Understanding and Overcoming the Barriers to Intimacy in Recovery

There are a number of barriers one may discovery as they try to form healthy connections to others as they move through recovery. This can be especially true if one grew up without healthy examples of intimacy modeled to them or if they have a history of trauma. For many individuals they may have to rediscover or learn for the first time what true intimacy is while going through recovery, this can be a very difficult but rewarding journey.

In this article, we will explore different forms of trauma and how this can contribute to substance abuse and impact one’s ability to be intimate with others. We will also explore different levels of intimacy and what healthy intimacy looks like. We will then look at the common issues one has around intimacy and how one can overcome these as they go through recovery.

Many individuals may not have experienced healthy intimacy in their life prior to their substance abuse often due to trauma from their childhood. Not everyone who develops an addiction suffered from trauma in their early years, but research shows that many people did. Experiences with early childhood trauma or trauma that occurs throughout one’s life can greatly impact one’s ability to form healthy relationships with people. In fact, substances may have been used initially to try to connect to other people or to feel good in general. Many people with a history of trauma turn to substance abuse to cope and help with emotional regulation and connection but often this spirals and does the opposite of what it was intended resulting in further traumatization and isolation. It is hard to be intimate when one is controlled by feelings of shame, guilt, and fear of being hurt.

What Is Trauma?

When we think of trauma we may think of war, sexual and physical abuse, car accidents, natural disasters but there are also more subtle forms of trauma including your parents getting divorced, being bullied in school, or having parents who struggled with substance abuse or trauma themselves. Many of us grew up in homes where our parents showed little emotions or intimacy towards each other and themselves. Many people believe because the house was clean, and dinner was on the table that was enough, but it is not enough for you to form a healthy working model of relationships and intimacy. As humans, we need to feel we are loved, are worthy of love and that we belong. This is especially important when you are younger. When we are younger if we do not have our needs consistently met, we will not develop a secure attachment, often a pre-requisite for healthy relationships later in life. Don’t worry though this can be recognized and later healed in life.

What Is Intimacy?

The word intimacy comes from the Latin word intimare which means “impress” or “make familiar” which comes from the Latin word intimus meaning “innermost”. Intimacy encompasses the close family-like connections we can have with others. It also encompasses physical intimacy including sexual relationships that should also encompass and foster the other form of intimacy as well. Often people believe intimacy is just related to sex, but this is just one form and that act of sex itself could lack true intimacy if there is limited safety, trust, and connection. Research has expanded intimacy into four types:

  1. Emotional Intimacy: This is when you feel comfortable talking about your innermost thoughts with another. You feel safe being vulnerable in this form of intimacy, sharing your joy and pain and any other feelings is a key part of this form of intimacy. To share our feelings, we do have to become self-aware of what we are feeling. Many people going through recovery may have lost touch with their feelings and thus may have to practice accessing this inner level of themselves and learning how to communicate in a healthy way with safe people to develop this form of intimacy.
  2. Intellectual Intimacy: This includes exchanging thoughts and ideas about things you think and care about. You may share your thoughts on life and interests, with others to develop intellectual intimacy. This form of intimacy can be developed in meetings, groups, or discussing your ideas with a close friend.
  3. Experiential Intimacy: This form of intimacy forms when we do things with others. We are able to bond with others during leisure or teamwork activities. We can “sync up” with others around us and find we are working and feeling in unison.
  4. Physical Intimacy: This type of intimacy is larger than just sex it includes being affectionate with another person. It can include holding hands, hugging, kissing, or cuddling. One can have sex and not be intimate. True intimacy involves a deeper connection between two people based on safety, trust, and communication.

Physical or romantic intimacy can be difficult for people in recovery as many people are not connected to their bodies, emotions, and boundaries and this form of intimacy may feel uncomfortable or unsafe. One may not feel they can be present in the moment especially if they have a history of sexual trauma. Also, it may be new to be physical with another person while being sober and without substances, it can feel very foreign and vulnerable. Remember to listen to your body, set healthy boundaries, communicate how you feel and know you can take things slow. Being physically intimate when you do not feel comfortable or safe can do more damage. Make sure you are with someone who can respect your emotions, boundaries, and body. Know you can heal this and learn to find safety within yourself and the present moment which will open up a space for you to be physically intimate with another without being hijacked out of the present moment.

One may experience a number of barriers that stop them from experiencing these forms of intimacy with the people around them as they go through recovery. It can feel unsafe and very vulnerable to connect with another often due to shame, guilt, and unworthiness people experience in recovery. Here are some tools you can learn and start to embrace in your life to overcome the barriers to intimacy. Remember that it is through our connection to others we are able to heal. It is through our connections that we are able to truly thrive and flourish.

Tips to Developing Greater Intimacy:

  1. Self-Awareness: To develop intimacy with others we have to connect to ourselves in a healthy way. You have to notice what you are really feeling in the moment so you can communicate that. You need to work to connect to your authentic self so you can connect to others in a healthy way. You need to notice what you like, dislike, and what brings you joy and happiness. What are you interested in and what lights you up? You need to work to rediscover your true self so you can share that with another. Others can also help us discover these parts of ourselves. You will need to develop the self-awareness to know the red flags and also when you feel safe which will help you notice the safe people you can build intimacy with.
  2. Mindfulness: Work to be present with yourself and those around you. Too often we get stuck in our minds, analyzing a situation or being pulled to the past or future, we entirely miss our life as it unfolds in front of us. So much of our suffering is the inability to be in the present moment. We can work to be present through the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a special type of awareness that connects you to the compassionate witness that is within all of us. From this place, we can pay attention to the present moment without judgment but with acceptance. You are not your thoughts but the witness of them. Learning to separate yourself from your thoughts so you can witness them will help you to become more present, less reactive and more compassionate. When you are mindful you will be more self-aware and be better able to develop intimacy with others.
  3. Connect to Your Body: Work to find safety in your body. Many people who have experienced trauma or who are in recovery have learned to live in your mind as it may feel like their body has betrayed them. Disconnecting from the body is also a survival strategy that may happen unconsciously to protect you from overwhelming experiences and sensations, we go numb. This protects us but when we want to embody ourselves again once it’s safe it can be difficult. Work to embody yourself by just noticing your body with compassion. Dr. Peter Levine developed a theoretical approach called Somatic Experiencing that can help heal this disconnection often due to trauma. He has written a number of books that can help you start this process, including the book Healing Trauma.
  4. Vulnerability: Learning to open up to another can feel very unsafe and vulnerable. People in the past may have betrayed you and you may have betrayed yourselves. It can be hard to put a voice to what we are feeling in the moment and to share it with another. Brene Brown has done a lot of work on vulnerability I recommend watching her Ted Talk on Vulnerability and checking out her other books to help you overcome this barrier to intimacy.
  5. Healthy Communication: Though we are always in communication with others few us know what healthy communication is. This is a skill one can develop. It includes really learning to listen to those around us, listen to understand not to respond to create a space for intimacy. How good does it feel when someone really listens to you? Do this for others. Use empathy and compassion in your communication. Empathy means we put ourselves in the other’s shoes, we allow part of us to feel what another person is feeling. Here is a great video by Brene Brown that talks about Empathy.
  6. Self-Compassion: Know that building intimacy with yourself and others is a process, it takes time. Be gentle with yourself as you learn and grow. The kinder you are to yourself the faster you will go.
  7. Trust: Trust is a choice and it is also a muscle. It can be hard to trust others and ourselves again. Work to trust that people’s intentions are good, and check-in with them when we feel they have hurt us. Work to trust that there are good people out there and work to find them. Start to trust your gut again and get access to your intuition. Work to trust in the universe or God and know that you are safe and taken care of.
  8. Have Fun: For intimacy to develop you need to have fun. You need to do things with others that bring you joy and happiness. Laughter is one of the best medicines. When one is on their healing journey it can be heavy, but life is about balance. Make sure you take time to do things you enjoy.

Developing healthy intimacy with others is a process as you go through your recovery journey. Take the time to learn the skills and tools that will help you connect to others in a truly authentic and healthy way. This can be difficult if the source of your trauma was relational. Other people are often the source of our greatest pain but also our greatest joy. Remember that we heal in connection with others and work to trust again. Work to take these skills and apply them to your life.

Somatic Experiencing – Mark Banschick M.D.

Brene Brown on Empathy https://www.youtube.com/

Brene Brown “The Power of Empathy”  https://www.ted.com/