Hi! This month we’re going to focus on the all-important topic of intimacy. Intimacy is a misunderstood word, and the concept of intimacy is often misconstrued. Intimacy is not synonymous with sex. Intimacy refers to the foundation in your relationship for personal contact, sharing vulnerabilities and secrets, and having close physical and emotional interactions with one another. Intimacy is a state. It involves lots of little acts, but intimacy is not an act in itself. It refers to the quality of your interactions, how close and personal they feel, how familiar, familial, and touching those moments of interaction are to you.
A great sex life is typically built on a deep sense of intimacy. This kind of intimacy may not be necessary to a good sex life at first, or in short-term relationships, but in long-term relationships it is the intimacy you have that fuels your physical relationship. This intimacy continues to kindle desire in each of you to be together in more personal and vulnerable ways, to expose more of yourselves emotionally (and physically) to one another, to show each other more and to share more, and to be as close as you can possibly be. The debate and details regarding whether emotional intimacy enhances or diminishes sex drive and interest is complex, and we will discuss it more next month.
Many of us are intimacy-averse. Why? Because our families of origin were not very intimate, or our close relationships hurt us growing up. In Western culture, a lack of intimate relationships at home can be compounded by a lack of intimacy in our social friendships as well as in school and work environments throughout our lives. In short, we face an intimacy crisis in Western society. Studies show empathy as a character trait is at an all-time low. We lack curiosity and mental flexibility in our political discussions, moving quickly to judgment and a rigidity that keeps us from understanding others’ ideas equally to our own. Avoidance (measured in terms of attachment tendencies) is at an all time high and climbing rapidly. In a society of cell phones, computers, and texting, we communicate less face to face. In a cultural climate that encourages productivity and career success over time spent with family and friends, we often work more and relate less to our loved ones. And with the world having become a smaller place in terms of our ability to communicate ideas and network globally, people are less reliant on their local communities for personal contact than ever before.
How does a lack of intimacy show up? We have an aversion to eye contact. Often, mom and dad did not eye gaze much with us or with one another. We have an aversion to physical touch. Other cultures (with several exceptions) are much more ‘grabby’ than we are, hugging often, kissing when saying hello, holding and cuddling between adult family members, etc. We don’t share information. We keep thoughts and feelings to ourselves. We discuss the weather, politics, and sports, but not our fear of death or of failure. In many of the homes and families we grew up in, it was rare to be asked how we were feeling that day, that semester, or that year. Personal questions, asked with deep personal interest and genuine curiosity, were the exception rather than the norm in our family conversations. As a result, we learned to deal with our feelings internally more than is optimal. We learned to get lost in tasks such as homework, learning, sports or video games rather than in deep, intimate, personal interactions. And when we became adults, in college and in the workplace, we noticed that most other adults are like us. They don’t seem to like eye contact either, or being touched too much, or being asked deeply personal questions, or going into vulnerable emotions.
The ‘waves,’ (not just ‘islands’), from our previous exploration of attachment styles, lack a sense of intimacy as well. Although waves seek more contact, both physically and emotionally, their perseverance around complaints, sense of insecurity and inability to recover quickly are all symptoms of not allowing the relationship to have more contact and influence into their state. In a sense, they get trapped in a sense of aloneness just as much as the island, and then thwart re-connection through the way they seek it. Waves will tend to blame their partners for this feeling of aloneness, while islands just deal with it internally because they aren’t as conscious of being bothered by it. But make no mistake, both types lack a familiarity and comfort with the intimacy that would help them both feel more connected in the world and more supported by others.
This aversion to intimacy is a broad generalization, of course. There are many of us who thrive on deep, emotional contact. We love to be touched, and to gaze deeply into others’ eyes. But it’s not the norm. And as a result, the intimacy in our adult primary relationships suffers. We don’t know how to talk about our feelings, or how to engage anger and frustration constructively, having been taught to be silent, keep it to ourselves and be ‘polite,’ which of course breeds resentment. A common response to dealing with feelings privately is to become distant, leaving our partners feeling disconnected.
Are we surprised that connection, emotional friendship, fun, excitement and sex all tend to suffer in long-term relationships? The key is to bring back the intimacy, not just in our relationships but in our society as a whole. There’s a reason Brené Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability has over 15 million views. If you haven’t watched it, catch it HERE.
Much of our work in this program has been bringing the intimacy back, or in some cases, creating it where it has never been part of your personal/individual experience or your relationship before. This month we’re going to shine a light on what creates intimacy, and how this kind of intimate bond with your partner is the engine that fuels your sex life as well as your ability to have fun, resolve arguments quickly, tend to your friendship, feel emotionally connected, etc.
This week, discuss your reactions to the kind of intimacy, the concept of intimacy, and the blocks to it described above with your partner. See you next week! John
If relationships are stronger when we show our vulnerability, what about a relationship spanning over 10+ years when there’s an accumulation of mistakes and mis-steps? How does vulnerability today make it feel any better to the partner, looking back at all those mistakes?