In a world where ‘settling down’ is seen as a euphemism for giving up on romance, it’s no wonder many consider themselves commitment-phobic.
But what if all the jokes you’d made at the expense of your single friends who struggle with intimacy actually stem from a diagnosable and recognised phobia?
Perhaps this stereotypical scene would take on a new poignancy:
The fear is called sarmassophobia and it’s not your average commitment avoidance, Cate Campbell, relationship therapist and accredited member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), told UNILAD.
Sarmassophobia is ‘a long name for very common behaviours’, she explained:
Basically, sometimes people have an aversion or fear of romantic physical intimacy – this isn’t necessarily a fear of intercourse but of kissing and cuddling; what some people might call foreplay.
It’s also sometimes used to refer to a fear of dating, though it seems to be the consequences of dating (touch) which are the problem.
While it’s all well and good reading about the phobia in black and white, sufferers have to live it daily and it can have seriously adverse effects on mental health.
Charlotte Underwood, 22, from Norfolk, told UNILAD her sarmassophobia has ‘sort of taken over [her] life’ since she was assaulted as a 14-year-old.
Charlotte stressed the difference between her phobia and a fear of commitment, saying:
I’m actually married now so it’s not a commitment issue thing. Romantic intimacy and all of that makes me so uncomfortable. Even being married for over a year I’d much rather just sit next to my husband than kiss him.
What mental illness is:
• Life changing
• A battle
What mental illness is not:
• A joke
• A verb (eg: I’m soo ‘OCD’)
• A reason to judge
— Charlotte Underwood (Author) (@CUnderwoodUK) May 27, 2018
The young author and mental health advocate is still in the early days of therapy and hopes she will overcome her fear.
It can affect people in committed relationships. Some of the love play activities, like kissing and cuddling, are very intimate – more intimate than intercourse, which can be quite perfunctory.
Love play may appear to require more skills and talking, which can be scary. This doesn’t matter if it’s a one off but may matter a lot in a relationship where you care a lot.
Despite it commonly occurring in people of any age, the phobia is a newly coined concept and so there’s little data to show exactly how many people it affects.
Contrary to what the mainstream media would have you believe, sarmassophobia isn’t a direct product of online dating, Campbell explained, adding ‘it depends on the reason for the anxiety‘.
After all, there are all kinds of anxieties and reasons for them to come to be:
So how does it manifest? You may think you have it, so look out for these symptoms:
Avoidance, whether that means not dating or finding reasons to avoid physical contact. Otherwise, the same anxiety symptoms as one would have about anything.
It has been suggested that it may be genetic but this is only a suggestion. I haven’t come across anyone with this ‘problem’ who doesn’t have a good reason for it.
Indeed, Charlotte told UNILAD she believes her sarmassophobia stems directly from the abuse she suffered as a young teen, eight years ago.
Campbell confirmed past history of abuse is just one of many reasons sarmassophobia might rear its ugly head, including other mental health conditions like OCD or even phobias of STDs, infection through touch, or pregnancy.
In fact, OCD affects 1.2 per cent of the British population, UNILAD learned:
Campbell said there are probably as many reasons as there are people, adding:
It may be that they’ve heard lots of horror stories about sex and relationships, that they are not actually attracted to the person or people who are interested in them, that they are victims of sexual abuse or interpersonal neglect or violence.
The fear of loveplay can also be closely linked to sexual phobias, according to the relationship therapist, with many sarmassophobic people avoiding touch in case it should lead to intercourse.
Again the reasons can be varied and numerous, Campbell detailed:
They may not want [intercourse] because they’re tired, want to control their sexual choices or just get fed up with feeling objectified by their partner’s sexual interests.
Some partners are scared of hurting the other through sex or of not being good enough at sex if the love play goes further.
Sometimes a single episode of climaxing too soon, erectile dysfunction or not enjoying sex create a lot of anxiety which builds into habitual fear and avoidance.
While some sarmassophobic people are asexual, not all are.
Thus, sarmassophobia can cause a great deal of emotional strain, damaging as it can be to the physical aspects of a sexual relationship.
But it’s often a case of the chicken and the egg, Campbell explains:
A lot of sexual problems begin when a couple start to feel really close or make some sort of commitment.
Fear that the relationship won’t progress, that lack of skill will put the partner off, fear due to inexperience and fear of losing a close relationship may all play a part.
I think people forget that for some people, mental illness doesn’t just appear one day.
For me, it’s like I don’t know anything other than what it’s like to live with mental illness.
For some of us, it’s just always there.
— Charlotte Underwood (Author) (@CUnderwoodUK) May 24, 2018
However, Charlotte says being able to talk to her husband about her phobia has brought them even closer together.
It just goes to show, a phobia shared is a feeling of isolation halved.
If you’re experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is there to support you from 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year.
Their national number is 0800 58 58 58 and they also have a webchat service if you’re not comfortable talking on the phone.
If you feel you may benefit from speaking to a counsellor can find one at BACP.
If you have a story to tell, contact UNILAD via [email protected]
A former emo kid who talks too much about 8Chan meme culture, the Kardashian Klan, and how her smartphone is probably killing her. Francesca is a Cardiff University Journalism Masters grad who has done words for BBC, ELLE, The Debrief, DAZED, an art magazine you’ve never heard of and a feminist zine which never went to print.