The Challenges of Intimacy

A country can’t love you. At most it may need you. It’s much the same as people. —André Brink, The Rights of Desire

Emotional intimacy can be understood as a state of closeness between two people resulting from a process of interaction through which they feel able to share increasingly sensitive and significant aspects of themselves that they normally keep hidden, in some cases, even from themselves.

It begins with one person taking a risk by disclosing a private, personal, and emotionally charged thought, feeling, or biographical detail that leaves him or her exposed and vulnerable, in the hope or expectation of a supportive response, which, if forthcoming, encourages further self-disclosure from both parties. This process is largely dependent on goodwill and trust, which in the absence of a strong pull factor, such as mutual physical attraction, can take years to build.

Intimate discourse need not be verbal, and can also be sustained by emotional expressions, meaningful glances, sustained eye contact, physical proximity, touch, and such like. Emotional intimacy can lead to physical intimacy, and, less commonly, physical intimacy to emotional intimacy. As a result, the two are sometimes confused. Historically, human beings lived in large families in tightknit communities that provided for all kinds of intimacy. But now, many people rely on just one person, usually their sexual partner, for all their intimacy needs, reinforcing the belief that one cannot have emotional intimacy without physical intimacy, or that they are one and the same. Intimacy exists on a spectrum, and in different shapes and forms: it is possible to create some degree of intimacy in all our relationships, even the most formal or fleeting ones; and it may be that our most intimate relationship is not with our spouse or sexual partner.

Compared to men, women are much better at intimacy, and a woman’s most intimate relationship is often with a same-sex friend. In general, men guard their privacy more closely than women. They are more reluctant to self-disclose, particularly to other men. Interestingly, this is not, or not as much, the case for men from non-Western societies, suggesting that it has more to do with culture than with any biological differences between men and women. In the West, men are taught to associate emotions, emotional sharing, and emotional warmth with effeminacy or homosexuality, and to value macho traits such as assertiveness, autonomy, and resilience which conflict with barefaced self-disclosure. As a result, they prefer to self-disclose in fits and starts, usually under the cover of some other activity.

This is a great loss for men. Intimacy can feel like a bubble of bliss in which, at last, we can be ourselves, and, more than that, affirmed in ourselves. Tapping into the perspective, experience, skills, and resources of another person broadens our horizons and increases our possibilities. Their unconditional support makes us feel stronger and more secure. Their interest and participation in the smallest details of our experience seems to enrich it, lending texture and substance to our otherwise mundane, almost mechanical lives. Unsurprisingly, people who report having one or more intimate relationships tend to be happier and healthier, and intimacy is an important predictor of long-term relationship satisfaction.

Given its promise, the ability to create and sustain intimacy is key to a certain kind of flourishing life. Deep intimacy requires healthy self-esteem, to tolerate the vulnerability that comes with the self-disclosure of emotionally charged material. It also calls for courage and curiosity, and a fair amount of self-knowledge, with many avenues for further intimacy closed off by not knowing what one thinks or feels, and, more to the point, not wanting to find out. It is, of course, not just about reading ourselves, but also about reading others, reaching beyond their words to arrive at their true meaning and significance, and adapting our every interaction so that it accords with their, and our, capacities, perspectives, dispositions, sensitivities, and needs.

Intimacy involves both give and take, often at the same time within the same interaction; and people who are narcissistic or self-obsessed should take care not to confuse intimacy with an onslaught of one-sided ‘self-disclosure’. Intimacy cannot be imposed on people. Nor can it be forced out of them, for example, by probing too soon into their deepest secrets. It has to come naturally, gradually, at its own pace, if it is not to undermine the trust on which it is built upon. It can take a very long time to start seeing someone for the person that they are, rather than as an object or instrument in our world. It is not easy to trust someone who seems to be coming at us with an agenda of their own, and little regard for ours. Modern dating, which is largely about instant gratification, can leave us feeling like little more than a lump of flesh at the meat market.

Once achieved, intimacy isn’t necessarily the sinecure that we might have hoped for, particularly if the affection that follows after it has acquired the existential dimension which people generally call love. Inevitably, life follows its course, with competing priorities and attachments taking their toll on our relationship. Having poured so much of ourselves into another, we become painfully sensitive to the slightest sign of disdain or indifference on their part, which we interpret as a loss of their goodwill and, more than that, an indictment of the person that we are, and that, of course, they know so well. Our natural reaction is then to snipe back or pull up the drawbridge, further undermining the connection that took so long to build. Later, we may change tactics and tighten our grip, and, suddenly, like a bar of soap, our relationship slips straight out of our hand. On both sides, trust and affection cede to anger and resentment, and friend turns into enemy. It would have been better to remember that intimacy has a life of its own, that it cannot be forced or imposed, and that the best way to protect a relationship may well be to step back before it is too late.

Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.

Find him on Twitter and Facebook.

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