Sex in Marriage and Fear of Intimacy

Richard Nicastro, PhD looks at why “intimacy is not for the faint of heart” and how a fear of intimacy can get in the way of the quality of the sexual relationship in your marriage.  He poses questions for reflection for you and your partner to improve the connection.

Emotional intimacy involves a connection that occurs between two people who have let their guard down and are able to be emotionally present without the defenses they’ve learned to hide behind—defenses that we all occasionally rely upon after a lifetime of emotional bumps and bruises. In these connecting moments, egos and pretense are put aside and each person approaches the other with humility and an open heart. Inherent in this type of authentic contact is the ability and willingness to be emotionally vulnerable—to give your partner access to the most fragile parts of who you are.

In these moments, vulnerability and intimacy are synonymous.

The truth is that many of us have learned to sequester the most vulnerable parts of ourselves—like a parent shielding a young child from imminent danger, we’ve all developed ways to protect and shield ourselves. And when the wounding is emotional, this protection involves a psychic shell-game of sorts, where you shuffle away the parts of yourself that you don’t want others to see. And, over time, we come to inhabit roles that others get to see, roles that give us a sense of familiarity, predictability and comfort. These roles may or may not be in line with our most authentic selves; and they may or may not involve our deepest vulnerabilities.

How a Fear of Intimacy Impacts Sexual Intimacy

Sex in marriage (or a committed relationship) is a means of expressing the profound love you feel for your spouse/partner. Sex as an expression of love is imbued with emotion (caring, tenderness, empathy, altruism, compassion, generosity, excitement, pleasure, joy), and it is the accessing and openness to these emotions within yourself, as well as within your partner, that allows for the deep sense of connection and oneness that can occur through sexual expression.

But when we fear intimacy, we struggle to open ourselves in this way because of the expectation of rejection. On the one hand, we desire emotional closeness, but on the other, we think (consciously or unconsciously), “If you see the real me [or this aspect of me], you wouldn’t want to be with me” – or some version of this sentiment. A fear of intimacy can be described as a fear of being fully seen by another, especially when this person matters to you and therefore has the power to hurt you.

Others who struggle with intimacy may have experienced debilitating shame (often in childhood) and feel unworthy of love. The anticipation of further humiliation keeps the shame-prone person locked in an inner prison where others are not allowed access. In these instances, emotional and physical intimacy remain at a surface level since the person who fears intimacy ultimately controls the level of intimacy that occurs (even if s/he is unaware of this fact).

“I think my first husband had a fear of intimacy. Whenever we had sex, it was like he wasn’t even in the room emotionally. One time I asked him to say my name and look me in the eyes during sex and he got angry and said I was being ridiculous. I knew in that moment that our marriage was in real trouble.” ~ Lauren, describing why her first marriage of two years ended

As you might imagine, a fear of intimacy often impacts the quality and type of sex a couple engages in. When the emotional channels that join a couple during love-making are significantly narrowed or totally closed off, sex remains a physical act without the emotional joining many couples also desire. There is nothing wrong with having sex purely for the erotic and pleasurable charge it gives, but when a fear of intimacy prevents the possibility of engaging in other types of sex (such as emotionally-connecting sex), then you become locked into a rigid pattern with no other options.

Intimacy isn’t for the faint of heart. Certain levels of intimacy can make even the most secure of us uneasy at times. So don’t panic if you find yourself needing some space from your partner from time-to-time. This is quite common. And it’s important to note that couples often vacillate between periods of emotional closeness with periods of greater emotional distance. It’s unrealistic and unattainable to try to achieve a continuous, deep connection with one another.

When a fear of intimacy is at work, however, you may find that you and your partner seem to exist in a chronic state of emotional distance (even disconnection), both in and out of the bedroom.

How to Spice Up Your Marriage or Relationship Action Step:

Take a few moments to reflect on the following questions and discuss your responses with your partner (if it feels safe to do so):

  • Does it feel like you and your partner are able to be emotionally present during sex?
  • If not, what blocks this from occurring?
  • Are you able to be emotionally vulnerable and open during sex? What prevents you from this at times?
  • Are you and your partner able to vary the kind of sex that occurs (gentle, loving-tender sex; libidinal-primal sex; intimate, looking-into-each-other’s-eyes sex; impersonal-highly erotic sex)?
  • If you believe a fear of intimacy lies at the root of achieving meaningful intimacy, what steps can you take to overcome these fears?