Intimacy is one of those things that can be both coveted and feared at the same time. As human beings, we desire connection and want to be seen, understood, and known.
However, for many clients that I see, true intimacy can be terrifying, as many people fear emotional vulnerability and have challenges with sexual intimacy. People who experience this fear do not usually wish to avoid intimacy, but frequently push others away or even sabotage relationships.
If you fear losing someone you love or you fear losing yourself in the relationship, these fears are often enough to paralyze you as soon as you experience a real romantic connection. Overcoming this can take time, both to explore and understand the contributing issues, and to practice allowing greater vulnerability.
What are intimacy issues?
Types of intimacy issues include:
- Emotional intimacy challenges: Difficulty in being open and transparent within a relationship. This involves a degree of vulnerability that can feel uncomfortable or anxiety-producing to many of us.
- Sexual intimacy challenges: Issues can arise from differences in libidos, desires, fantasies, and arousal challenges. Many people have difficulty communicating their needs and having open dialogue about pleasure and sexual communication. Disconnection can also come from pressure to perform or achieve orgasm. This can get in the way from being in the present moment with your partner.
Prevalence of intimacy issues
Sex and intimacy problems are incredibly common.
- More than 40% of women will have sexual difficulties at some point in their lives, with one of the causes potentially being psychological or emotional. 
- 31% of men experience some degree of sexual difficulty, some of which are related to emotional or psychological issues.  The most common sexual problems in men are ejaculation disorders, erectile dysfunction, and inhibited sexual desire.
Sometimes, the same problem persists through every relationship we enter, which can be highly frustrating – and indicates that professional help might be needed to understand the origins or the pattern.
Symptoms of intimacy issues
- Experiencing anxiety/stress as relationship deepens: A person struggling with intimacy sometimes will withdraw and retreat if they sense that another person is getting too close. A fear of intimacy can cause a person to either become skeptical and mistrustful of their partner, or to become openly disparaging towards them.
- Difficulty communicating with partner, especially around sex: One of the most common reasons that sex starts to feel routine is through lack of communication. When you keep silent about an issue that is bothering you in the bedroom, it doesn't go away; it will simply come up again, in another form, which can then lead to resentment.
- Fear of commitment: A person who has a fear of intimacy is often able to interact with another, at least initially. It's when the relationship grows closer that things begin to fall apart. Instead of connecting on an intimate level, the relationship is ended in some way, and possibly replaced by by a more superficial relationship.
- Perfectionism: Underlying a fear of intimacy often lies a feeling that a person does not deserve to be loved and supported. This leads to the need to be “perfect” and the fear often works to push others away.
- Difficulty expressing needs: Again, this may stem from feeling undeserving of another's support. Since partners are unable to "mind read," those needs go unfulfilled, which then confirms the person's feelings that he or she is unworthy.
Causes of intimacy issues
Fears of abandonment and engulfment, or fear of losing yourself in the relationship are at the heart of a fear of intimacy for many people, and these two fears may often coexist. These fears are generally rooted in past childhood experiences and triggered by the present adult relationships.
Problems can arise from issues including:
- Childhood trauma, including chronic attachment trauma during childhood: If you felt hurt during critical relationships in childhood, you can become fearful of experiencing hurt again in the future, causing considerable impact to adult relationships. If you felt unseen or misunderstood as a child, you may have a hard time believing that someone could really love and value you. These self-critical early thoughts can become a deeply embedded part of who you think you are. Therefore, when someone is loving and reacts positively toward you, you experience a conflict within yourself.
- Past failed romantic relationship, or history of abusive relationships: This includes recovering from an affair or cheating. The lack of trust that comes from being cheated on or being in an abusive relationship can spoil the chances of true intimacy.
- Body image concerns/low self-esteem: When you haven't developed a comfortable and accepting relationship with yourself, it is really hard to cultivate a comfortable and intimate sexual relationship with someone else.
How to overcome intimacy issues
With patience, understanding, and the proper treatment for your situation, you can overcome intimacy issues. Here are ways to get started:
- Accept a willingness to accept uncertainty: When you fear intimacy, you might also fear the consequences of a relationship ending. It's important to embrace the fact that there are no guarantees in life or in human relationships. Every connection with another person is a risk.
- Test out self-compassion: If you truly know and accept your own value and worth as a person, then you know that rejection is not as crushing as it may seem. You will be able to set appropriate boundaries to avoid engulfment and cope with abandonment if it comes along.
- Look at your history: Most of us don't want to think negatively about a parent, but it’s helpful to look at childhood relationships to find possible contributions to your fear of intimacy. Think about the messages you received in your family and the models of relationships that you had.
- Take "baby steps": Give yourself time and realize that it took you a long time to learn these behaviors, so it will also take you a long time to "unlearn" them.
- Take the pressure off of a perceived outcome: Such as having an orgasm. Be open to letting the ideal outcome be just experiencing your partner in the moment. When you remove the pressure to reach a milestone during intimacy, it allows you to let go and be in the moment.
- Talk to an expert: Professional guidance is often required, especially if the fear of intimacy is rooted in complicated past events. Choose your therapist carefully, as therapeutic rapport, mutual respect, and trust are essential to the work of healing.
Treatment options for intimacy issues
When working on overcoming your intimacy issues, you can either see an individual therapist (more on therapy types under this umbrella below), or work with your partner to help resolve your intimacy issues as a team.
Here are benefits and what to expect from both:
- Individual Therapy: Therapy offers you a new perspective on yourself, a safe environment to discover your issues and challenge your old beliefs, support to stand firm in the face of your anxiety and provide clarity so you you don't revert to self-blame. Even better, the therapist-client relationship can be a way to try out new ways of relating and trusting.
- Couples therapy: A couples therapist can help guide you and your partner back to each other. Therapy, at its core, is intimate. It allows for a safe space to begin talking and reconnecting. It can allow you and your partner the ability, time and space needed to be honest and explore what blocks each of you from being more intimate.
Therapy types for intimacy issues:
- Sex therapy or seeing a sex- positive therapist for sexual intimacy issues: Sexual concerns are one of the leading causes of relationship problems, often leading to alienation and tension in personal relationships. These problems sometimes lead individuals to withdraw or remain isolated as a means of alleviating sexual discomfort. Working with a sex therapist or sex positive therapist helps move past personal issues with sexuality by becoming more aware of personal issues, anxieties, and even fears in connection with their sexual identity and the formation of relationships.
Related: Learn more about sex therapy
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): Using EMDR can help target unresolved issues from the past, including, childhood neglect, sexual abuse, or childhood attachment wounds, which can all negatively influence your intimate relationships. EMDR helps to target these buries memories and process them. By targeting past hurts, this type of therapy works to separate the pain associated with the memory.
Related: Learn more about EMDR
- Psychodynamic therapy: helps explore your past experiences—in childhood, adolescence, and in prior adult relationships. It also uses the therapeutic relationship itself, which offer a wonderful opportunity to reflect on relationship patterns and experiment with new ways of being with another person, which help help you to live out other relationships more fully.
Related: Learn more about psychodynamic therapy
- Mindfulness: When you bring your attention to the present moment you can achieve a state of calm awareness of your body, feelings and mind, which can help you to recognize habitual patterns and allow you to respond in new ways. In therapy, mindfulness practices can help you to slow down and establish new ways of relating to yourself.
Related: Learn more about mindfulness practices in therapy
What to look for in a therapist for intimacy issues
It’s important to see a therapist that allows you to feel safe, understood, and valued, so that you can share your deepest thoughts and feelings without fear of rejection.
With effort, many people have overcome their intimacy issues and developed the understanding and tools needed to create long-term intimate relationships.
Find therapists for intimacy issues
The therapist you decide to see for your particular set of intimacy issues depends on what you need! Here are a few options:
Therapists for couples counseling
Therapists for relationships
Therapists for domestic violence
Therapists for self-esteem