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Human Intimacy

Intimacy is the essential lubricant of humane behavior.

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Few human endeavors are as rewarding and as frightening as acts of intimacy.

We come into the world with a drive for intimate contact that develops and articulates itself in various complex ways throughout life. When the most important attachment relationships provide more reward than punishment, the likelihood of health and happiness increases. With little intimate contact, lives are often emotionally impoverished. With no intimacy, depression or instability is likely to loom.

In Robert Sternberg's triad of love—passion, intimacy, commitment—the intimacy stage of a relationship predominates as the passionate stage wanes. This is hardly surprising: The quiet dedication and subtle nuance of intimacy can scarcely emerge in the throes of passion.

Where passion feels like a merging of self and other, intimacy requires appreciation of the separateness of self and loved one. Intimacy is not a flight from the self but a celebration of the self in concert with another person. Appreciation of separateness makes both partners feel more important, valuable, and worthy of love.

Context of Intimacy

Intimacy is crucial to normal human functioning and can help ward off depression, aggression, and calm anxiety. To foster intimacy, partners must:

  • accept one another for who they are;
  • experience high regard for each other;
  • enhance the welfare of each other;
  • give emotional support to each other during difficult or negative experiences;
  • share occasional experiences of interest, excitement, and enjoyment;
  • be reliably “there” for each other;
  • communicate on more than superficial or practical levels; and
  • acknowledge each other’s unique value.

The implicit statement of intimacy is: “Sharing this event (a beautiful sunset, washing dishes, watching a movie) enriches the experience.”

Intimacy requires self-disclosure, which means not hiding or feeling afraid to talk about what you think and how you feel. Part of intimacy is sharing your true self (not your false, “social," or “dating” self), regardless of whether the experience is good or bad.

The continual process of discovery that comes with intimacy does not always concern facts. It’s almost entirely an emotional understanding of how we experience, rather than an intellectual grasp of what we experience.

Intimacy Test

Answer these questions to assess the level of intimacy in your relationship:

  1. Do you want to accept that your partner has thoughts, beliefs, preferences, and feelings that differ from yours? Can you respect those differences? Can you cherish them? Can you accept them without trying to change them?
  2. Can you disclose anything about yourself, including your deepest thoughts and feelings, without fear of rejection or misunderstanding?
  3. Is the message of your relationship "grow, expand, create, disclose, reveal?" Or is it "hide, conceal, think only in certain ways, behave only in certain ways, feel only certain things"?
  4. Does this relationship offer both of you optimal growth? Can you both develop into the greatest persons you can be?

Impediments to Intimacy

If you or your partner struggle with intimacy, consider these common barriers that prevent deeper connections:

  • Deficits in self-regulation—either wanting the intimacy to regulate emotions or losing the self in the face of intimacy.
  • Narcissism and other forms of self-obsession.
  • Expectation of failure—a history of painful experience around intimate contact.
  • Resentment.

People who cannot regulate their emotions tend to use loved ones to regulate their internal experience for them. Over time, this subverts the equal emotional exchange necessary for true intimacy; a counterfeit intimacy often ensues. Rather than an exchange of emotions between equals, a kind of child-to-adult relationship predominates, eventually undermining the self-value of both parties. (See "Emotion Reconditioning.")

Narcissism and other forms of self-obsession present obvious barriers to intimacy. Many people mistakenly believe that narcissists love themselves. It is far more accurate to describe narcissists as tragically self-obsessed. (In the Greek myth, the gods condemned Narcissus to stare forever at his own reflection and be forever deprived of love.) The desperate self-obsession of the narcissist springs from a continuous struggle to beat back the fires of self-doubt. This relentless struggle encapsulates narcissists in shame and anger, which prevent them from seeing other people as complex persons in their own right. Instead, other people are mere extensions of their projections of the idealized self, or mirrors into which they constantly stare.

To maintain idealized projections, narcissists demand continuous praise from those around them. Should the slightest criticism interrupt this stream of praise, they complain about betrayal or bellow in fury. Because their self-value is completely dependent on the unconditional praise of others, narcissists are likely to exaggerate their accomplishments, inflate their abilities, and try to manipulate the thoughts and feelings of virtually everyone they encounter.

Less severe forms of self-obsession create barriers to intima­cy as well by interfering with the processing of emotion­al cues from others. The ability to utilize emotional cues serves as a precursor to all genuine intimacy. (We must actually perceive that which we cherish.) The less regulated one's feelings are, the more difficult it is to even detect, much less accurately interpret, emotional cues from others.

Fear of loss, a major barrier to intimacy, worsens with the avoidance of loss. The avoiding heart never learns the skills needed to regulate loss—nor does it develop tolerance of it. Fear of loss is a remnant of early childhood, when abandonment meant death. The toddler brain remains chained to that fear, while the adult brain learns from loss and uses it as a signal to create more value. The full experience of intimacy in the adult brain protects us from feeling helpless, dependent, depressed, and destructive. The heart grows stronger and more resistant to hurt when it is fed, not when it starves.

Unfortunately, a history of painful experience around intimate contact is too complicated to process in one post. Just know that it requires a commitment to self-compassion, healing, and growth. (See "Living & Loving after Betrayal.")

In my clinical experience, resentment is the primary barrier to intimacy. True intimacy requires letting defenses down, and resentment, a defensive form of anger, simply does not allow you to do that. Once resentment becomes chronic in a relationship, changes in behavior alone will not dissipate it.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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