There’s a lot of confusion about intimacy, what it really is, and how to make it happen. There are couples married decades that can be physically close but don’t know how to be emotionally intimate. The word intimate refers to your private and essential being.
Usually, people think it means sharing personal information or having sex. Real intimacy is far more. It makes us feel content, empowered, whole, peaceful, alive, and happy. It transforms and nurtures us. Physical closeness, sex, and romance are important to a relationship, but emotional intimacy revitalizes and enlivens it.
Often, the lack of intimacy is the reason partners feel emotionally abandoned and lose interest or desire for sex leading to "inhibited sexual desire." The fear of intimacy can cause partners to be emotionally unavailable and lead to an endless dance of pursuit and distancing.
Intimacy requires trust and safety to feel free enough to let go and be yourself. You need to be aware of your inner experience in the moment and have the courage and openness to share what you’re feeling with someone who also shares intimate feelings with you. Here are the necessary ingredients for intimacy:
Self-esteem allows you to be open and direct. The greater your self-esteem is, paradoxically, the more you can be separate and autonomous and in turn, the greater is your capacity for closeness and intimacy. In fact, there are levels of intimacy.
At the first level, you share information about yourself. It may be facts that you consider private or things only your family knows. Many people attach to strangers quickly. They yearn to merge in order to feel whole with the hopes that a relationship will boost their self-esteem and bring them happiness. Research has shown that even strangers sharing private information with each other for half an hour can fall in love if they stare into each other’s eyes for four minutes. However, intimacy isn’t merging, it’s being close. Most people confuse sharing and becoming attached with love and real intimacy.
At the second level, which is the most common in close relationships, you share feelings – feelings about anything and everyone, except yourself or each other or what’s happening in real-time. Most people consider this very intimate, and at this level of intimacy – or sooner – couples often start having sex.
You might share your feelings about your work, family, or an ex, for example, but this is not the same as divulging feelings about yourself, so there isn’t too much risk involved. Sex at this level may not make you feel closer and can be used to avoid intimacy. Instead of feeling safe and close afterward, you can feel emptier than before. True intimacy requires trust that comes with knowing the other person. It’s not often that you can do this with someone you’ve known for a short time. You might tell a stranger on a plane all about yourself, but not reveal what you think about them or yourself, which is a higher level of intimacy.
At the third level, you’re being more open and sharing feelings about yourself. This is very intimate for most people but still lacks some elements of real intimacy. You may not be exposing deeper feelings; they may not be contemporaneous with what’s happening, or there may be a lack of mutuality. For instance, you could say that you feel proud, guilty, or embarrassed about something. When the feelings are negative, there’s greater fear of being rejected, so more safety is required.
Sometimes, people share negative facts and feelings about themselves when first meeting or dating someone. It’s usually not in an intimate context and is designed to push you away or test if you still want to date them. Another instance would be sharing feelings with a stranger you won’t see again at a workshop or on a plane. There’s little risk because you have no investment in the relationship.
In some relationships, one person is the listener and the other shares feelings about a problem. Listening to each others’ pain and problems might feel intimate, but caretaking or controlling ignores the other person’s separateness and autonomy. It lacks mutuality and has been called pseudo-intimacy.
The Recipe for Real Intimacy
True intimacy requires an authenticity that involves being honest in the moment. It’s not about sharing your past or problems, but feelings about yourself, what’s happening with you right now, or towards the person you’re with. There’s a potent immediacy to it. Your thoughts and judgments aren’t feelings. Connecting with raw and honest feelings in the moment requires presence and awareness. You need self-esteem to feel secure about yourself, which allows you to be genuine without fear of being judged or rejected. Saying “I love you,” if not sincere, can be less intimate than saying, “I don’t love you.” When you sugar-coat the truth, you miss out on the beautiful experience of real intimacy. It requires courage, especially when you reveal something that might alienate the other person. It has the opposite effect unless you want to end the relationship. People know that they can trust your honesty and your relationships deepen.
Rather than merging or pretending that differences don’t exist in order to feel accepted, you’re acknowledging that you’re two, separate adults relating your internal experiences and honoring those differences. That’s where autonomy comes in. You have to know you can survive on your own; otherwise, if you’re too afraid of losing the relationship or losing yourself, you guard how much you reveal.
In summary, intimate conversations vary in their level of intimacy, but the deepest ones require:
- An authentic expression of deep feelings, not facts.
- Feelings that are in the present.
- Honoring one anothers’ separateness.
- Feelings discussed are about yourself or the person you’re with.
If you’d like to try this and don’t know how, you can start by telling the person you’re with that you want to feel closer, but that you’re not sure how or what to say. If you admit this when you feel it, it’s an authentic admission and a beginning of intimacy.
© Darlene Lancer, 2011, 2019