Understanding Intimacy Avoidance

Being human means being biologically wired to be in community and to bond with another (even in the short term) as both actions are integrally bound to the survival of our species. Sadly, there are many among us who long for connection and deep intimacy, but who also fear physical and emotional closeness in equal measure to their desire for closeness. Thus, they are unable or unwilling to seek out or maintain the kinds of human intimacies that help us all to self-soothe, regulate our emotions and to simply feel communion with another.

While some of these folks may avoid close relationships altogether, some intimacy avoidant individuals do enter into friendships and romances. Often the relationship seems to start out well, with an intense emotional attraction leading to a deeply felt (but in reality, superficial) connection. But, after a short time, the intimacy avoidant person starts to feel alternately trapped or bored or smothered, then starts a pattern of over-focusing on the new partner’s shortcomings and begins to disengage. After the breakup, the emotionally avoidant person continues to socialize but often loses any desire to date and for any type of sexual intimacy. This person might go from one ill-fated relationship to the next or avoid romantic and sexual relationships altogether — usually for a finite period (weeks, months or years), though occasionally he or she swears off relationships forever.

Intimacy avoidance is often caused by or related to early childhood trauma — physical neglect, emotional abandonment or other forms of abuse — all of which have been associated with attachment problems in adulthood. Instead of experiencing healthy bonding, children who are neglected and abused learn that intimacy is conditional or abusive, absent or overwhelming; they learn (on an emotional level) that to get to close is to get hurt, and thus it is best to fear and flee any lasting emotional connection. As an adult, the intimacy avoidant person often doesn’t make the connection between early life experiences and adult disappointments. These individuals sadly conclude that their relationships just “never work out” and some don’t even try to have them, thinking they are better off alone.

It is important to note here that there are multiple psychiatric diagnoses that can lead or relate to intimacy avoidance at any age, which have nothing to do with early psychological trauma. These include being on the spectrum of autism or schizophrenia, having profound attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder or social phobias. Once diagnosed, these conditions will often require the special care of psychiatrists and treatment teams well-versed in mental illness rehabilitation.

Defining characteristics of childhood neglect/abuse leading to attachment problems include:

  • Parents or caregivers who are absent, emotionally or cognitively unavailable, neglectful, intrusive or demanding, inconsistent, needy or anxious, smothering or narcissistic, depressed, mentally ill, addicted or unpredictable
  • Physical abuse and/or sexual abuse (overt or covert) perpetrated by parents, siblings, other relatives, teachers, coaches, clergy or bullies
  • Witnessing emotional, physical or sexual abuse of a caretaker or sibling; the greater the level of attachment to the victim or the perpetrator, the more traumatic this event will be
  • The trauma was not subsequently addressed and worked through, either by the family or through therapy
  • Growing up in a home where all attention is focused on a sibling or parent with a profound emotional or physical impairment
  • Being thrust into the role of parent’s confidante, companion or surrogate spouse (covert incest)
  • Being forced to fill an adult’s role in the family, such as caring for siblings
  • Being or feeling responsible for a troubled parent

The intimacy avoidant person tends to gravitate toward emotionally unavailable partners, often sex or love addicts. These relationships are usually doomed from the start, as both emotionally challenged individuals struggle to connect in a meaningful way. Nevertheless, intimacy avoidant people are usually relatively functional in other areas of life.

The flip side of the person suffering from intimacy avoidance would be the person suffering from sex or love addiction. Both are intimacy-related issues caused by early trauma, with those traumas surfacing in later years when the emotional threat of intimacy appears.

Common examples of intimacy avoidant people include:

  • The long-term uncommitted single who has many friends but avoids dating
  • The workaholic who rarely gets home in time to see his or her spouse
  • The helicopter parent who pours energy into his or her children while neglecting the needs of his or her spouse
  • The serial dater who bounces from one intense relationship to the next
  • The dater who sabotages promising relationships when the connection gets too close, then avoids entanglements for many months afterward
  • The couple that is engaged with technology to the exclusion of each other
  • The sex addict who pursues casual sex, but becomes bored and distant when a relationship grows intimate
  • The physically or emotionally abusive partner who uses anger and judgment to push others away
  • The person who seeks out and loves an abusive partner
  • The person who turns to drugs or alcohol to escape emotional connection

Help Is Available

Although attachment styles are established in childhood, they are not permanently locked in. Through therapy or through the process of establishing other healthy and healing relationships, people with intimacy issues can develop what is known as “earned security,” essentially overcoming their childhood wiring and learning to develop true intimacy and lasting emotional connection.

Therapy often begins with identifying and addressing co-occurring mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, addiction or personality disorders, which usually need to be stabilized before underlying trauma can be effectively addressed. This stage usually includes exploration and education about early-life attachment trauma and its relationship to later mental and emotional struggles, in order to begin the process of establishing context, helping the individual develop insight into the roots of the behavior, and reducing the intense shame that people with intimacy avoidance often feel.

Subsequent sessions often focus on helping the client develop skills for identifying and managing anxiety and the desire to flee intimacy and attachment. Longer-term therapy usually involves a combination of cognitive therapy, social skills training, group therapy, social learning and perhaps medication.

On the surface, intimacy avoidance may not seem like a serious mental health condition, and yet it has a profound impact on quality of life, productivity and overall happiness. With treatment, a person suffering from an intimacy disorder can reach his or her true emotional potential, and live a fully engaged, rewarding life.