Understanding Intimacy Avoidance
Intimacy avoidance is a concept that might seem confusing. We pretty much accept the fact that being human means being normatively wired to seek and maintain community and connection.
After all, isn’t bonding with a life partner essential to the continued existence of our species?
Sadly, sufferers of intimacy avoidance might want love… but they actually fear intimacy more. They are uncomfortable with the kinds of human closeness that help us to self-soothe, regulate our emotions, or just feel connected with an intimate partner.
While some may avoid close relationships entirely, some intimacy avoidants do occasionally have friendships and love affairs. Frequently these relationships seem to start out well. An intense emotional or sexual attraction leads to a felt (but superficial) bond.
But eventually, the intimacy avoidant begins to feel alternately trapped, bored, or smothered, and then initiates a pattern of hyper-focusing on their new partner’s shortcomings and begins to systematically disengage emotionally.
After the breakup, the emotional avoidant may continue to socialize but frequently loses any desire to date, and for any sexual intimacy. Intimacy avoidants might drift from one doomed relationship to another, or avoid romantic and sexual relationships entirely — typically for a limited time (weeks, months or years), although some intimacy avoidants are content to swear off relationships forever.
Intimacy avoidance is usually related to early childhood trauma (physical neglect, emotional rejection or other forms of mistreatment), as is sex addiction. All of which become the foundation of their difficulties with intimacy in later adulthood. Rather than experiencing strong bonding, children who are neglected or abused “learn” that affection is conditional, abusive, absent or overpowering.
They also learn (on an emotional level) that to get too close is to get hurt, and so it’s best to flee from these feelings. As an adult, the intimacy avoidant usually doesn’t connect the dots between their early life experiences and current adult disappointments.
Here are some examples of intimacy avoidant behaviors:
Help for Intimacy Avoidance
Attachment styles established in childhood are not cast in stone. Through therapy, and the deliberate pursuit of healthy relationships, intimacy avoidants can build a sense of what Robert Weiss describes as “earned security.” Therapy helps the intimacy avoidant to transcend their early childhood programming and acquire the necessary skills essential for authentic intimacy and lasting emotional bonds.
Therapy for intimacy avoidance often begins with identifying and addressing co-morbid mental health problems, such as depression, substance abuse, anxiety, or personality disorders. These co-existing conditions must be identified and adequately treated before the foundational childhood trauma can be fully and safely explored. This early work usually involves a gentle probing of early attachment history, as well as psycho-education on the connection between their emotional deficits due to childhood trauma, and the emotional difficulties they are experiencing in later adulthood. Establishing a safe therapeutic bond and the regulation of toxic shame are vital to treating intimacy avoidance.
The intimacy avoidant heals in therapy when they achieve success in regulating anxiety, and develop an increasing awareness of how (and why) they seek to avoid lasting intimate attachments. For some, intimacy avoidance therapy is multi-modal; involving a combination of cognitive restructuring, developing increased social skill, group therapy, social learning and perhaps even medication.
On the surface, intimacy avoidance may not seem as severe as sex addiction. But the inability to form intimate bonds has a decidedly negative impact on the overall quality of life. With treatment, a person suffering from intimacy avoidance can realize a deeper capacity for joy and connection, and overcome the deficits from their emotionally impoverished childhood.
Do you or your partner struggle to connect.. but you just can’t figure it out?
Call us for more information 844-926-8753 to reach me, Daniel Dashnaw, use option 2.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.