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What Causes an Intimacy Disorder?

March 5, 2024

When you stack it all up — of everything we experience in our lives — it’s in knowing and being known and loved by others in which our lives find contentment and meaning. Humans are healthier in relationships with others. We need friendship. We need to engage with others who know us well. We need to feel loved, needed, and wanted. We need intimacy.

Types of Intimacy

VerywellMind.com defines intimacy as the feeling of closeness and connection with someone else. At its core, intimacy allows us to bond with others and fulfills our natural human desire for communication and connection. When we experience intimacy, we have greater satisfaction in our various relationships. Plus, we are physically and mentally healthier with intimacy in our lives. Intimacy helps combat loneliness and enables us to better manage stress. A study by the American Psychological Association even linked intimacy to a lower risk of chronic illness and death. But what does intimacy actually look like in our everyday lives? According to Healthline.com, intimate relationships come in four different forms:

  1. Experiential

Spending time together is essential to relationships and connection. With experiential intimacy, you share common activities, interests, or experiences that bring you together. Maybe you join a neighborhood pickleball league with some friends or take a cross-country road trip with your family to Niagara Falls. Experiential intimacy allows you to develop new relationships and create memories with loved ones that strengthen your closeness.

  1. Intellectual

When you exchange ideas or have deep, meaningful discussions, you bond through the experience of intellectual intimacy. This form of intimacy allows you to share your opinions and questions openly with someone else, solve problems together, and even have the freedom to challenge each other’s perspectives. Participating in a monthly book club with friends or taking a cooking class with your significant other are great ways to forge intellectual intimacy.

  1. Emotional

Emotional intimacy is a vital component of close relationships. With this type of intimacy, you share innermost feelings or form a spiritual connection. Building emotional intimacy with someone means you can be deeply vulnerable with one another, yet you feel safe, accepted, and understood. In practice, this can range from discussing your fears of the future with your spouse to participating in personal religious traditions and more.

  1. Sexual

With sexual intimacy, you have a close sensual relationship. This type of intimacy occurs when two people who are already emotionally connected and sexually attracted to one another engage in sexual acts together. Sexual intimacy provides several benefits, including reduced stress, improved mental health, and increased self-esteem. Kissing, holding hands, and hugging can also be supportive ways to build sexual intimacy with your partner.

Experiential and intellectual relationships don’t often require intimacy to be rewarding, but to have healthy emotional and sexual relationships with someone, intimacy is essential. Yet intimacy disorders can prevent people from getting vital healthy connection with others.

What Is an Intimacy Disorder?

Intimacy disorders include a range of issues from love addiction and sexual compulsion to attachment disorders. Rooted in emotional trauma, attachment issues are marked by a fear of emotional or physical closeness or connection with another person.

For many people, the trouble with intimacy is that the anxiety or fear associated with physical or emotional closeness to someone is what keeps them from finding the very thing they need the most.

Intimacy disorder symptoms include:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Struggles with trust
  • Episodes of anger
  • Avoidance of physical contact
  • Trouble forming or committing to close relationships
  • A history of unstable relationships
  • Inability to share feelings or express emotion
  • An insatiable sexual desire

Wherever you are on the intimacy disorder spectrum, choosing not to pursue intimacy disorder treatment will only do more harm to you and your relationships over time.

People who have a fear of intimacy are not without feelings. They want the same affirmation everyone else wants, to love and be loved. They feel lonely. They feel desire. But the fear of intimacy holds them hostage and keeps them isolated, even with people they care about. They may be open and vulnerable at the onset of a relationship, but when that relationship begins to feel too close or headed toward intimacy, people with intimacy anxiety disorder begin to push away or pull back, sabotaging the relationship’s future.

What Causes Intimacy Issues?

There are many root causes of intimacy disorder. Most can be attributed to trauma and intimacy issues from childhood experiences such as verbal, physical or sexual abuse, emotional neglect, substance abuse in the home, the death of a parent, or exposure to or experience of rejection.

Emotional issues connected to such childhood experiences often surface when triggered by the complexities of relationships in adulthood. VerywellMind.com offers a couple of examples of these:

Fear of Abandonment

Often, children who are abandoned by parents or caregivers become adults who fear their partners will do the same.

Fear of Engulfment

Children who sometimes grow up in dysfunctional families — families where there are no boundaries, unhealthy attachments, or parents with mental illness —  become adults who fear losing themselves or being controlled or dominated in relationships.

Signs of Intimacy Problems

So how do you know if someone you love has intimacy problems? For those who have emotional intimacy disorder, they may actually use sex as an escape from feeling negative emotions associated with closeness or intimacy. Some may engage in compulsive sexual behavior and even develop pornography or sex addictions. For others, childhood sexual trauma in particular can trigger signs of sexual intimacy issues in adulthood, such as:

  • Inhibited sexual desire or difficulty becoming aroused
  • Seeing sex as an obligation
  • Feelings of anger, disgust, or guilt when touched
  • Emotional distance during sex
  • Inappropriate sexual behaviors
  • Physical problems such as pain, erectile dysfunction, or difficulty having an orgasm

Memories of sexual trauma in childhood may be so repressed that it isn’t until adolescents and young adults begin experimenting with sex that these symptoms surface.

What Happens When an Intimacy Disorder Is Untreated?

emotional distressed woman sitting on bedroom floorAdult relationships — whether within families, friendships, or romantic relationships — are complex enough. It takes self-awareness, maturity, and the capacity for give-and-take to make relationships work long-term.

And like any emotional issue, there is a spectrum of impact. Some people who struggle with intimacy issues can work through them over time with the help of an emotionally intuitive partner. Others simply disconnect, unable to enjoy a close connection or relationship with anyone.

Wherever you are on the intimacy disorder spectrum, choosing not to pursue intimacy disorder treatment will only do more harm to you and your relationships over time. As you suppress the fear of intimacy, the sense of being unlovable or unworthy of closeness grows, destroying self-esteem and any hope of romantic intimacy with it.

Without seeking help for intimacy disorder, you’re at greater risk of:

  • Social isolation: If you have intimacy issues due to an avoidant attachment style you may particularly struggle with social isolation. As a result, you may experience unhealthy amounts of solitude that lead to anxiety, low self-esteem, and loneliness. Over time, social isolation can cause adverse health consequences like reduced immune function and poor cardiovascular health, Tulane University reports.
  • Depression: Many experiencing depression can feel a sense of worthlessness. You may also feel lost, numb, or disconnected from yourself. Because of this personal disconnection, depression can worsen the intimacy issues you already have by further damaging your personal relationships. Depression can lead to loneliness, isolation, or even suicidal thoughts as you lose interest in hobbies and people you love.
  • Substance abuse: Because intimacy issues can keep you from having intimate personal relationships to help you cope and regulate your emotions, you may turn to addictive substances for help instead. When you experience stress, negative emotions, or difficult circumstances, you may automatically seek out drugs or alcohol for a temporary fix, eventually becoming addicted.
  • Self- and relationship sabotage:  Over time, a fear of intimacy can manifest itself in self-sabotaging behaviors that keep you from achieving your goals or fulfilling your responsibilities. At the same time, these behaviors can cause relationship problems as you may distrust and manipulate your partners or even deliberately pursue hurtful actions like infidelity.

How to Heal and Recover From Fear of Intimacy

Overcoming an intimacy disorder is possible, but to get there, you need to explore how, where, and from whom you learned to shut yourself off emotionally from others.

The first step toward healing for those who struggle with the fear of intimacy is simple: Look inward to unravel the mystery of how you came to have this issue.

“It’s important to figure out why you’re feeling like you want to keep yourself emotionally closed off,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Melissa Divaris Thompson in Well+Good. “Have you been hurt? Have you been rejected or abandoned? Learning about your raw spots will help you understand why you may be distant from those who want to be close to you.”

Looking inward may not be possible as an individual pursuit. Sometimes, digging for answers to those questions requires a trusted professional to help you learn how to be transparent.

Intimacy Disorder Treatment at Willow House at The Meadows

Overcoming an intimacy disorder is possible, but to get there, you need to explore how, where, and from whom you learned to shut yourself off emotionally from others.

Willow House at The Meadows specializes in all kinds of relationship issues, including intimacy disorders, emotional trauma, sexual compulsivity, and dual diagnosis faced by women. Using a variety of therapeutic modalities and services, our goal for every woman who walks through our doors is to gain the courage to face life’s greatest challenges by examining the underlying causes of addiction and co-occurring disorders.

You can find healing and move forward in life with the tools you need to overcome trauma and intimacy issues. You deserve to love well and be well-loved. Take that first step toward healing today.