What is intimacy?
Intimacy is the opening of oneself to another person so that the two individuals can share with each other their innermost thoughts and feelings that are usually kept hidden from other people. The word “intimacy” derives from intimus, the Latin term for “inner” or “inmost.” It denotes a kind of sharing that comes from within and inspires thoughts of closeness, warmth, and shared affection. Intimacy also involves getting close enough to another person that he or she can see not only one’s positive qualities and strengths but also one’s hidden faults and weaknesses. Authentic closeness between two persons requires that both of them step out of their traditional roles, dispense with their usual facades, and try to become their true selves. Intimacy with another person is, therefore, a combination of individual identity and mutual sharing. In a healthy intimacy, two individuals move into a relationship with each other, sharing common interests without losing their separate identities. Interpersonal exchange in intimate relationships is an end in itself rather than a means to achieving any other goal.
Intimacy, by its very nature, is elusive, subjective, and intensely private. An important basis of intimacy is the sharing of private thoughts and feelings through self-disclosure. Such self-disclosure involves the sharing of both pleasant and unpleasant feelings and emotions. There appears to be something uniquely intimate about sharing personal pain. It is also considered intimate to share feelings of love, caring, attraction, and closeness, as well as well as hopes, joys, accomplishments, and pride. The sharing of joyous experiences and cherished memories is considered to be as intimate as that of unpleasant experiences and long-suppressed secrets. In addition, intimacy refers not just to the act of self-disclosure but also to the interpersonal interaction in which self-disclosure is validated and reciprocated.
Nonverbal behaviors are as important to intimacy as are verbal expressions. Sex is cited as the most frequent example, but other examples include being with another person in an atmosphere of comfort and ease; hand-holding; hugging; sharing excitement, joy, and laughter; and doing things together. Other examples include sharing the touch, taste, and smell of cherished objects. Feeling good in the presence of each other, touching each other in silence, having a quiet dinner together, and silently sharing excitement and anticipation are some other examples that illustrate intimacy.
Intimacy also denotes a special type of feeling that is often described in terms of warmth, closeness, and love. Intimacy can thus refer to individual behavior (such as self-disclosure), to interactions between two partners, to types of relationships, and to specific feelings. Intimate partners experience a unique sense of exuberance, warmth, and vitality. Sometimes they waver, intermittently feeling both closeness and distance. At other times, there can be a simultaneous experience of both closeness and distance.
A positive and realistic sense of self is a prerequisite for healthy intimacy. Intimacy requires a full awareness of one’s own feelings, thoughts, and values and the ability to bring that awareness into a relationship with another. As one becomes aware of one’s own self-identity and self-understanding, one is able to move into a relationship with another individual who also maintains a somewhat similar sense of healthy self-identity. Intimacy involves being able to share worlds while maintaining one’s own boundaries. It requires being honest with oneself and one’s partner, even during those times when one is not focused on sharing or is in some other way preoccupied.
A person who is aware of his or her own needs and is willing to explore his or her own limitations and potentialities will allow another to do the same. This may, at times, lead to conflicts. Variations in emotional expression, the nature of attention, and the quality of communication are bound to occur in a relationship from time to time and are unavoidable. The truly intimate partners are able to handle such occasional turmoil with graceful acceptance and mutual respect.
Healthy intimacy is notable for an ability to maintain a solid, self-sustained sense of identity while remaining emotionally engaged with another. The sense of self in a person involved in an intimate relationship is very resilient. Such a person is able and willing to differ with another and still maintain his or her unique identity, expressed through thoughts, feelings, values, vulnerabilities, strengths, desires, and fantasies. A person with a healthy sense of self can tolerate multiple, distinct, and coequal realities. Such people can be themselves in the presence of others, and can accept others being themselves.
A less-than-healthy relationship is marked by blurred or indistinct boundaries. In such relationships, a person pays an inordinate amount of attention to the other individual to monitor his or her actions and, more important, reactions. Even minor differences can be anxiety producing and/or threatening. One attempts to deny, minimize, or rapidly smooth differences out of existence. Contact with a partner is neither solid nor comfortable because the closeness causes anxiety about losing one’s self, whereas separateness creates anxiety about losing the other person. If the self-identity is shaky or insecure, there is an inability to maintain proper boundaries and, in turn, a resistance to really “letting in” another person—whether emotionally or intellectually. In extreme cases, contact with the partner’s differing reality is so difficult that it may give rise to an illusion of an alternate reality or a sense of no connection whatsoever.
An alternative to this sort of distortion is to allow both oneself and one’s partner to be transparent and visible. When separateness is maintained, the option to know another person exists. One’s self is solid enough to withstand the risks that accompany intense emotional involvement—the inevitability of misunderstanding, disappointment, disapproval, conflict, rejection, and even loss. In a paradoxical sense, one can only have as good a relationship as one is willing to lose. This is one of the key dynamics that largely determines how much emotional intensity and intimacy a person is capable of handling.
Being intimate with another individual necessitates risk and vulnerability through self-disclosure. Intimacy inherently feels risky because one goes out to the edge of individual expression without being certain how the other person will respond. Whereas closeness affirms and sustains a relationship, intimacy reveals and affirms individuality, and, in the process, changes the nature and quality of a relationship. A person who is able to maintain individuality in the midst of togetherness can reap the rewards of both closeness and intimacy. If not, one swings between compulsive togetherness and reactive individuality.
Intimate relationships evolve gradually and naturally. The more valued the relationship, the more there is to lose. One feels more anxiety in being intimate in the sense of being honestly and fully oneself. There is always some amount of tension between closeness and intimacy. The paradox of closeness and intimacy is that the only way to really have either is to be willing at times to sacrifice closeness for the sake of intimacy.
Although intimacy is commonly thought of in connection with sex, sex is not a necessary component of intimacy. Satisfying intimate relationships in themselves are the most important source of people’s happiness. Intimacy is a very important ingredient in the quality of love and sex. A high degree of intimacy between two lovers or spouses contributes to the happiness, emotional stability, and sexual enrichment of both. All activities are more enjoyable and life is richer and more colorful when shared with an intimate partner. Sexual experiences are more pleasurable if the partners know each other intimately, when they are completely open and vulnerable, when they can trust each other to care about each other’s feelings, and when they take pleasure in each other’s pleasure.
Humans are social animals, and without intimate relationships they risk loneliness and depression. The availability of intimate relationships is an important determinant of how well people master life’s crises. Satisfying intimate relationships are a very important source of most people’s happiness. An intimate involvement with a special someone provides a person with a purpose and meaning in life and seems to promote a sense of overall well-being. Intimate relationships have been shown to buffer people from the pathogenic effects of stress. People in intimate relationships have fewer stress-related symptoms and faster recoveries from illnesses. Intimate partners confide in each other, which has been shown to carry its own health benefits. Individual well-being and intimate relationships appear to be closely intertwined. People in satisfied intimate relationships have been shown to be less vulnerable to the negative outcomes of stress than those who lack such relationships.
People may find it difficult to develop and maintain intimacy in two different ways: They are compulsively searching for intimacy but are unable or unwilling to invest time and energy in developing meaningful intimate relationships, or they are afraid of losing their identity and, therefore, purposefully avoid intimate relationships.
Some people harbor unrealistic expectations about intimacy and closeness. Such people are always looking for instant intimacy, even at the cost of compromising their basic values. They tend to share secrets instantly and pour out their life stories in search of establishing immediate contact and emotional intensity. In doing so, they often end up surrendering their personal boundaries in a relationship. This tendency to lose the sense of self and define oneself through the response of others is called emotional fusion. In such a fusion, the boundaries of self become quite vague, and the person is unable to withstand much pressure or disagreement from another. Holding a distinct, self-defined position can be a very frightening experience for such a person. In such relationships, partners try to merge their internal experiences into a single common reality. As a result, each person’s well-being gets inextricably linked to the other’s experience and wishes. Both focus on the other, trying to ensure consensus and avoid defining their own reality.
A person with fear of intimacy is basically afraid of losing ego boundaries. There is a lack of interest in and motivation for becoming intimate with others. In most cases, such disturbance in the capacity to form intimate interpersonal relationships stems from early adverse experiences within one’s family. Such a person has an active fear of closeness, suffers from self-doubts, and actively distrusts others. He or she has a very low self-image and is easily susceptible to loneliness and depression. Such a person sees himself or herself as undeserving of the love and support of others, is afraid to trust others, and has an unrealistic fear of dependence. When a person is repeatedly unable to share inner thoughts and feelings with a single other person in a sustained manner, he or she may experience emotional isolation.
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