Intimacy can be defined as the ability to meet yourself when you are near someone else (aka Into-Me-See). Some therapists distinguish between two types of intimacy: other-validated and self-validated. The first is what most of us perceive as intimacy. The latter is more daring and holds the key to more personal growth.
Other-validated intimacy is the most natural form of intimacy that we grow up understanding. It involves your partner validating what you are sharing with them, while also being open, receptive, and sensitive to your vulnerability. If your partner is unwilling or unable to affirm or validate your feelings, then it would be considered a ”not safe” space, and you will probably not feel good about sharing. This position protects us from pain, ridicule, or humiliation.
This position makes perfect sense since we naturally only want to share when our partner is loving, open, and reciprocal in their desire and ability to share.
The potential problem with this type of intimacy is that sometimes our partner does not want to validate our feelings: They could be angry, distant, bored, defensive, or just not interested. In that case, we are stuck, and the key to the intimacy of the relationship lies with our partner. We can wait for a long time until they want to listen to us.
We remain dependent on our partners to share. If they are not open, if there is not a safe space, if they are not patient enough or loving enough, we are not going to share. And we might end up feeling alone, waiting for our partner to be willing to listen, while they hold the key to the intimacy of the relationship. What is the alternative?
In this type of intimacy, we choose to share something that is important to us, even if our partner is not open, receptive, validating, or even loving. Hopefully, our partner will listen and understand, but we are not conditioning our sharing on their openness. It is the action of letting people "see into me" (Into-Me-See). This requires courage and the ability to hold on to yourself in moments of anxiety and a lack of clarity.
How do we do this? There are two modes of communicating with others: self-presentation and self-exposure.
Self-presentation is the act of sharing something you have told before that you know has an effect on others. It is like bringing out your “greatest hits.” We all have one.
Knowing the reaction that others have to these self-presentations makes them safe and a sure bet for some sort of validation from your partner (other validation). The problem with self-presentation is that there is no real vulnerability, excitement, or ”high risk-high gain” energy to the encounter. Moreover, self-presentation breeds more self-presentation from your partner, so the conversation can become shallow or even fake. The alternative is self-exposure.
The opposite of self-presenting is self-exposure or, as I like to call it, broadcasting live. In this mode, you don’t necessarily know how your partner will react. You are just sharing your feelings and thoughts, like a stream of consciousness. This ability has been proven effective in psychotherapy (where it is called immediacy skills) and in theater improvisation (where it is called saying the thing). All these terms relate to the same thing: the ability to verbalize what is happening in the here-and-now of the encounter.
Self-exposure is riskier because you are letting go of how that sharing will be received and interpreted by your partner. Over time, broadcasting live creates an atmosphere of honesty, where you are in control of when and where you will share.
Broadcasting live increases the occurrence of ruptures (moments of misunderstanding) and repairs (moments of reconciliation) in the encounter, which research has shown is crucial for personal and relational growth. (Click here to for a short video about immediacy skills, ruptures, and repairs).
How to move beyond self-presentation to self-exposure?
1. Share this article with your partner, so you have a common language. Remind them that you want to grow in this relationship and that your intentions are for more honest, intimate encounters.
2. Start by calling yourself out. Say the thing. When you realize that you are exaggerating, bullshitting, or self-presenting something again for the millionth time—stop.
Admit to yourself and to your partner that you were trying to impress them or enlist their sympathy. Recognizing that you are using self-presentation instead of self-exposure improves your self-validated intimacy and the intimate nature of your relationship.
- Every time you call yourself out, you are actually improving your immediacy skills and returning to the here-and-now
- Such "saying the thing" improves the self-validated intimacy nature of your relationship.
3. Expect your partner to be surprised, insulted, or even disappointed. Expect ruptures and dramas, but do not retreat. Hold on to yourself and choose to believe that this process will eventually deepen your bond.
4. Be forgiving if you slip back to your ”greatest hits” stories. It’s natural to protect yourself with self-presentation when you are feeling insecure. Be aware that you are doing it and move on.
5. Do not blame your partner for not being honest. Always try to minimize your own self-presentation. Once you feel comfortable with that, you can reflect back to your partner when you feel they are in self-presentation mode.
We can create little intimacies in our daily interactions through self-exposure. Over time, these little shared intimacies serve to widen the emotional shades of our relationships. It all can start at any given moment—the moment you choose to take the risk of exposing your real truth to your partner.
Hill, Clara E., Charles J. Gelso, Harold Chui, Patricia T. Spangler, Ann Hummel, Teresa Huang, John Jackson et al. "To be or not to be immediate with clients: The use and perceived effects of immediacy in psychodynamic/interpersonal psychotherapy." Psychotherapy Research 24, no. 3 (2014): 299-315.
Jagodowski, T., Pasquesi, D., & Victor, P. (2015). Improvisation at the speed of life. Chicago, IL: Solo Roma.
Safran, J. D., Muran, J. C., & Eubanks-Carter, C. (2011). Repairing alliance ruptures. Psychotherapy, 48(1), 80.
Schnarsh, D. (1997). Passionate marriage: Keeping love and intimacy alive in committed relationship. New York, NY: Owl books.