By Anita Anand
‘Intimacy requires identity development, which means that you have to know yourself and your inner self in order to share yourself with another.’ says Peter Fox, Couple’s Therapist
You are with someone, but do not feel close. You are in a relationship, but you feel lonely. You desperately want to share something, but feel you may be misunderstood, or that people may repeat what you have told them in confidence. You spend an entire evening with your closest friends and nothing personal is exchanged. In all these cases, as in many others, intimacy is missing. Defining intimacy is not easy. Its meaning varies from relationship to relationship and within relationships over time. In some relationships, intimacy is entwined with sex, and feelings of closeness may be connected or confused with sexual feelings. In other relationships, intimacy has more to do with shared moments than sexual interactions. It is linked with feelings of closeness among partners in a relationship. Intimacy and healthy relationships go hand in hand. Indeed, intimacy is a basic ingredient in any meaningful relationship.
Jane Austen, in her novel, Sense and Sensibility, writes, “It is not time or opportunity that determines intimacy, it is disposition alone. Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others.”
The main forms of intimacy are emotional and physical. Intellectual intimacy, familiarity with a person’s culture and interests, is common among friends. Members of religious or philosophic groups may also perceive a ‘spiritual intimacy’ in their commonality. Intimacy can also be identified as knowing someone in depth, knowing many different aspects of a person or knowing how they would respond in different situations, because of the many experiences you have shared with them. ‘In its most basic form, intimacy is the ability and the choice to be close, loving and vulnerable. It requires identity development, which means that you have to know yourself and your inner self in order to share yourself with another. Knowing yourself makes it possible to stand up for yourself in an intimate relationship, without taking over the other, or losing yourself to the other. This is self-differentiation.’ says Peter Fox, Couple’s therapist
Self-differentiation – or one’s ability to separate one’s own intellectual and emotional functioning from that of the family, was popularised by Dr Murray Bowen, an American psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University in the US. Beginning in the 1950s, Bowen was among the pioneers of family therapy and founders of a systems theory of the family and systemic therapy.
Bowen spoke of people functioning on a single continuum or scale. Individuals with ‘low differentiation’ are more likely to become fused with predominant family emotions. They depend on others’ approval and acceptance. They either conform themselves to others in order to please them, or they attempt to force others to conform to themselves. They are thus vulnerable to stress, and they struggle to adjust to life changes. From a centre of self-knowledge and self-differentiation, intimate behaviour joins family, close friends, as well as those with whom one is in love. It is a give and take, building on self-disclosure and openness. However, poor development of intimacy can lead to getting too close, too quickly, struggling to find the boundary and to sustain connection, being poorly skilled as a friend, rejecting self-disclosure or even rejecting friendships and those who have them.
Self-disclosure is both the conscious and unconscious act of revealing more about us to others. This may include but is not limited to thoughts, feelings, aspirations, goals, failures, successes, fears, dreams as well as our likes, dislikes, and favourites. Many people attempt to avoid ‘self-disclosing’ to their colleagues or a possible love interest for fear of being judged negatively by them. In self-disclosure, we get to know each other and self-disclose things. We continue to build and develop our relationships with them. If one person is not willing to ‘self disclose’ then the other persons may stop disclosing information about themselves also.
Self-disclosure is an essential building block for intimacy. Intimacy cannot be achieved without it. Self-disclosure also needs to be reciprocal and appropriate. Most self-disclosure usually occurs early in relational development, but more intimate self-disclosure occurs later. There are male and female differences in self- disclosure. Generally, it is perceived that women self-disclose to enhance a relationship. Men’s self-disclosures relate to control and vulnerability. Men initially disclose more in heterosexual relationships. Men usually enjoy having women disclose, whereas women may not enjoy the disclosure of men because it may show weakness in their mind. Women tend to put more emphasis on intimate communication with same sex friends than many men do. Intimate relationships differ from strategic relationships. Intimate behaviour occurs in the latter but it is governed by a higher order strategy, of which the other person may not be aware. For example, getting close to someone in order to get something from him or her, or give him or her something. That ‘something’ might not be offered so freely if it did not appear to be an intimate exchange and if the ultimate strategy had been visible at the outset.
Secrets are generally hostile to intimacy in a committed relationship, but not knowing of the existence of a secret, one can continue to believe there is intimacy. Maintaining the illusion of intimacy may be a strategic skill where there is an imbalance of power brought about by the existence of a secret. Knowledge is the currency of power. Betrayal of intimacy can be a traumatic experience. The person can feel cheated as well as humiliated.
When a person meets the half that is his very own, whatever his orientation, something wonderful happens – the two are liberated from their senses by love, by a sense of belonging to one another, and by desire, and they do not want to be separated from one another, not even for a moment. No one would think that it is the intimacy of sex, or that mere sex is the reason each lover takes so great and deep a joy in being with the other. – Plato
An intimate relationship is a particularly close interpersonal relationship. It is a relationship in which the participants know or trust one another very well or are confidants of one another, or a relationship in which there is physical or emotional intimacy. Physical intimacy is characterised by romantic or passionate love and attachment, or sexual activity. It is sensual proximity and/or touching. It can be enjoyed by itself and/or be an expression of feelings (such as close friendship, love, and/or sexual attraction) which people have for one another. Examples of physical intimacy include being inside someone’s personal space, holding hands, hugging, kissing, caressing, and sexual activity.
Emotional intimacy is a dimension of interpersonal intimacy that varies in degree and over time, much like physical intimacy. The degree of comfort, effectiveness and mutual experience of closeness might indicate emotional intimacy between individuals. Intimate communication is both expressed (talking) and implied (friends sitting close on a park bench in silence). It depends primarily on trust, as well as the nature of the relationship and the culture in which it is observed. Depending on the background and conventions of the participants, emotional intimacy might involve disclosing thoughts, feelings and emotions in order to reach an understanding, offer mutual support or build a sense of community. On the other hand, it might involve sharing a duty, without commentary.
Love is an important factor in physical and emotional intimate relationships. Though love is notoriously difficult to define, it is not only quantitatively different from liking, and the difference is not merely the presence or absence of sexual attraction. According to one analysis, love in relationships could be passionate and companionate. Passionate love is intense longing, and often accompanied by physiological arousal (shortness of breath, rapid heart rate). Companionate love is affection and a feeling of intimacy, and is not necessarily accompanied by physiological arousal. When I am with you, we stay up all night. When you are not here, I cannot go to sleep. Praise God for these two insomnias and the difference between them. – Mevlana Rumi
Building intimacy and healthy relationships “Loving behaviour doesn’t grind you down, keep you off balance, or create feelings of self-hatred. Love does not hurt; it feels good. Loving behaviour nourishes your emotional well-being. When someone is being loving to you, you feel accepted, cared for, valued, and respected. Genuine love creates feelings of warmth, pleasure, safety, stability, and inner peace.”– Susan Forward, psychotherapist and author of Toxic Parents
Being able to have strong intimate relationships goes back to family and intimacy. Loving yourself is the beginning of intimacy. Intimacy is not something static but a movement of give and take – like a jugalbandi or a dance. ‘It grows with self-disclosure and feedback and withers without it. This movement unfolds between separateness and togetherness, nourishing self-differentiation rather than drowning in dissolution of selves. Healthy family processes are built around loving adults living humanely. We tend to mature into adults who love and care for ourselves as we were cared for as children. This manifests in how we love and care for others. A healthy parental relationship is securely contained in boundaries that delineate or differentiate parents/partners from the generation below and the generations above. Family members can be close whilst maintaining a sense of personal identity and agency. Implicit and explicit communication is essential. ‘ says Peter Fox, Couple’s therapist.
Author Deborah Tannen says, “Communication is a continual balancing act, juggling the conflicting needs for intimacy and independence. To survive in the world, we have to act in concert with others, but to survive as ourselves, rather than simply as cogs in a wheel, we have to act alone.” There are foundations for safety and intimacy in childhood and adult life. If these are missing or deficient, we are likely to feel isolated which takes away from creativity and mental health.
Peter Fox, Clinical Psychologist and Couple’s Therapist details a healthy relationship (see Box)
Good parenting is essential as intimacy starts in the first institution the child encounters, the home. Peter Fox (see above) writes, ‘The studies of twins separated at birth indicate that apart from genes, the influence of parents on their child’s adult behaviour and attitudes is negligible. This is both relieving and humbling – we are the fruit of many lives. Yet, this is also a self-limiting view, since we teach children our language in the womb and in our arms. We teach and show a set of values and demonstrate tools for thinking. All these influence the course of many lives.To fully understand our child and any adult with whom we might consider shared parenting, we would do well to observe or learn about their grandparents and great grandparents – their influence, values and their genes. Each party to a marriage brings an established and proven culture (or a rejection of that culture) of leisure activities, child rearing, and partnership, of its stable values, rituals and roles. More specifically:
Spoken and unspoken rules, for example whether to stew in conflict, hide it under the carpet, use the silent treatment or manage the underlying differences early and consciously • Rules about rule making for example, ‘I am the boss and you’ll do what I say, not what I do’, ‘we are a collaborative team’ or ‘no-one has a monopoly on solutions.’
• Rules about rule breaking for example, ‘You hurt me so it’s okay for me to break rules until you say you’re sorry.’
• Preferred methods for expressing conflict, for resolving conflict or even denying it exists
• Processes for hearing and of being heard
• Space for thinking for oneself
• Processes for saying hello and goodbye
These define and develop a family’s culture. Whether you know it or not, like it or not, you marry a family, its history, culture and its genes. They are carried, often asleep in your beloved’s and your children’s habits. Your habits and theirs, agreed or not, will raise your family and your children, in whichever combinations you choose to know and meld them or not. Inconsistent parenting styles, conflicts in philosophies of child rearing and poor boundaries between generations arise from differences in family histories and temperaments. Ignored, they can make the task of child rearing and problem solving a living hell for all those affected.
Respected and managed consciously and intentionally, the differences will nourish responsible, respectful and resilient children who celebrate difference as well as sameness and who have a range of options to choose from for a happy and fulfilling life. Fox quotes Virginia Satir, noted American author and psychotherapist, known especially for her approach to family therapy, developed and suggests Five Freedoms.
To see and hear what is here instead of what should be, was, or will be • To say what one feels and thinks instead of what one should • To feel what one feels instead of what one ought • To ask for what one wants, instead of always waiting for permission • To take risks on one’s own behalf, instead of choosing to be only ‘secure’ and not rocking the boat
Following these processes can set a lifetime pattern of wisdom in relationships at home and at work. Not doing so, places unwanted limitations on our children’s capacity to enjoy spaciousness in their own heads. It places unnecessary pressure on us to fulfil our duty of care and attention. These processes grow together into how the adult loves and cares for themselves or not, whether full and empty in free attention, rich or poor in tenderness and vulnerability, with clear boundaries and capacity for concern. It grows with how they love and care for others. Failure to grow leads to a denial of life and of lived experience and perverting the course of love and sex. In the final analysis, intimacy is the ability and the choice to be close, loving, real and vulnerable with oneself, with family, close friends as well as in love. In choosing intimacy, we choose to live – fully, completely and without fear.
Anita Anand is a Delhi-based hypnotherapist and crystalhealer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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