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What are Intimacy Dysfunctions?

"It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy;—it is disposition alone. Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others”

Jane Austen

Intimacy disorder or dysfunction is what motivates many of my clients to begin the therapy journey. They either want to get into a relationship, struggle with attracting healthy relationships, or are trying not to sabotage a good relationship.

Although intimacy includes any close relationship, for the month of September we will just focus on romantic relationships.

Intimacy requires being close to another person yet, a large percentage of the population fear this closeness. Fear of being close to others results in a fear of intimacy which can lead to intimacy disorder or dysfunction.

Fear of intimacy can look like explosive anger, indifference, coldness, low self-esteem, and lack of trust. People who fear intimacy actively avoid physical contact, have trouble forming or committing to close relationships, or have a history of unstable relationships. They are unable to share feelings or express emotion, have insatiable sexual desire and some live in self-imposed social isolation and deprivation.

According to Pia Mellody, the author of the groundbreaking book, Facing Love Addiction, a person with an intimacy disorder is unable to experience true intimacy due to disordered thoughts, usually because of maladaptive childhood experiences or abuse.

People with intimacy disorders are unable to feel safe and secure when sharing their personal thoughts, desires, needs, concerns, and feelings with others. They will often develop addictive habits to cope with the lack of intimacy.

The causes of these disorders vary, and not everyone’s experience will be the same. However, some of the causes are:

  1. Attachment issues

  2. The fear of rejection or total abandonment

  3. Developing an avoidant personality disorder

  4. Being a victim of sexual, physical, or verbal abuse during childhood

  5. Parental neglect

  6. Being overdependent on friends and family, causing separation anxiety

  7. The fear of losing control or being controlled in a relationship

There are many forms of intimacy disorders that can be emotionally debilitating. In this issue, we will focus on codependence, and love addict and love avoidant.

The Dance of the Love Addict v Love Avoidant

Pia Mellody refers to the 'push-pull', 'come here go away' dance of the love addict and love avoidant as 'The Co-Addicted Tango'.

The love addict lives in a fantasy that some magical person will show up one day and love them unconditionally. A childhood immersed in fantasy can make the love addict believe that the answer to all their problems lies in the arms of Mr or Ms Right. The love addict is captivated by the fantasy of a relationship.

The love avoidant on the other hand believes that they can rescue the love addict from their despair, but when the love addict gets too close or needy, the avoidant feels suffocated, controlled and pulls away.

These relationships are conditional and built on 'if only'. 'If only she talked less… If only he talked more…If only he took me out at night…If only she didn’t nag'.

The love addict is obsessive about the avoidant and usually does the chasing. The avoidant is aloof and distant and pulls away from the love addict the more they are pursued.

Love addiction/avoidance is the underlying dynamic in many couples. The love addict and love avoidant coupling has been going on for centuries and it is still promoted in pop culture and across social media.

It is no surprise then that with this setup neither person is happy or fulfilled.

Essentially, the love addict has a conscious fear of being abandoned and a subconscious fear of being alone. In contrast, the love avoidant has a conscious fear of being controlled or suffocated and a subconscious one of being abandoned. So they are both very similar, just on two ends of the spectrum. They are attracted to each other without knowing the underlying reasons that cause the two to gravitate toward each other.

The dance continues when the love addict stops chasing the avoidant, the dynamic flips and because of their innate fear of abandonment, the avoidant usually goes into a panic and begins to chase the love addict.

However, once the avoidant wins back the love addict, they will begin to feel overwhelmed, suffocated, or controlled once more and pull away again.

And the dance goes on until one person breaks the cycle by moving on to someone else or goes into recovery.


Melody Beattie, author of Codependence No More, describes codependency as trying to contain, control, manage, manipulate or influence another person or situation so that they do what 'you need them to do'.

When things clearly go the opposite from the way you need them to go, you work even harder to change them, sometimes by manipulating, sometimes by demanding, sometimes by ignoring or denying, and sometimes by wishing and hoping.

In his book Co-Dependency, An Emerging Issue, Robert Subby describes codependence as an emotional, psychological and behavioural condition that develops as a result of an individual’s prolonged exposure to, and practice of, a set of oppressive rules. These rules prevent the open expression of feeling as well as the direct discussion of personal as well as interpersonal problems.

Codependency is about damaged self-esteem, damaged functional boundaries, and focusing your life on other people while denying your own needs and wants.

The Difference Between Codependence and Dependence

It is important to know the difference between depending on another person, which can be a positive and healthy trait, and codependency, which is toxic and harmful.

Psychologist Jennifer Berry offers the following examples to illustrate the difference:

Dependent: Two people rely on each other for support and love. Both find value in the relationship.

Codependent: The codependent person feels worthless unless they are needed by and making drastic sacrifices for the enabler. The enabler gets satisfaction from getting their every need met by the other person.

The codependent is only happy when making extreme sacrifices for their partner. They feel they must be needed by this other person to have any purpose.

Dependent: Both parties make their relationship a priority, but can find joy in outside interests, other friends, and hobbies.

Codependent: The codependent has no personal identity, interests, or values outside of their codependent relationship.

Dependent: Both people can express their emotions and needs and find ways to make the relationship beneficial for both of them.

Codependent: One person feels that their desires and needs are unimportant and will not express them. They may have difficulty recognising their own feelings or needs at all.

One or both parties can be codependent. A codependent person will neglect other important areas of their life to please their partner. Their extreme dedication to this one person may cause damage to other relationships, their career, and their everyday responsibilities.

The enabler’s role is also dysfunctional. A person who relies upon a codependent does not learn how to have an equal, two-sided relationship and often comes to rely upon another person’s sacrifices and neediness.

Road to Healing from a Codependency

  • People in codependent relationships may need to take small steps toward some separation in the relationship. They may need to find a hobby or activity they enjoy outside of the relationship.

  • A codependent person should try to spend time with supportive family members or friends. While the enabler must decide that they are not helping their codependent partner by allowing them to make extreme sacrifices.

  • Individual or group therapy is very helpful for people who are in codependent relationships. An expert can help them find ways to acknowledge and express their feelings that may have been buried since childhood.

  • People who were abused will need to recognise past abuse and start to feel their own needs and emotions again.

Finally, both parties in a codependent relationship must learn to acknowledge specific patterns of behaviour, such as 'needing to be needed' and expecting the other person to center their life around them. These steps are not easy to do but are well worth the effort to help both parties discover how to be in a balanced, two-sided relationship.

Ways to Work with Intimacy Issues

  1. 12 step recovery - Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) is a 12 step/self-help group modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous. It is free and offers many resources for recovery and healing from love addiction and avoidance and codependence, (CODA).

  2. Doing inner child work

  3. Individual and couples therapy

If you're unsure if you have an intimacy disorder, Check out this questionnaire for your Intimacy Quotient here.

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