Overcoming Fear of Intimacy
by Charles Downey
Self-condemning behaviors and attitudes are often passed from parents to children. These messages often block true intimacy between adult couples.
For example, shortly after John married Sally, he passionately told her one night he loved her long, blonde hair, especially when it was flowing over her shoulders. John confessed he especially liked her locks just after they made love.
The next day, Sally went to the beauty shop and had her hair cut short. When John saw it, he was shocked and felt like a rug had been pulled from under him. He felt anger start to rise, but then saw how pleased Sally was with the new hairdo. He said nothing, but he felt distanced from her.
Later, Sally recalled that as a child her mother frequently told her that she was quiet and ugly. That message stuck with her into adulthood. John's passionate admiration clashed with the deeply instilled message, so Sally set out to maintain her unflattering image by cutting her cherished hair.
Inheriting Attitudes From Parents
In a child's mind, the parent is always perfect, so children may blame themselves for parental faults and weaknesses. Children can pick up negative attitudes about themselves and how their parents treat one another.
Those attitudes may contribute to an adult's self-image. Often, a child will hear and adopt her mother or father's opinions and continue venting them for a lifetime.
Messages commonly passed on to girls may include:
Messages commonly passed on to boys include:
Choosing a Mate
When a child who has heard these messages becomes an adult and selects a mate, that mate often resembles a parent or other significant caregiver. That happens because the person, and his or her personality, are familiar.
The cure and eventual intimacy comes when couples start to see their parents realistically as flawed humans with faults and weaknesses, as well as strengths. The next step is to use the same insights on their mates and themselves.
Letting the Beliefs Out TOP
Getting closer may begin by disclosing negative attitudes and deeply held beliefs. For instance, when Sally got her hair cut short, she could reveal how her family considered her the ugly one. John might disclose that he still puts women on a pedestal and cannot direct anger toward them because he idealized his mother.
Increasing the Intimacy TOP
Another school of thought says that couples can become closer by celebrating the differences between them.
Some tips for celebrating differences include:
American Psychological Association
Mental Health America
Canadian Psychiatric Association
Canadian Psychological Association
Understanding fear of intimacy. PsychAlive website. Available at:
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Accessed November 11, 2013.
Last reviewed November 2013 by Michael Woods, MD
Last Updated: 11/12/2013