Psychologists Sydney / Relationships / Fear of Intimacy and Commitment

Emotional intimacy is an essential component of any good relationship. Fear of intimacy and a lack of trust in relationships often derives from the family interactions you witnessed and experienced as a child. Counselling and therapy can help you conquer your fear of emotional closeness and allow you to experience the full value of a positive relationship. Another article offers specific information about sex therapy and sexual issues.

Fear of intimacy and its affect on your relationships

intimacy in your relationship

Deep and emotionally intimate relationships are what many of us desire, but for some people, these types of relationships are fraught with the fear of being hurt or being rejected. Of all of the activities that humans engage in, being in a relationship with another person is probably the hardest thing we ever attempt. Very often, family history and what we are taught about relationships has a huge impact on how we approach intimacy as we become adults. It is only when we gain self-understanding and learn about the underlying reasons for our fears that we can begin to relax into mutually trusting relationships, reaching emotional depth and satisfaction. (This article is electronically protected – Copyright © Associated Counsellors & Psychologists Sydney PTY LTD)

Matthew’s Story

Matthew is an articulate and intelligent man in his early 40s. He is well established in his career and frequently dates, although he never seems to have a steady girlfriend for more than a few months. Although he occasionally wishes that he were married and had a family, he finds that he rarely dates anyone for longer than a few months. One day Matthew realizes that of all his old school friends, he is the only one without a long-term serious partner. He starts to wonder whether he might be the common problem factor in his string of unsuccessful relationships. He starts to suspect that he might be pushing women away, and sabotaging good relationships, due to a fear of intimacy. (This article is electronically protected – Copyright © Associated Counsellors & Psychologists Sydney PTY LTD)

On some level, he suspects he will probably never get married or have children of his own. Yet this knowledge makes Matthew feel sad and lonely. Matthew decides to visit a professional counsellor to talk about what is clearly a patter of failed, short-term relationships. His counsellor helps him sketch out a personal as well as a family history and in the course of therapy, Matthew is reminded of his poor relationship with his parents growing up. Although he was never physically or emotionally abused, he did remember that his parents fought a lot while he was growing up. He remembered that he often heard them fighting and blaming each other or their children for their stress and arguments. Furthermore, with the help of the counsellor, Matthew realised that while he was growing up he craved his parents’ attention but because they both worked long hours, they seldom spent any time with him. Most of the interactions he had with his mother, whilst growing up, had to do with her scolding him for his poor grades in school and she often engaged in negative comparisons between him and his more accomplished siblings.

Through counselling, Matthew realises that he came from a family where his parents constantly fought with each other and had little time to truly engage with him emotionally. He also comes to the realisation that while he loved his entire family, at some level he had sworn to himself that he would never enter into a marriage or allow what happened to him to happen to another child. Matthew realises that his fear of intimacy and marriage is a fear that in marrying he will find himself trapped in a loveless marriage, making victims of his own children as he was once emotionally neglected in childhood. He realises that he must work on these fears before he is able to move on to establishing a healthy relationship with a long-term partner.

What do our parents teach us about relationships?

Our parents are our first role models in life. They teach us about safety, security and our value as people. They also teach us about relationships –about respect, trust and how to be with another person.

For those of us brought up in families where constant conflict exists, our parents teach us that being married, or being in a committed relationship, means being frequently angry at one another. As children, we do not always understand what parents or adults fight about, but we certainly recognise anger and upset feelings when we are around them. Children raised in an atmosphere of loud angry voices, recriminations and accusations can grow up to be adults who avoid conflict at any cost. They may be unwilling, or even unable, to voice their own emotions or opinions that are negative or different from that of their partner’s.

Another thing that we learn about as children from our parents is trust. Trust takes many forms. It can be trust that the world is a safe place, where our needs will be met, or trust in the people around us. Children who are abused, neglected, ignored or regularly criticised, often become adults who have a very difficult time relaxing and trusting that it is okay to let down our emotional guards and to let someone else in.

Even those of us who were not victims of physical or serious emotional abuse as children can still have a difficult time trusting intimate others, if we come from a family that did not value us for simply being who we were as individuals. (This article is electronically protected – Copyright © Associated Counsellors & Psychologists Sydney PTY LTD)

Why is trust important in relationships?

Trust is the foundation of all emotionally intimate relationships. The very nature of relationships requires that we trust enough in other people to share our inner feelings and thoughts with them – even though that sharing may make us vulnerable and at risk of being hurt or rejected. Intimate relationships are not limited to romantic or sexual relationships either, but instead can include almost any type of relationship, including friends, family and even co-workers.

Deep trust is not something that usually happens instantaneously when we meet someone new. Instead it is something that most often develops over time, with each person taking small risks in trusting the other person, by sharing small pieces of information and gauging the reactions to that information. For example, on a first meeting, we might share what kind of work we do, or our favourite food or the types of movies we enjoy. We probably would not share stories about our first sexual experience or our deepest fears. Not only would this be ill-advised, but it would probably be alarming to the other person because it would be sharing at an inappropriate level for a first meeting.

As a relationship develops, we gradually begin to share thoughts and feelings which further develop trust. In some ways, it is like the children’s game “one for you, one for me.” We share something about ourselves – “I really love the colour of leaves when the seasons change,” – and the other person shares something about themselves at a similar level – “me too, don’t you just love the deep hues of red and gold?” As time passes, the exchanges become more meaningful as we are able to share without fearing rejection or hurt for what we are sharing – “It really scares me to think about being old and being unable to take care of myself,” “I know, my grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s before she died and it was awful to watch.” (This article is electronically protected – Copyright © Associated Counsellors & Psychologists Sydney PTY LTD)

Intimacy and sex: Are they the same thing?

Very often we hear of a couple being “intimate” and understand that it is a polite way of saying that they have been sexual with each other. However, intimacy can be far more complex and multi-faceted than a sexual relationship. For many individuals, fear of intimacy and apprehensions about deeply emotional relationships can be roadblocks to truly fulfilling relationships. The reasons for these fears can be substantial and are generally brought about by an overwhelming desire to avoid past hurts. Distinguishing between sex and intimacy may be a foundational step toward establishing a truly fulfilling relationship.

Why is being vulnerable difficult?

For many of us, being vulnerable means that we must trust enough to risk being hurt by the other person. This can be a very scary prospect, especially if past experiences have shown us that trusting and opening up emotionally can leave us hurting and filled with regret and pain.

Another reason that opening up to another person can be so difficult, is that many of us grew up in homes where vulnerability was not valued. It may also be that we witnessed family members getting hurt because of trusting and sharing. A family history of domestic violence, emotional manipulation or simply being told that our thoughts and feelings are not important, valid, or should not be shared, can also be reason why some people become wary of becoming emotionally vulnerable to another person.

Why am I scared of emotional intimacy and vulnerability?

While coming from a family history of emotional neglect or devaluing can certainly contribute to a reluctance to being emotionally vulnerable, another reason people often become hesitant to get emotionally involved has to do with power dynamics. Often, we are faced with the difficulty that if we open ourselves up emotionally to another person through trust and vulnerability, then we also run the risk of that person having knowledge about us that we might not share with others. This can be a scary proposition, particularly if what we are sharing is a part of ourselves that we protect and rarely, if ever, reveal to anyone else. If we come from a position of never wanting anyone else to have power over us, then letting our defenses down and becoming vulnerable can be one of the scariest things we ever do.

Casey’s story

Casey was in her mid 30s and had a successful career in advertising. She dated fairly often, but usually within a few months of meeting someone and going out a few times, she found that she had a hard time sharing or even really talking about her feelings with them. If she was pressed to talk about her past or about what she wanted for the future, she found she would soon break off the relationship. While she felt lonely and knew that she eventually wanted to have a family, she would always find herself feeling afraid of losing her sense of self, if she really allowed herself to enter a long term, committed relationship.

Casey met Jeremy and they hit it off quite quickly. Except Jeremy was different, he didn’t seem to want to be sexual without getting to know her first. He was gentle, but persistent, and began asking Casey why trust was so difficult for her. Casey began to realise that he had a point – she didn’t really trust him, or anyone else for that matter. When he encouraged her to talk to a counsellor, she found a therapist she eventually began to trust, who helped her come to understand what in her family history and past experiences stood between her and the relationship and family she wanted for herself.

How Can Counselling Help with Fear of Intimacy?

Seeking the help of a professional counsellor, psychologist or therapist can allow you to gain an understanding of your family history and how you developed or failed to develop a sense of trust in other people. Counselling sessions may also be able to help you uncover how your family relationship patterns can be passed down from generation to generation.

Common methods for addressing relationship intimacy issues include:

  • The Psycho-dynamic approach. This allows the counsellor to work with the client to establish a safe relationship within therapy. Eventually, the client may learn what a safe relationship is and then can hopefully go on to create similar relationships outside of therapy.
  • Family Genograms or Relationship Pattern Graphs
  • Talking about Fears
  • Role Playing
  • Discussions About Personal Relationship History


Ultimately, working with a counsellor, therapist, or psychologist may help you conquer your fears about trust and emotional closeness so that you can begin to engage in satisfying and mutually beneficial relationships.

How Do I Seek Find Help for Intimacy Issues?

If you or you or someone you know is facing intimacy fears or relationship issues, a counsellor, psychologist or therapist may be able to help. They can help you learn about how past events are influencing your current experiences, help you identify specifically where your fears lie and teach you methods to conquer those fears. (This article is electronically protected – Copyright © Associated Counsellors & Psychologists Sydney PTY LTD)

If you are struggling with relationship problems and would like to book a consultation with a qualified counsellor, or would like to obtain further advice please contact: Associated Counselors & Psychologists Sydney

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