Intimacy is not a synonym for sex. Intimacy can and often does lead to sex, but it’s not the same. Sex can also lead to intimacy, but not necessarily. Intimacy is that feeling that you are seen, known, and accepted by another person. It’s a lovely feeling.
When couples come into my counseling office it’s often because they are no longer intimate. Feelings like anger, irritation, boredom, resentment have smothered what once was love and connectedness. Others never have learned what intimacy is and, when initial sexual attraction fades, are left sharing their life with a virtual stranger.
There was a report recently in the news of a psychological experiment in which two strangers of the appropriate gender (same sex or other depending on the orientation of the subjects) were placed in a room together for a number of hours with a list of increasingly intimate questions to pose to one another. They might range from “Where did you grow up?” to “Tell me about your biggest regret?” At the end of the day’s experiment an astonishing number of the couples were in love with each other.
I attended a Human Growth weekend workshop at Esalen way back in the ‘70s where similar connection exercises were played with the same 30 or so people over a matter of two or three days and at the end of our time together I felt in love with the world and vibrantly alive. It’s enormously freeing to feel utterly oneself without roles or pretense and to be accepted without criticism or judgement. I wish everyone could experience that feeling with the ones they love best.
So how to get there? It’s simple…but it isn’t easy. There is definitely a risk and some people just aren’t risk takers. You have to make the decision to take that risk because you believe it is worth it.
You can begin the process of increasing intimacy with anyone you choose the moment you finish reading this. Skip the small talk and begin with how you feel—about anything. Instead of “How was your day?” or “Chilly out today” tell the other person something of meaning to you: “I had a really lovely thing happen to me today. Let me tell you about it” or even, “I had such a frustrating day. It felt that nothing went according to my plan.” Ask something that will encourage personal sharing: “Tell me about the people you work with and how you feel about them,” and then really pay attention when the other responds.
It’s become so very common to tell another person “I’m there for you” but not so common to feel that another person really is there for you—listening to you, caring how you’re doing, willing to be supportive or helpful. That’s an important part of intimacy, just being there.
Telling your mate, for instance, that you don’t like it when he looks at pornography is not one bit as meaningful as saying “I feel unattractive and unloved when you look at sexy pictures of other women.” That’s about feelings and more likely not to be resented as being controlling. It’s an intimate disclosure of how you feel. Instead of replying “But I like to look at erotic pictures,” how about “I do it to sort of chill out after a stressful day, no different than playing solitaire online. It really has nothing to do with comparing you to other women.” That’s also a declaration of feelings. Now, this discussion might not settle the dispute about the role of pornography in your partner’s life but it’s much more likely to produce an intimate discussion rather than a quarrel.
Any statement that begins with “I feel….” is a step toward intimacy. Try consciously taking those first steps and see if you can create or renew that feeling of being seen, heard, and appreciated.