Understanding Intimacy Avoidance

Intimacy avoidant people fear the smothering sensation caused by enmeshment with another person. When these men and women are in a relationship that starts to feel too close they begin the process of distancing themselves and eventually creating/forcing a (usually painful) breakup. Sometimes they string their ill-fated relationships together one after another; other times they avoid romantic and sexual relationships altogether, usually for finite periods of time (a few weeks, a few months, a few years) though occasionally forever. Common examples of intimacy avoidant people include:

  • The spinster or confirmed bachelor who has many friends but avoids dating and being sexual with others, with or without excuses for this behavior.
  • The hard-working husband who rarely gets home in time to see his wife awake, let alone to interact with her in any meaningful way.
  • The dutiful mother who pours her entire self into childcare, neglecting the emotional and sexual needs of her husband.
  • The serial dater who bounces from one intense yet unfulfilling relationship to another, never allowing anyone to get too close.
  • The “annual” dater who gets into a relationship that seems promising, sabotages it when the connection starts to feel enmeshed, and then avoids dating and sex for many months afterward.
  • The modern couple – pairs who allow themselves to become more interested in and engaged with technology than each other.
  • The sex addict who is hypersexual and highly aroused by casual sex, but quickly becomes bored, distant, and nonsexual when a relationship turns intimate.
  • The abusive partner (physical, verbal, etc.) who uses anger and judgment to push others away.
  • The man or woman who loves/chases an abusive partner.
  • The addict (substance or behavioral) who escapes emotional connection (and therefore potential emotional discomfort) through use of intensely stimulating substances and/or behaviors.

Nearly always, intimacy avoidant adults have suffered chronic attachment trauma during childhood via repeated physical neglect, psychosocial neglect (emotional and cognitive unavailability), emotional abuse, physical abuse, and/or sexual abuse (overt or covert) perpetrated by parents, siblings, or other relatives. (Chronic early-life attachment trauma can also occur at the hands of teachers, coaches, clergy, bullies, and others.) It is possible for chronic attachment trauma to happen even when the individual is not directly victimized. For example, children who witness domestic violence may not have the abuse directed at them specifically, but they nonetheless suffer by living in a fear-based, unpredictable environment.

In treatment, it is important to ferret out intimacy avoidance patterns and their origins – most often some form of neglect, abandonment, emotional/physical/sexual abuse, and/or emotional enmeshment (such as covert incest) by a parent or another primary caregiver. Childhood experiences that commonly contribute to intimacy avoidance include:

  • Being raised by a smothering or narcissistic parent whose needs supersede those of the child.
  • Being emotionally, physically, and/or sexually abused by a primary caretaker or sibling.
  • Growing up in a home where there is persistent and profound mental illness, addiction, or both.
  • Witnessing the emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse of a primary caretaker or sibling.
  • Growing up in a home where a sibling or parent has a profound emotional or physical impairment/illness (and there is no balance of attention and focus).
  • Being physically, emotionally, and/or socially neglected or abandoned.
  • Being treated as a parent’s confidante, companion, or surrogate spouse (covert incest).
  • Needing (or being forced) to fill an adult’s role in the family, such as caring for siblings (especially in single-parent homes or addicted households).
  • Being (or feeling) responsible for a troubled parent (an addict, an invalid, someone who is mentally ill).

Complicating matters is that fact that many intimacy-challenged survivors of chronic attachment trauma present with co-occurring issues – addictions, depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, anger management issues, chaotic lifestyles, and the like – that must be stabilized before underlying trauma can effectively be addressed. That said, education about early-life attachment trauma and its connection to present-day intimacy avoidance should begin early on, if for no other reason than the need for contextual analysis and shame reduction.

After this initial “safety and stability” stage of treatment, coping skills for dealing with the desire to avoid and/or escape the oppressive sensation of emotional attachment via intimacy avoidance can be developed, usually in conjunction with the deeper therapeutic work of re-experiencing, processing, and resolving early-life attachment traumas. Usually, this type of long-term healing involves some combination of social skills training, cognitive therapies, group therapy, social learning, and perhaps medication, similar to the treatment of complex (multi-layered) trauma in general.