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What is an Intimacy Disorder? Causes, Symptoms & Treatments

Young couple sitting on leather couch not talking looking at opposite direction

From a young age, most people learn to develop intimacy in relationships, typically with their family members and then other loved ones. As people age, intimate relationships grow beyond platonic and also develop into romantic relationships. Intimacy deepens relationships and draws you closer to others. 

Intimacy takes relationships beyond the surface level. But, some people struggle to share their emotions with others, be vulnerable, or form meaningful connections. If you feel lonely, frustrated by, or afraid of close relationships with others, you may be experiencing an intimacy disorder.  

Intimacy disorders can make it difficult to maintain romantic relationships and healthy friendships, resulting in feelings of shame and despair.

Types of Intimacy

Intimacy is a natural closeness that builds between people in a relationship. It reflects trust, emotional vulnerability, and mutual acceptance. Intimacy makes people feel seen and understood by others. 

Every relationship is unique, so intimacy may be characterized by one or more types.

Types of intimacy include:

  • Experiential. Quality time together is the heart of this intimacy type. It’s about sharing common interests like hobbies or enjoying experiences that bring you together. You enjoy creating memories that further your connection. 
  • Intellectual. This type includes deep philosophical discussions where the other person just “gets” you. You share opinions and ask questions, even if you find yourself on opposite sides of an argument. You find connection through stimulating conversation and solving problems together. 
  • Emotional. When you have a relationship in which you can be deeply vulnerable with someone about your feelings, it indicates emotional intimacy. Even when confessing your darkest secrets, you feel safe, cared for, and understood. Conversations may revolve around your values and morals or seeking advice on difficult circumstances in your life.
  • Sexual. This intimacy encompasses a close relationship with physical touch and sensuality. It usually starts as an emotionally supportive relationship that evolves into a trusting, physical connection.

In addition to creating closeness in a relationship, intimacy improves people’s general well-being. When you experience intimacy, it helps you combat stress and loneliness. It’s even been linked to lowering your risk of chronic illness

Understanding Intimacy Disorders

So what happens when you can’t properly form intimate connections? Intimacy disorders make it difficult to be vulnerable with others. You may fear getting too close to or sharing ties with another person. It’s not only limited to emotions but also includes physical intimacy. 

People with intimacy disorders struggle to be their true selves. You may feel you have to put on a “fake” version of yourself to get close to others.

Sometimes, you will deliberately or unconsciously avoid intimacy with other people. Although you may want intimate relationships with others, you can’t overcome the fear. 

“Intimacy disorder” is an umbrella term to include different types of disorders. 

They include: 

  • Sexual Anorexia. This disorder is an obsessiveness with avoiding sex. It usually stems from childhood trauma, like sexual assault or abuse, or sexual repression. 
  • Love Avoidance. Marked by a desire to stay in control of the frequency and intensity of emotional connection, love avoidance is indicated by exhibiting a “bachelor for life” persona, as well as many intense on-and-off relationships.
  • Love Addiction. Those with this type of intimacy disorder have an unhealthy fixation on others that results in obsessive compulsions. People experiencing love addiction tend to select unhealthy partners because healthy relationships cause them anxiety.
  • Sex Addiction. Like sexual anorexia, sex addiction, which includes masturbation or pornography addiction, can stem from a history of trauma or toxic relationships. It drives a person to constantly seek sexual gratification to overcome or cope with negative emotions.

While there is still limited research on intimacy disorders, you’re not alone in experiencing it. Some researchers estimate that 2.5% of the population experiences avoidant personality disorder, also known as intimacy anxiety disorder. 

Causes and Risk Factors

While intimacy disorders can stem from various factors, they typically derive from trauma. A lack of nurturing in childhood causes difficulty in forming meaningful connections in adulthood. 

Types of trauma that can result in intimacy disorders include:

  • Physical Trauma. This can include physical abuse by a family member or other adult in childhood, physical abuse by an intimate partner, or a physical attack by a stranger. 
  • Emotional Trauma. Emotional trauma is how the mind can respond to and attempt to protect itself from extreme emotional stressors, causing ongoing symptoms, including fear for one’s safety. 
  • Sexual Trauma. This trauma is marked by experiencing sexual abuse in childhood by a family member or trusted adult. It can also include sexual assault perpetrated by an intimate partner or a stranger.
  • Betrayal Trauma. This occurs when you are betrayed by a person or organization that you trusted. The betrayed person may doubt their judgment and ultimately not trust anyone else anymore. This outcome may also be a result of any of the above types of trauma.

Trauma manifests in fear. It’s an automatic attempt to protect yourself from further danger, but it does more long-term harm than good. Rooted in a fear of rejection or abandonment, intimacy disorders develop from past experiences. If you lost a parent at a young age or experienced rejection from a romantic partner at a young age, it affects you into adulthood. Your brain holds on to the memory and tries to protect you from future traumas. 

Matt Wenger, Clinical Director at Begin Again Institute, said intimacy disorders are almost always rooted in trauma, specifically trauma that occurs before the age of 20. He said this trauma leads to core beliefs of being bad or unworthy of love, which makes people want to keep others at arm’s length.

“The pain of these traumas can also lead to negative coping that one may feel the need to hide from others, thus widening the gap further and confirming to themselves the negative beliefs they already had,” he added. 

Symptoms and Signs

Intimacy disorders can manifest in myriad symptoms. While some people may use sex as a tool to avoid emotional intimacy, others may be triggered by sexual activities due to trauma and avoid it completely. If you’re concerned you or a loved one may be experiencing an intimacy disorder, look for these signs.

Signs and symptoms of intimacy disorders include:

  • Compulsive sexual behavior
  • Insatiable sexual desire
  • Fear of long-term commitment 
  • Struggle to form or maintain relationships, platonic or romantic
  • Feelings of anger, fear, disgust, or guilt when touched
  • Actively avoiding sexual contact
  • Difficulty being vulnerable with others
  • Discomfort expressing affection
  • Feeling emotionally distant during sex
  • Struggling to trust
  • Difficulty becoming aroused
  • Social isolation
  • Feeling depressed or anxious
  • Having a history of unstable relationships

Effects on Relationships

Intimacy furthers a connection with someone else. It fulfills the natural human desire to bond with another person. When you have an intimacy disorder, it creates challenges in establishing and maintaining intimate relationships. The fear of potential hurt can cause you to put up barriers in your relationships. You struggle to fully trust the other person.

When your partner feels you don’t trust them, it can cause a rift in the relationship. They may interpret your discomfort with intimacy to be a reflection of their own shortcomings. It can further their insecurities and make them doubt the authenticity of the relationship.

What Happens When an Intimacy Disorder Is Left Untreated

If you’re experiencing an intimacy disorder, it can cause great distress if unmanaged. The more you suppress the fear and anxieties, the worse your symptoms will become. It can affect your self-esteem, causing you to feel unlovable, unworthy of affection, or unable to start new relationships.  

Your inner frustration may cause you to lash out at your partner, sabotaging your relationship. You may turn to infidelity to suppress insecurities. Left untreated, your relationships will suffer as a result of the disorder. 

Without seeking help, you may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms. Substance use or social isolation can cause long-term physical or mental health problems. You may experience depression or anxiety and lose interest in hobbies or spending time with the people you love. 

Treatment for Intimacy Disorders

Healing from these disorders often requires intimacy disorder treatment. A mental health professional can help you understand why and how the disorder developed, unpack the root cause, and work through the trauma. 

Regular counseling sessions, group therapy, or residential treatment programs, like the programs at Begin Again Institute, are all effective options for treating intimacy disorders. 

While professional help may be the most effective treatment, there are some coping methods you can try on your own that can help.

At-home coping strategies include:

  • Reflect on your own behavior and relationship history
  • Journal about times you have felt fear or anxiety in a relationship
  • Confide in a trusted loved one
  • Join a support group or network 
  • Find places where you can be your authentic self
  • Prioritize self-care 
  • Invest time in hobbies you enjoy
  • Set goals and review them
  • Have compassion for yourself 

Find Healing at Begin Again Institute 

An intimacy disorder can make you feel exhausted. You may feel that you must be someone you’re not or hide your true feelings out of fear. It can make you feel like you’re missing out on meaningful relationships, causing you to feel lonely or ashamed. 

If experiencing an intimacy disorder has caused distress in your life, there is hope for healing. Begin Again Institute offers residential treatment programs specifically tailored to treating intimacy disorders. The program helps men find and heal the causes of their concerns and stop the destructive behaviors that prevent true intimacy. If you’re ready to change your life, give us a call today.

  • Category: Intimacy Disorders
  • By Begin Again Institute
  • March 29, 2024

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