Home Alone

Everybody wants it; few achieve it. The subject is intimacy, and it's a buzzword of the '90s, as if it were the quid pro quo for cashing out of the consumer culture. Perhaps it's because we mistakenly pursue relationships as though they were financial transactions.

Most folks approach intimacy like equity, says sex researcher David Schnarch, Ph.D,, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Louisiana State University. But that just about guarantees they'll never achieve the intense eroticism they are lusting for in long-term relationships. Equity implies reciprocity. Real intimacy takes strictly one-sided risks.

The hitch is this: we trust intimacy develops through self-disclosure--two souls equally baring their innermost insecurities and expecting the glow of warmth and acceptance. That's actually a quest for reassurance that we are worth loving, an "I will if you will" tally to avoid rejection. We seek someone to help carry the burden of a dissatisfying relationship with ourselves.

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This "other-validated intimacy" not only promotes emotional fusion, a "we" mindset, it yields only a low level of satisfaction. In reality, one partner always needs validation more, the other builds up resentment against the obligation to reciprocate disclosure. They get paralyzed in defensiveness and withholding.

Forget expectations of reciprocity and all that gooey stuff, says Schnarch in a book for sex therapists, Constructing the Sexual Crucible (Norton). Profound intimacy takes individual growth, an independent sense of self--the kind of ego strength that lets us dance autonomously without fearing a partner's response. Intimacy is not the search for care from others but the ability to display our inner life to our partner.

With at least one partner capable of sustained self-disclosure, there's a chance for expanding the sexual repertoire, which at first tends to be very disquieting, eliciting a " where'd you learn to do that?" response. "People have boring, monotonous sex because intense sex and intimacy (and change itself) is more threatening than many people realize," says Schnarch.

The bottom line is that good sex doesn't just happen when you're relaxed. And all the garter belts in the world won't stimulate the really hot stuff. Sex is not a matter of paraphernalia but persona.

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