable and open. How have past experiences built armor around your heart? Do you notice certain patterns of behavior? Do you find yourself distancing after an intimate exchange? 

Become aware of what stories you tell yourself. The self-critic will easily turn against you if you have a fear of intimacy, telling you your partner doesn’t love you, or that they can’t be trusted. In turn, mechanisms and defenses build — and this is where courage is required, to act against them, and push yourself outside of your comfort zone.

And then there’s the work in the relationship itself. A big part of overcoming the fear is, ironically, to make yourself vulnerable by articulating your fear. Brené Brown recommends adding “I’m telling myself the story” to the beginning of any statement which shares an insecurity. For example, “I’m telling myself the story you are annoyed at me because you don’t truly love me, is this true?”

Here are a few additional communication tips to assist with building more openness and intimacy into your relationship:

1. Letting go of the words “You always” and “You never” in an argument.

“All that does is put your partner on the defense and ultimately the conversation spirals into an attack on each other,” said Mia Mor, LCSW, CEC, licensed psychotherapist and empowerment coach. These statements hide the true meaning of what you’re trying to say. Instead, stick to the facts, be clear and ask for what you need. For example, “I felt hurt and ignored when I asked you to help with the dishes and you didn’t. Next time it would mean a lot to me if you helped me.”

2. Focus on the problem – not the person

There is no need to character assassinate or name-call. Statements like, “you are just like your mother” or “you’re pathetic” will only put your partner on the defensive creating a circular argument that never addresses your initial concern. Imagine standing side-by-side with your partner, as both of you look head-on at the problem as an “external” entity.

3. Validate and acknowledge

“Validate that you understand where they are coming from and acknowledge their experience before you ask for what you need,” said Mor. For example, “I know that you had a long day of work and you are exhausted and it would mean a lot to me if you helped me put the kids to bed and then settle down to relax.”

4. Practice honesty with integrity

“In any relationship, honesty is only the best policy if it includes care,” said Mor. There is no need to share that you don’t like your spouse’s dinner when you know they worked hard at making the meal. Be compassionate with your partner. Learning to express needs and boundaries can be bumpy to begin with, so always keep kindness in mind.

5. Humour can go a long way

Don’t take every situation as a personal affront – know when to laugh at yourself and the situation, advises Mor. Remember, both of you want to feel seen, heard, and understood. Give the care that you want to receive and the bedrock of your relationship will remain firm.

In conclusion

A fear of intimacy is completely natural. Opening our hearts to another, and sharing the most personal parts of ourselves, requires courage. But to develop meaningful relationships, this risk must be embraced. It takes time, but overcoming these fears is absolutely possible, and can transform your relationship with others, boosting your happiness and sense of fulfillment.

Don’t overlook your intuition. Know who you can trust and what relationships are worth investing in. “We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known,” says Brown, “and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.”

Trust, respect, kindness, and affection are crucial. The soil has to be rich, but give space for flaws and imperfections in you and others. Allow yourself permission to open your heart and make mistakes. With openness and courage, you’ll learn and grow, one interaction, one relationship at a time.

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