Let’s start with some big words. According to Wikipedia, “Intimacy generally refers to the feeling of being in a close personal association and belonging together. Genuine intimacy in human relationships requires dialogue, transparency, vulnerability and reciprocity”.
When I mention intimacy to people, many of them immediately think of romance and physical closeness, but this is only a borrowed meaning. In fact, many sexual relationships have little or no intimacy in them, while other relationships are based on deep spiritual bonding without any physical contact whatsoever.
In a family, some relationships are chosen for us (parents, siblings and extended family), while we get to choose the others (spouse and kids). Either way, the degree of intimacy in a relationship determines its quality and importance for us, not the kind of relationship. In a sense, when we rate a relationship as “good”, it is because there is enough intimacy in it for us.
Self Concept (or Self Image)
Human beings become aware of themselves at a very early age, maybe even before birth. From that point onwards, they start to develop their self concept, which is how they perceive themselves.
Sometime later, every person recognizes other people and begins to socialize with them. During the stage, 3 self concepts emerge:
- Current perception of myself – what I believe to be true about my physical appearance, character, abilities and so on.
- Desired perception of myself – what I wish was true about me.
- External image of myself – what I let others to see, hear and feel about me.
In essence, a relationship is intimate when these 3 self concepts are close to one another – when we feel good about ourselves the way we are and we let the other person see most of what it means to be us. As stated above, this type of openness makes us transparent and vulnerable, is facilitated through dialogue and can be greatly encouraged by reciprocity.
Intimacy, Transparency and Vulnerability
Say you are trying to convince your wife to buy a new car. You have chosen one of the large 4×4 monsters with 7 seats, endless horse power and a roof rack.
On the inside, you know the reason is that your friend Jim just bought one and is planning to use it for wild off road weekends. You envy him his freedom of style and believe you can match it by buying an exciting car just like his and joining his adventurous outings.
But you also want to believe you are a considerate and well-balanced family man, who makes sensible decisions. You rationalize to yourself that during the week, this car will be great for the school pickups, allow traveling with the kids’ friends, shopping and towing of yard maintenance equipment.
Outwardly, you try to project the image of a loving husband, who cares about his wife and thinks about her comfort and wellbeing all day long. After all, she will have the car 5 days a week and you only 2.
So you come up to your wife and say, “Honey, what do you say we buy a big car for you, with 7 seats and lots of space? It’ll make you more comfortable than our family sedan, right?”
Can you smell trouble already? Can you see how the 3 self concepts come into play here? What you are letting your wife see is your outer shell. No transparency whatsoever.
As you might have guessed, in an intimate relationship, you would come to your wife and simply say, “Jim just bought this magnificent big 4×4 he’s going to use on weekends for off road adventure rides. Wouldn’t it be great fun to do the same? Here, have a look at this brochure of it. Makes me drool just to imagine us jumping in the car and raising dust on some mountain!”
Now, THIS is transparent, but it is also vulnerable, because your wife may very well call you “a child”, complain about the money situation or do other things you do not like. By telling it like it is, you are opening yourself up for trouble, but if your relationship is truly intimate, this is not likely to happen. Most likely, your wife will appreciate your candor and empathize, even if she does not go along.
Of course, the same thing happens with your kids.
Say you are trying to get the kids to bed in the evening. Inside, you just want some peace and quiet after a long day, but you also want to believe you are a good parent and outwardly, you try to appear strong and in charge. You shoo the kids to their rooms with threats and talks of how things will be all messed up in the morning if they delay (“Remember last week when you couldn’t get up?”).
Muy macho, but not very transparent.
In an intimate relationship with your kids, you would instead say, “Look, kids, I’ve had a tough day, so as much as I’d like to spend some time with you, maybe you should go to bed and get some sleep and we can get up a little earlier and hang in the morning”.
This is transparent, but it also lets the kids know you are not in full control of your energy and emotions, so it opens you up for trouble again. In a truly intimate relationship, though, the kids will take the opportunity to be kind and look forward to the morning.
Intimacy, Dialogue and Reciprocity
There are people out there who have very intimate relationships, I am sure, but most human beings prefer certain relationships to others and have a range of relationships going from casual acknowledgment to deep trust.
What is important to understand here is that intimacy works not only at the complete relationship level, but can also be applied in a given scenario to change your outcome.
For example, no matter how intimate a relationship you have with your kids, telling them about your adventures in bed is generally not a good idea. This is a situation that calls for some creative hiding of the facts, while letting on that you are interested in your partner to encourage normal emotional development in your kids.
However, when your kids (or your partner) need your help and have difficulties expressing themselves, it is time to create some intimacy through dialogue and reciprocity.
Say your son has been bullied at school. He is hurt, feeling inferior and violated, but he wants to be a big boy – strong, independent and brave. He walks around looking troubled, but when you ask him what happened, he just grunts for you to go away.
One thing you can do is find a safe place, where the two of you can talk privately, and start a conversation by first sharing a similar experience you have had with being bullied. You can describe how you wanted to be strong and brave, but a bigger kid pushed you around and made you feel little, weak and ridiculed.
As you talk about yourself, you are signaling to your boy it is safe for him to open up to you and be transparent and vulnerable. He will gradually develop a sense of closeness and understanding with you, based on your common experience, and is likely to share his real feelings. You can then build on this trust to jointly figure out a solution.
Give and Take
Having a good relationship with someone else is not all about you and not all about the other person. It is about the two of you doing the best you can for both sides.
For this reason, every relationship involves a dance of intimacy, in which each person gently shares more and accepts more until the level of intimacy reaches the maximum for at least one person – just try to recall meeting a new person and gradually becoming friends or how you and your partner became as deeply involved with each other as you are today.
Once “the point of highest intimacy” is reached for one person, the other may still want to deepen the connection and keep getting closer. This may result in some friction and in the more open and vulnerable side being hurt – just recall any conflict between parents and teens you may have seen or experienced.
In some cases, intimacy eventually reaches a point that is comfortable for both sides and the relationship stabilizes. In other cases, such as marriage and parent-child relationships, where lack of intimacy can become a problem, one side may simply be unable to feel comfortable enough to open up and may need help from the more confident person or from a professional.
If you are in a relationship that is not as deep or close as you would like it to be, try giving your trust for a while before asking to be trusted. Here are some things you can do:
- Share personal details, anecdotes and preferences. Avoid dominating the conversation, but be willing to share even awkward moments and things others may consider weird.
- Describe your feelings openly – when you talk about your day or events in your life, share your emotions and thoughts along with the facts.
- Show understanding for other people’s feelings – when other people’s emotions come up in conversation with the person you would like to be more intimate with, be accepting and positive towards those feelings. Say, “It’s only natural to feel this way”, “I’ve felt like this too once”, “Poor so and so, she must have felt badly” and “Wow, that must have been so exciting”.
Note (for men): this may seem like mushy stuff at first, but intimacy IS all about sharing real feelings, so just go for it, as long as you are sincere in your comments.
- Pay attention to body language, facial expressions, volume and pitch and back right up when something is not right. Trust cannot be forced. It must be earned.
- Pay attention to the feeling in your stomach and throat. When the interaction is no longer intimate (“Shields up!”) through physical pressure somewhere. When this happens, pause and find the emotional reason behind your physical reaction. If possible, let the other person know how you are feeling.
If you are in a relationship that feels too invasive, ask yourself whether it is reasonable to keep it less intimate. If it is, find a way to communicate that clearly to the other person. If it is not, especially if you seem to be having similar issues with others, consider working on your self confidence and emotional intelligence with a professional relationship coach to be comfortable with more intimacy.
Have a loving life,