Overcoming Fear of Intimacy

Negative attitudes and shame are often passed from parents to children. This often blocks true intimacy (closeness) between adult couples.

For example, one night John told his wife Sally that he loved her long, brown hair. The next day, Sally had her hair cut short. When John saw it, he was shocked. He felt that she did not care about what he liked. He felt angry, but then saw how happy Sally was with her new hairdo. He said nothing, but he felt distanced from her.

Later, Sally remembered when her mother said she was ugly. That message stayed with her into adulthood. When John admired her beauty, it did not match her deep belief that she was ugly. So, Sally set out to maintain her poor self-image. She cut her cherished hair.

Inheriting Attitudes From Parents

Children think their parents are always perfect. They often blame themselves for their parents' faults and weaknesses. Children also often adopt their mother or father's negative attitudes and opinions. They can carry these attitudes into adulthood and never question them.

Messages commonly passed on to girls may include:

  • All men want is sex.
  • Men do not have feelings.
  • Men are always unfaithful.
  • Men will not let you think for yourself.

Messages commonly passed on to boys include:

  • All women are overly emotional.
  • Women are fragile and sensitive; be careful what you say to them.
  • It is a man's job to make a woman feel good. If you cannot, you are a failure.
  • Women always want more than you can give.

Choosing a Mate

Adults often choose partners who are similar to a parent in some way. This is because the person feels familiar.

Healing and intimacy can begin when couples learn more about themselves. They need to see how their childhood affected them. This means seeing their parents' faults and weaknesses as well as strengths. The next step is to apply this knowledge to themselves and their partners.

Letting the Beliefs Out

Getting closer may begin by talking about negative attitudes and beliefs. For instance, Sally could reveal how her family thought she was ugly. John might disclose that he cannot express anger at women. He thought his mother was perfect and could never be angry at her.

Increasing the Intimacy

Couples can also become closer by appreciating their differences.

Here are some ways to do this:

  • Remember, the other person is not you. Your partner's behavior, attitudes and feelings are important too.
  • Be curious, not furious. Teach your partner about yourself. This can help get to the deeper meaning of a person's behavior.
  • Accept love and compliments. Many people have learned that they do not deserve love and praise.
  • Open up. Talk about your current fears, anxiety, or upsets. This is being intimate.

American Psychological Association

Mental Health America


Canadian Psychiatric Association

Canadian Psychological Association


About fear of intimacy. The Glendon Association website. Available at: https://www.glendon.org/post-topic/fear-of-intimacy. Accessed June 11, 2021.

Fear of intimacy: understanding why people fear intimacy. PsychAlive website. Available at: http://www.psychalive.org/fear-of-intimacy. Accessed June 11, 2021.

Harris MA, Orth U. The link between self-esteem and social relationships: A meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2020;119(6):1459-1477

Last reviewed June 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board   Last Updated: 6/11/2021