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What Causes an Intimacy Disorder?

August 18, 2021

By Melissa Riddle Chalos 

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. 

According to Healthline.com, intimate relationships come in four different forms:

1. Experiential

You share common activities, interests, or experiences that bring you together.

2. Intellectual

You bond through an exchange of ideas, or deep, meaningful discussions.

3. Emotional

You share innermost feelings or form a spiritual connection.

4. Sexual

You have a close sensual relationship.

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.

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, attachments 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. 

Fear of intimacy 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

People who fear 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.

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

What Causes Intimacy Issues?

There are many root causes of intimacy disorder.  Most can be attributed to traumatic 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. 

Childhood sexual trauma, in particular, can trigger signs of 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 You Don’t Deal with It? 

What Happens When You Don't Deal with an Intimacy Disorder? - Willow HouseAdult 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 are able to 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 deal with it 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
  • Depression
  • Substance abuse
  • Self- and relationship sabotage

How to Heal and Recover?

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 understand why you’re feeling like you want to keep yourself emotionally closed off,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Melissa Divaris Thompson. “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. Understanding your anxiety and fear around intimacy will also help you make different choices.”

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. 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 for Women 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 intimacy issues. You deserve to love well and be well-loved. Take that first step toward healing today.