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  • Writer's pictureGary Katz

Unveiling the Fear of Intimacy: Understanding Avoidance and Sex Addiction as Coping Mechanisms

"When push comes to shove, you're afraid of love,” - Grateful Dead

The fear of love and intimacy is a complex and deeply rooted aspect of the human psyche. It often leads individuals to adopt avoidance strategies, shielding themselves from potential hurt. The lyrics of the Grateful Dead, "when push comes to shove, you're afraid of love," speak to the challenges many individuals face in embracing connection while being scared of it at the same time. Sex addiction can be seen as one such avoidance mechanism, providing temporary relief from emotional vulnerability. As relational therapists here at the Center for Intimacy Recovery, we are committed to exploring the intricate dynamics of human relationships, particularly when it comes to intimacy, love and sex.

John and his wife (name changed) recently came into my office in a crisis. A middle-aged man, John has been grappling with secret sexual behaviors for years. He declares his love for his wife yet seeks validation and affirmation through sexual encounters, flirting and multiple affairs. Deep down, he fears emotional intimacy and instead of addressing it by turning to his wife, he avoids it by turning away from her through acting out sexually. Real closeness and intimacy feels overwhelming and uncomfortable on a cellular level for John. Each secret that he keeps from his spouse serves as a wall or a shield, creating distance and allowing him to avoid the vulnerability and potential hurt associated with genuine emotional connection. John’s secret behaviors were eventually discovered by his wife who was devastated by his betrayal and didn’t recognize the man she has been married to for over 20 years.

Intimacy, love and sex are fundamental aspects of the human experience, yet many of us grapple with deep-seated fears surrounding them. Let’s take a moment to look at the reasons behind this fear, examine how it manifests as avoidance and understand how sex addiction can be seen as a coping mechanism to evade true intimacy.

1. Fear of Getting Hurt:

Fear of love and intimacy often stems from past relational experiences of heartbreak, rejection, or betrayal whether from childhood or adult relationshps. These wounds can leave lasting emotional scars, leading individuals to develop a reluctance to open up and be vulnerable. The fear of getting hurt acts as a protective mechanism, creating a barrier to shield oneself from potential pain. For instance, someone who has experienced a traumatic breakup may develop a fear of emotional vulnerability, leading them to avoid deep emotional connections altogether. More often, it may be a result of early childhood experiences where love and closeness felt both good and painful at the same time.

2. Avoidance as a Defense Mechanism:

Avoidance is a common response to the fear of love and intimacy. By avoiding emotional vulnerability, individuals create a sense of control and protect themselves from potential harm. This avoidance can manifest in various ways, such as maintaining superficial relationships, keeping emotional distance, or engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors. People may repeatedly choose partners who are emotionally unavailable, geographically far away or another person who is also avoidant, ensuring they never have to fully invest themselves in a relationship and avoid getting hurt.

Sarah, a successful lawyer in her mid- 30’s, has a history of failed relationships. She finds herself consistently attracted to partners who are emotionally distant or unavailable. She describes herself as having a “bad picker” and often picks men who don’t priortize her and often put her down. When the relationships don’t work out, Sarah is left feeling confused, broken and alone. Sarah's fear of love and intimacy leads her to choose partners who cannot reciprocate her emotional needs, ensuring she never has to fully invest herself in a relationship and get really hurt. The frustration and hurt that she experiences by the frustrating relationships seems like a better pill to swallow than to fully open her heart and risk it being shattered. She also replicates what love felt like with her dad who was loving but emotionally distant by creating relationships that feel good but also painful.

3. Sex Addiction as Intimacy Avoidance:

Sex addiction, often misunderstood, is also a form of intimacy avoidance that exemplifies the desire for connection while being avoidant behavior at the same time. Individuals struggling with sex addiction use sexual encounters, surface romantic relationships or the use of pornography as a means to escape deeper emotional intimacy. By focusing on these things, they can avoid the vulnerability and emotional risks associated with genuine connection. These behaviors also provide a temporary sense of control and gratification, masking the underlying fear of love and intimacy.

As Certified Sex Addiction Therapists, Certified Partner Trauma Therapists and Sex Therapists, here at the Center for Intimacy Recovery, we recognize and address these fears, offering a safe and non-judgmental space to explore emotions and experiences and to develop a structured program to stop destructive behaviors and develop a healthier relationship to intimacy, love and sex. By understanding the underlying causes and providing specialized support, we can guide you towards embracing love and intimacy, ultimately leading to healing, and the development of healthy and fulfilling relationships. If you would like to work with one of our therapists, please click on the link below to schedule a free 15 minute consultation.


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