Intimacy in Recovery: How Addiction May be Linked to Intimacy Issues

When you have a history of substance abuse, it is common to lack many essential interpersonal skills. This is simply due to the fact of when someone is using, everything excluding the substance fades into the background. When you are under the influence, it is difficult to be real or honest with the people around you. As a result, the lack of practice of intimacy leads to an inability or a fear of intimacy. This may be why it is important to get involved in their treatment programs to better help them recover.

What is Intimacy?

Intimate relationships are reciprocal interpersonal relationships, that can involve emotional and physical closeness. Intimacy is often confused with sex when in reality, people can be intimate and platonic at the same time. When you are intimate with someone, each party will be vulnerable, open, and honest with one another. If you are lacking in intimacy, you may begin to suffer psychologically. Humans are extremely social in nature and we crave to feel closeness with others. 

There are Four Types of Intimacy:

  1. Experiential Intimacy:

Experiential intimacy is a form of intimacy that can be achieved in any type of relationship. People practicing experiential intimacy typically are involved in mutual activities and have gained a closeness through talking and getting to know one another. 

Example: A mother and daughter working together on a garden, developing teamwork skills and bonding. 

  1. Emotional Intimacy:

Emotional intimacy occurs when two people are comfortable sharing every aspect of their inner selves with one another, actively practice empathy and sympathy, and work to understand their differences. 

Example: A woman shares her deepest secret with her partner, even though the memory causes her feelings of shame. Her partner responds empathetically, making sure to understand where she is coming from and what she needs in order to feel better. 

  1. Intellectual Intimacy:

Intellectual intimacy is the ability to share your ideas, beliefs, and morals with someone else without fear of judgment – even if the two of you disagree. 

Example: Family discussing the meaning of life, politics, or personal morals without fear of disagreement or argument. 

  1. Sexual Intimacy:

Sexual intimacy is characterized by the act of being in a healthy sexual relationship. There are many different forms of healthy sexual relationships, but what defines sexual intimacy is open communication and trust. 

Example: Partners partake in sexual activity after discussing their sexual wants and needs.

Fear of Intimacy Stemming from Addiction 

While in recovery, it is vital that you connect with others on a deep level. Intimacy is important in ensuring long-term sobriety because if you feel alone, you will seek out instant forms of comfort – like alcohol or drugs. Intimacy can cause a lot of fear and anxiety because it requires letting another person see every part of you. As an addict, it is common to have a past that involves experiences that invoke feelings of shame or guilt. The important thing to remember is that everyone has gone through negative experiences and allowing someone else to hear your struggles may positively influence both parties.  

Reasons for a Fear of Intimacy:

  • Abandonment Issues: When you become attached to someone, you may fear that they will leave you. 
  • Fear of Rejection: You may think that if you share deep parts of yourself that the other person will leave. 
  • Control Issues: You may think that if you become close to someone, you will lose your independence.
  • Past Abuse: Any form of abuse can create mistrust in others. 

While in active-addiction, users tend to go through traumatic experiences. Whether these traumatic experiences were before or during their drug addiction, they can severely affect one’s ability to be intimate. For example, if an addict has a history of sexual assault they may be afraid of sexual and emotional intimacy. When you encounter trauma in areas of your life that are meant to be loving and intimate experiences, that trauma may cause an overall aversion towards sex or allowing other people to get close to you. 

Also, while someone is actively using they tend to surround themselves around other users. This unintentionally invites in more pain and suffering for the individual. While addicted, all you typically care about is obtaining a substance to numb your emotions. Because of this, the other addicts around you rarely care for your well-being – making it common for them to steal, lie, or cheat. This can cause an overall mistrust for any human being, making it extremely difficult to allow intimacy into your life. 

How to Build Intimacy Skills

Intimacy can be extremely hard to obtain, especially when you come from a background of substance abuse and trauma. There are many ways to build intimacy skills on your own. Coming to terms with your fear of intimacy is the first step, similar to the first step you took when getting sober. Valuing yourself and acknowledging that intimacy is worth it, even if it doesn’t last forever with one person, is extremely important. When you allow yourself to be open and intimate with everyone in your life, you begin to learn what healthy relationships look and feel like. One of the most important aspects of intimacy is learning how to communicate. When you communicate with friends, family, and your partner effectively, intimacy can begin to develop. 

If you believe that trauma is to blame for your intimacy issues, you should always seek out professional help. Going to therapy can allow you to unpack the root causes of your intimacy issues, begin to heal from those causes, and eventually build the intimacy skills you crave. A common form of therapy used to treat fear of intimacy is called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy

In this form of therapy, patients learn to regulate emotions, how to execute interpersonal communication and connection, mindfulness, how to tolerate distress, and how to accept reality. All of these skills are vital to being intimate, which is why psychologists use Dialectical Behavioral Therapy to treat patients suffering from intimacy issues. 

Intimacy can be scary and tricky, but when you apply coping mechanisms and strategies to build intimacy skills you will learn how to effectively connect with others. We all crave intimacy in one way or another, so making this skill a priority is vital for your mental health and your recovery. 

by Kailey Fitzgerald

My greatest passion in life is advocating to break stigmas in relation to mental health and addiction. As a survivor of trauma and a recovering addict, my goal is to spread awareness, shed light on hard-to-discuss topics, and provide a sense of reassurance and understanding for anyone struggling.

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