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An overview: Trauma and intimacy

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

Traumatic events can have profound impacts on our mental and physical wellbeing - some obvious, others more subtle. One of the main impacts that trauma can have is on our comfort level with, and experience of, intimacy.

There are multiple causes of trauma, each with their own impacts on future comfort with intimacy. Some of the most common causes of traumatic responses that can have an impact on intimacy include:

  • Physical or sexual abuse

  • Verbal abuse

  • Neglect

  • Witnessing the death of a loved one

  • Loss of a significant other

Normally it is the people closest to us, or those trying to get closer to us, that trigger our intimacy fears such as family, friends and intimate partners. Intimacy, whether it is emotional intimacy (discussing and revealing deeper emotional states) or physical intimacy requires a comfort with vulnerability and trust that tends to be disrupted by traumatic events.

When someone tries to get close to us, or we try and get close to others, unresolved trauma can re-activate the “Flight, Fight or Freeze” response that the original trauma will have caused. As a result we may tend to have different reactions, depending on whether we "Fight, Flee or Freeze". These reactions can be easily noticed or extremely subtle and are experienced as psychological states (e.g. anxiety), behaviours (e.g. avoidance - a flight response) or as physical reactions (e.g. tenseness).

One of the key impacts on intimacy that trauma can have is in relation to sexual and physical intimacy. This can show up as bodily reactions when others try and touch us. In more serious cases even casual playful physical touch by our partners can cause us to recoil. In other cases, we may experience sexual dysfunction and a loss of desire. This can have serious impacts on our sense of self worth and the harmony of our relationships.

Other impacts may be more subtle. For example, we may find ourselves feeling afraid of or unwilling to maintain close intimate relationships and instead keep others at a distance. We may even be unaware that this is happening. We may cancel or postpone plans and feel like we are too busy for a relationship.

This may translate over time into a reluctance to commit in relationships, where anxiety and uneasiness develops due to the expectations of the relationship. We may fear the expectations of others in relationships and find it too overwhelming, and instead defer relationships, cut them short, or keep them casual to ensure expectations remain low and a safe distance can be maintained.

An even more subtle impact of trauma on intimacy is that on emotional intimacy. We may feel unwilling to open up to others and struggle to express our needs for fear of being hurt again. Sometimes we were never shown how to express our needs in the first place. This impact may be so subtle that we may not be aware this is occurring. As a result, it can become hard for us to form strong, stable attachments that can then impact our mood.

The first step to change is to recognise the impacts of trauma on intimacy, and the different ways this can play out. With the right guidance and support networks, we can become much more comfortable with intimacy and open ourselves up to greater fulfillment in our lives.

two women hugging and smiling

If you or someone you know is struggling with trauma and its impact on intimacy, seeking professional support can be helpful in working through these challenges.

If you would like to speak with a mental health specialist, please don't hesitate to reach out for a confidential chat or for support:

1300 187 448 |


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