There is no “intimacy disorder” listed in the official diagnostic manual for clinicians, but culturally the phrase has come to mean an interactional pattern that happens when a person struggles to get emotionally close to another, remain emotionally close with another, or feel safe trying to do so. When someone struggles with intimacy, they often have difficulty initiating or maintaining positive relationships with others. Here are 4 common patterns of intimacy disorders.
Love avoidance looks like a “fear of commitment” or “on again, off again” type relationships. This happens when a person thinks or says they are afraid of being smothered by another person, while really feeling afraid of being abandoned or left alone. These people often work out this tension by engaging in interactional patterns of “tug-of-war” with periods of closeness and periods of pulling away. While healthy relationships cycle through periods which feel more “close” than other times, love avoidance is extreme enough to break trust in the relationship. Symptoms also include attempts to escape relational intensity with external solutions, such as pornography, substance addictions, emotional affairs or distracting activities.
Love addiction can also look like very intense relationships that are “on again, off again”, but it is the opposite extreme from love avoidance. Often called “co-dependency” in its more mild form, the love addiction tension is between abandonment and unfamiliarity with what is healthy. This dynamic will keep a person trapped in even an abusive relationship because the danger that is familiar is less scary than a healthy relationship that is yet unknown. In fact, some people may unconsciously choose abusive relationships because the unfamiliarity of unhealthy relationships causes them so much anxiety. Symptoms include spending too much time and energy on their partner, neglecting care of self and unrealistic expectations from their partner.
Previously referred to as “sexual aversion,” the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals describes this as “compulsive sex avoidance.” Sexual anorexia may range from a severe refraining from sex to the point of damaging the marriage relationship to a “binge and purge” form of hyperactive sexual consumption or impulsively seeking partners outside the marriage. Symptoms include: dreading sexual pleasure, a fear of sexual contact, hyper-vigilance around sexual issues, preoccupation with others being sexual, body perception distortions, loathing of the body, excessive fear of diseases, shame about sexual experiences, worries about performance or sexual self-destructive behaviors.
While not exclusive to women, this is more common in women, especially women with eating disorders, addictions or other compulsions. It is also more common for both men and women in strict religious cultures that emphasize abstinence while neglecting teaching about healthy sexual relationships and its appropriate timing (called the “Good Girl Syndrome” in Laura Brotherson’s, “And They Were Not Ashamed”).
Sex addiction is compulsive behavior that disrupts normal living, even when there are negative consequences to self, spouse, family and work relationships. These behaviors are self-defeating, and often escalate as tolerance builds and greater risk is required to feel satiated. Symptoms include compulsive sexual acts, pornography, prostitution, exhibitionism, voyeurism, and anonymous sexual encounters. It is important to differentiate sex addiction from medical problems, such as seizures, tumors, dementia, or Huntington’s Disease that can cause hypersexual behaviors.
The problem with intimacy disorders is that what is designed for pleasure and closeness becomes avoided or driven by compulsion. The longer one avoids intimacy, or the longer one is involved with external solutions (either by compulsion or to avoid true intimacy), the more ingrained that repetitive pattern becomes and the harder it is to develop, tolerate and maintain healthy relationships. This is further complicated when the consequences of acting out become costly or dangerous, causing even more harm to the neglected relationship that was initially being avoided.