Biggest Barriers and Threats to Intimacy

Biggest Barriers and Threats to Intimacy

Rose MacDowell

Intimacy is essential to a close, healthy relationship. But psychological barriers to intimacy can create conflict or threaten a relationship's stability. Barriers to intimacy can include fears, unresolved wounds from childhood, mental health issues, and trauma from past relationships with family and partners.

Let's take a look at the biggest barriers and threats to intimacy, how they stand in the way of love, and how you or your partner can overcome blocks that may be impacting your relationship.

Fear of Intimacy 

Fear of intimacy is one of the most common barriers to love, and can affect everything from communication to sex to the ability to work through conflict. Intimacy-related fears might be subconscious, making it difficult to understand the reason behind your actions.

Fear of intimacy might also be referred to as intimacy issues. These can include:

Fear of abandonment. The fear of abandonment can make us sensitive to changes in the relationship or a partner's mood. You may be afraid of infidelity, losing your partner, not being loved, or not feeling loveable enough.

Fear of engulfment. The fear of engulfment can make closeness with another person feel too close. You might worry about feeling controlled or dominated, or losing your sense of who you are. You may crave a relationship with someone else, but feel smothered once you have a partner. 

Anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders and other mental health challenges can make it difficult to get close to other people, or to stay close in a longer-term relationship. Autism spectrum disorders can make it difficult to be physically close or pick up on social cues from a partner. Social anxiety might make us afraid of being judged or rejection, while other forms of anxiety might make sex 

What Are The Barriers To Intimacy?

Fear of intimacy and other barriers to close relationships can take several forms. Some of the most common are: 

  • Blaming and disparagement. Blaming is a way to place all responsibility on one partner, and is considered damaging and unproductive. Blaming is an example of poor conflict resolution skills, and can lead to resentment and lack of trust. Disparagement is criticism of a partner or their character, and, like blaming, rarely helps to resolve a conflict.     
  • Defensiveness. Defensiveness can be a response to feeling attacked, or a self-protective reaction learned in childhood. You may respond defensively when you feel blamed ("It's not my fault"), or because something your partner has said feels unfair. You might become defensive because you feel guilty or ashamed, and want to avoid confronting uncomfortable emotions. 
  • Dissociation. Dissociation is a way of "checking out" of a relationship, either as a way of defending against conflict or refusing to engage with our partner. Your mind may go blank, you might feel disconnected, or you may have the feeling of watching yourself from the outside. Dissociation can be a result of PTSD from childhood or associated with mental health issues like anxiety or depression.   
  • Lack of Sharing. Lack of sharing means you keep thoughts and feelings to yourself without revealing them to your partner. This is often a way to keep from feeling vulnerable, but can make a partner feel shut out or lonely. Over time, lack of sharing can lead to a strained or tense atmosphere in the relationship and difficulty connecting. 
  • Unresponsiveness. Like lack of sharing, unresponsiveness can make a partner feel shut out or ignored. You or your partner may use it during arguments to telegraph anger or disapproval without saying anything, or to gain a feeling of power. Also called stonewalling, unresponsiveness can be difficult for partners who are anxious or afraid of abandonment, especially if it lasts for a period of time. Therapists Harville and Helen Hendrix refer to stonewalling as one of the "four horsemen of the apocalypse," patterns of behavior during conflict that are more likely to lead to the end of a relationship.  
  • Lack of Touching. Many people consider affection and/or sex to be essential elements of a healthy relationship. A lack of touching can be a sign of past trauma, discomfort with sex or affection, or resentment due to difficulties with a partner. Lack of touching can also be a way to withhold affection as punishment, or as a way to try to exercise control in a relationship. 
  • Gatekeeping. Gatekeeping refers to micromanaging your partner's actions, particularly with tasks or household chores. It may seem as if the urge to micromanage is a function of high standards, but it can be a way of reducing intimacy through consistent criticism and attempts at control. Gatekeeping can also result from porous boundaries that make you feel as if you should have some control over your partner's movements or behavior. 
  • Inattention. Inattention can make a partner seem uninterested, bored, or disengaged from a relationship. A partner who fears intimacy may use inattention as a way to keep a safe emotional distance or to prevent the relationship from becoming closer. 
  • Frequency and Patterns of Arguing. A pattern of arguing can result from a fear of intimacy that drives one or both partners to push each other away. Partners who engage in frequent arguments are often more focused on conflict than on becoming more intimate and trusting of each other.  
  • Winner's Mindset. When we're involved in conflict with partners, we may feel the desire to "win" the argument and not give any ground. Though it may seem natural to want to win an argument, this kind of mindset can damage trust and create a competitive dynamic so that partners feel less like a team and more like opponents, particularly during conflict. 

How To Overcome Barriers To Intimacy

Overcoming barriers to intimacy takes self-awareness and a willingness to make changes to long-standing habits. Try some of these tricks for improving intimacy with your partner and short-circuiting unhealthy patterns of relating:

Blaming and disparagement. Instead of blaming or criticizing your partner, approach conflict with the idea that you bear 50% of the responsibility.  Think of the conflict as a problem that can only be fixed if you tackle it together with an "us against the problem" mentality. Instead of finger-pointing, focus on solutions. Avoid destructive tactics such as name-calling or criticizing. Try offering ideas that give you both some of what you want, and respect the needs of both sides.

Defensiveness. To stop yourself from responding defensively during conflict, try reacting with curiosity. Ask your partner to clarify, or give you more information so you can really understand what they've said. Remember that you have time to defend yourself if you still feel you need to, but don't have to react right away. Ask yourself if there's anything true in what you're hearing. Can you use it as an opportunity to grow? If your partner is defensive, try reassuring them that you care about them, or remind them that you also make mistakes in the relationship.

Dissociation. Dissociation can be a subconscious reaction to stress or conflict, but you can take steps to become aware of it. Notice how you feel during a conflict or conversation with your partner. To keep yourself in the moment, make eye contact and focus on your senses. What are you hearing, feeling, or smelling right now? Remind yourself that dissociation is a way to avoid feelings and confrontation, and is not an effective coping strategy.

If your partner dissociates, try taking a break until they feel less anxious and can be present. It might be easier for them if you take a walk or do another activity that helps them stay grounded and in the moment as you talk. If dissociation continues to be a problem for you or your relationship, consider seeing a therapist who can help you or your partner find new and healthier ways of dealing with anxiety. 

Lack of sharing. To overcome lack of sharing, start gradually. Try sharing one thought, feeling, or experience every day. You may have learned to withhold your feelings in childhood when you felt criticized or rejected, so it's important to reveal yourself to a partner, friend, or family member who makes you feel safe. 

Unresponsiveness. Instead of clamming up or giving your partner the silent treatment, try responding calmly. Staying calm can give you the feeling of safety and control you may be trying to find when you stonewall your partner or shut them out. If it feels too difficult to respond at first, try asking your partner if you can talk later when you feel able to have a conversation. Therapy can also help you learn to respond instead of closing down or trying to protect yourself with coping strategies that can damage your relationship over time.

Lack of Touching. Depending on the cause, overcoming discomfort with touching may take time or help from a therapist. You can try to become more comfortable with touch by starting with hand-holding, massage, or kissing goodbye in the morning. If or when you feel ready, increase touching to a few more times each day. If resentment has caused you and/or your partner to touch each other less, address any underlying unresolved issues with a couples' therapist, if necessary.

Gatekeeping. If you're the gatekeeper in the relationship, notice when you have the urge to micromanage your partner's actions. Understand that poor boundaries and the need for control drive gatekeeping. How your partner does a chore, cooks, or runs errands may feel like the primary issue, but gatekeeping is actually an indication of deeper issues and the need for control.

Try to allow your partner to function independently without oversight, even if it means that certain tasks aren't done exactly as you'd like. Ask your partner to point out when you micromanage them, and turn your attention toward yourself and what you'd like to accomplish in your own life. 

Inattention. Like lack of sharing and unresponsiveness, inattention can be a defense against vulnerability and closeness. Instead of letting your mind drift during conversations with your partner, force yourself to engage. Give them your full attention by asking questions and mirroring what they've said. If you feel bored or uncomfortable, remember that inattention is a way of shutting down and protecting yourself, and is probably something you learned early in life as a coping strategy. 

Frequency and patterns of arguing. To minimize frequent arguing, try changing the dynamic with non-defensive communication. Listen and be curious. Ask for more information. When one partner refuses to engage in an argument but instead responds with a neutral tone of voice and genuine curiosity, the established pattern can often be broken. If arguing continues, a couples' therapist may be able to help you find new ways and healthier ways of dealing with conflict. 

Winner's mentality. A winner's mentality is common with couples who argue frequently. Try approaching a conflict by imagining both you and your partners as winners. How can you tackle the problem together? Is there a compromise that works for both of you? Picture both of you on the same side, working on a solution against an adversary. You can help to avoid a power struggle during conflict with a focus on winning against the problem, as a team, together.