Tag Archives: intimacy

Unraveling Intimacy

On an impulse, I Googled “intimacy” this week. My partner and I frequently talk about connection, and I think a great deal about relationships, past and present, trying to understand the psychological dynamics of being human.

I expected a simple definition. I found a lot more than that.

Photo by Jonathan Simcoe on Unsplash

The older I get, the more disgusted I am with public education. Why don’t we teach emotional intelligence to kids? Why do we fail to provide an adequate education in biology, sexuality, complexity and holistic management? Why don’t we model and teach critical thinking skills and how to research properly? And why, oh why, are we not taught about connection, love and intimacy before we become adults? Aaargh.

Intimacy turned out to be a rabbit hole, and I started taking notes and bookmarking sites. I read an article about eight kinds of intimacy. Count ‘em. Eight! Before I even read the piece, I knew I was in new territory. The simple definition of intimacy is closeness, but I never thought of closeness as having so many different facets. Well, of course it does, we all know that, but I didn’t know there was any kind of a theoretical model that broke intimacy down.

So I clicked, and read, and made notes. I’m not going to rehash the article. You can read it for yourself. However, here are the categories of intimacy in this particular model:

  • Physical
  • Emotional
  • Spiritual
  • Intellectual
  • Experiential
  • Conflict
  • Creative
  • Sexual

It wasn’t clear to me whether these were listed in any particular order of importance. The article was written by a woman. That’s important, because males and females are very different in their language, styles, agendas and motivations.

The piece doesn’t propose whether all these forms of intimacy are equal, which I appreciate, because I suspect we each want and need an individual balance of these eight pieces, and we’d probably list them in different orders of importance.

Photo by Andreas Fidler on Unsplash

The first thing that really strikes me is the discernment between physical and sexual intimacy. The blurring and confusion around the boundaries between the two reflect what I see as our cultural brokenness around sex and sexual expression. Rape culture is inherently distorted and unhealthy for men and women. I’ve written about touch before. Where are the lines between sexual and physical intimacy? Are there solid lines, or are they more fluid, depending on context and the people involved? How do things like trust and consent factor in? It seems terribly complicated and fraught with potential for misunderstanding, manipulation and abuse. When I read or hear the word “intimacy,” I think about sex, but this model demonstrates many other facets of close connection, including nonsexual physical touch.

As I’ve looked over this list for the last couple of days, it seems clear to me that our ability to participate in healthy intimacy is only as robust as our ability to be intimate with ourselves. Without the foundation of a loving, connected and authentic relationship with ourselves, nothing else works. If we don’t explore, accept and validate our own physical, emotional, spiritual, creative and sexual needs, we’ll never be able to share these intimate facets with anyone else.

Conflict intimacy really caught my eye. Huh? What does that even mean?

It means the ongoing experience of successfully managing tension, disagreement and conflict. It’s closely tied to experiential intimacy (the history of experience we build in relationships) and emotional intimacy (which requires trust and authenticity). I’m charmed by this one. I never would have come up with it on my own, and I wouldn’t have recognized it until the last few years with my partner, who is the first person I’ve ever been intimate with who behaves like an adult.

All my life I’ve wondered why simply getting along seems so impossible. I’m willing to listen, negotiate, try to understand, be tolerant and be authentic. Why can’t two people who are connected and have some degree of mutual history and commitment simply talk things through?

They can. If both are responsible adults who are prepared to be honest and vulnerable. It’s not hard at all. It’s interesting, stressful and brings up a lot of uncomfortable feelings to manage conflict, but it’s also a marvelous way to deepen understanding and, well, intimacy! Working out conflicts is every bit as useful and connecting as I always thought it could be. It also gives relationships stability and deep roots. I have absolute faith that my partner and I can manage any conflict or disagreement, whatever happens.

Experiential intimacy is complicated. My partner and I run into this all the time. A good example is stacking wood, which we’ve recently been doing as next season’s firewood is delivered. For him, stacking wood is a task based on a lifetime of skill and experience. He has a system in the barn where we store wood. He sorts it according to age, he stacks it just so, and the whole thing is carefully planned and managed.

Wood Delivery

Me? Stacking wood is an opportunity for connection, for us to do something that helps sustain our life together. The task is nothing but an excuse for good exercise and together time. I’m happy to take orders and let him have total control. (Stop laughing! In this case, I am!)

So we have wood dumped in the driveway, and I’m all excited because we’re going to spend several hours together stacking it. After breakfast, he goes into his office to do his morning thing and I go upstairs into my aerie to do mine. I get immersed in writing, or a book, or a rabbit hole like intimacy, and lose all track of time. At some point, usually because I have to pee or want another cup of tea (could these be related?), I come back to consciousness and discover the music is on, the barn door is open, and he’s happily stacking wood without me! I drop what I’m doing, grab my gloves and go out to join him, usually just at the point he’s ready to take a break.

This has happened many times, and every time I’m pissed off and feel rejected. Every time, we talk about it, and he’s sorry. “I forgot to call you,” he says.

He forgets because to him it’s a task to be done competently. I’m hurt because to me it’s a chance to do something together, and that’s always my priority. The competency and skill involved mean nothing to me. I want the connection.

Same activity, but entirely different ways of experiencing it.

It works the other way, too. He likes to share certain movies and TV series with me. For him, that’s important connection time–experiential intimacy. It can be for me, too, but sitting through yet another Star Trek or Star Wars or superheroes spectacle is at best boring and at worst overstimulating. It’s something I do out of love, but I’d rather stack wood together.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Another aspect of intimacy that highlights the confusion between men and women is creative intimacy. At first glance, I assumed this meant sharing our creative selves in our relationships, but that’s not quite how it’s defined. Creative intimacy is showing our affection for one another creatively. At this point I checked to see the sex of the writer of this piece and found it was a woman, which I would have predicted. In my experience, things like surprises, unexpected cards and gifts and other small (or large) playful tokens of appreciation and affection are much, much more important to women than men. A special card means a great deal to me, but my partner hardly notices such a demonstration. I know this because I sent him one—once! I got tremendous fun and pleasure out of it, but he was unimpressed. Watching the latest Star Wars with him would have meant more. Sigh.

I once spent a couple of weeks planning a birthday surprise for an intimate partner. Few things have given me as much pleasure. I went to his workplace and taped a card to his steering wheel before filling the cab of his truck with balloons. I couldn’t wait for his reaction.

He was furious. He said I had humiliated him. I was beyond crushed. I never again tried to do anything like that for him or anyone else. It left a deep scar.

Intimacy is one of those tricky aspects of relationship that’s probably equally longed for and terrifying. We fear losing ourselves, being vulnerable, being authentic. We long for connection that feels safe and real, for people in our lives we can trust and rely upon. We’re terrified of spending our lives alone, yet we resent having our freedom limited. Old traumas or health issues damage our ability to participate in physical or sexual intimacy. We have no emotional intelligence. We have no spiritual life. We avoid conflict at all costs.

We’re lonely. We’re lonely. We’re lonely.

Intimacy is one of our primary needs, but it’s messy and complicated, and now I wonder if it means different things to different people. We use the word, but there’s no consistency about what, exactly, we’re talking about. Is a relationship “real” if one or more of these elements is missing? How many of these aspects must be present to keep different kinds of relationships viable, and in what combination and balance?

I experience committed relationship as one long negotiation and contest of generosity. It’s hard work. The rewards are great, and such a connection requires ongoing, consistent investment; investment in ourselves. What do we need? What do we want? What can we say about what doesn’t work for us in relationship? What are our deal breakers? How do we manage conflict and uncomfortable feelings like anger and fear? What are our priorities? What are our expectations of ourselves and the other? How do we maintain healthy interdependence? What is our strategy for getting resource, help and support outside the relationship? How do we repair trust, manage the peace treaty of tolerance, practice forgiveness and manage power?

What does intimacy mean to us? How are we prepared to create and participate in it? What kinds of intimacy are we unable to offer? How close is too close? How distant is too distant? How will we handle the ways all these elements of intimacy might change over time? (They will.) How does intimacy show up in all our relationships—friends, family, romantic partners and community?

When I was 20, life was so simple. Intimacy was sex, and sex was mostly enjoyable. I didn’t find out until it was too late that sex is perhaps the most one-dimensional aspect of intimacy, and certainly not the longest lasting. When I was married at 21, I could feel some mild concern and eye-rolling from my family. I heard quite a bit of the “marry in haste, repent at leisure” thing. But no one stepped forward to give me resource and education about human connection. No one talked to me about the intricacies of a longstanding, committed relationship. No one had any emotional intelligence or a clue about its importance. No one talked to me about romance or expectations or intimacy. How could they? None of them knew about any of those things. No one had taught them.

Well, better late than never. I’ve learned a lot since I was 20.

Unraveling intimacy. My daily crime.

Photo by Laercio Cavalcanti on Unsplash

The Doll

Dolls, like clowns, have a long and powerful history of symbolic meaning for human beings. We think of most dolls now as playthings for children, but dolls have always been much more than toys.

Photo by Aimee Vogelsang on Unsplash

The old word for doll was “poppet,” related to the English word “puppet.” In many cultures, dolls were used for spiritual rituals and magic, and as oracles. They are perhaps most famous as tools of black magic, but were also used for healing, fertility, and romantic and protective spells. From the Far East to Africa to the Americas, dolls have been an important social instrument for centuries.

There exist in the world a small handful of haunted dolls, both in museums and collections and for sale on sites like eBay. Several horror movies have been inspired by famous haunted dolls, such as Robert and Annabelle.

As a child I didn’t have dolls, and didn’t want them. A toy doll to mother and care for was not nearly as much fun as a pet, of which we had an abundance, and nothing was as lovely a plaything for me as a book. Some things never change.

No, I didn’t have a doll until I was nearly 50 years old, when I decided I needed a very specific kind of doll for a very specific reason. Most traditional dolls were handmade out of whatever materials were available. As a child of the twentieth century, I went shopping online, trusting I would know her when I found her. I already knew her name.

Photo by Gary Bendig on Unsplash

I wanted a new doll resembling myself. I looked at hundreds of dolls, mostly hideous, plastic and cheap, trying to find good old-fashioned rag dolls or soft dolls. There are some, but they’re few and far between. Alas, there are no dolls depicting (ahem!) maturity. Most of them simper, lowering plastic eyelids over improbably shiny blue or brown eyes. They have equally shiny and synthetic hair and frilly clothes. It was a little like shopping for candy in the candy aisle during Halloween. Slick, artificial, patently synthetic color, all sugar and no substance. Certainly, I found no dolls with even one grey hair or crow’s feet around the eyes. I thought about making a dried apple doll, but it was a fleeting thought. For some reason, that wasn’t quite what I wanted.

I persisted until I found a plain rag doll with brown yarn hair tied into two bunches with ribbons and blue eyes. She wore a yellow dress and white felt shoes on primitive club-shaped feet.

I grew up doing all kinds of embroidery, cross stitch and needlework, but I never learned to use a sewing machine or do practical things like make clothing, so I had to ask for help to get more appropriate clothes made. I found a young woman who sewed and asked her to make my doll a pair of denim jeans and some kind of a top. I told her the doll was for a niece of mine who was something of a tomboy and a mountain kid. I didn’t want to admit the doll was mine.

Dolls are commonly used for therapy for adults and children. In my explorations, I’d run across the idea of working with one’s inner child many times, and I knew making a doll to represent oneself is a common therapeutic activity. As I’d never had any meaningful kind of relationship with dolls, this didn’t attract me.

Until it did. I’m not sure exactly why my interest in dolls changed at that particular point in my life. All I can really say is that I was suddenly ready to figure out if I could love myself. A doll seemed an obvious way to externalize the parts of me that felt so chronically unloved and unwanted. Beyond that, I really didn’t think. I just felt the need, and obeyed it.

When the clothes were ready (jeans, a T-shirt and a zippered sweatshirt), I dressed the doll and cut her brown yarn hair short. After spending most of my life with long hair, I’d recently cut mine, more as an act of rebellion and self-mutilation than anything else.

Photo by Rain Wu on Unsplash

I cut the doll’s hair with a mixture of anger, resentment and grief, and a strange thing happened. Instead of looking at her with loathing, I had the completely unexpected and spontaneous thought that the short hair was cute. It wasn’t ugly. It didn’t make her look like an old hag, used up, dried up, sexless and powerless. That’s what I saw when I looked in the mirror at myself, but when I looked at the doll I saw something else entirely. As a child I had begged to be allowed to have long hair. I was eventually allowed to, when I was old enough to care for it. This was reasonable, as my hair is thick, curly and unruly, to put it mildly. For years, though, as a slim, short-haired, active child in the same tough jeans my brother wore, I was taken for a boy.

Somehow, looking down at that helpless rag doll and the short ends of yarn scattered around her, it seemed I was looking at a version of myself that’s long vanished, except in memory, and I didn’t hate her. She wasn’t loathsome. She merely had short hair. I’d meant to hurt her, even mutilate her, but her innocence turned a hostile act into a reluctant feeling of wanting to protect her from any who would seek to hurt her, including myself.

This was a powerful moment. It was so powerful that I doubted myself. What would people say if they knew I’d bought myself a doll and lied about it in order to get the clothes I wanted for her? What would they think of me? What did it say about me, these feelings of self-hatred mixed up with an uneasy need to protect? Protect the doll from me? Protect the doll from others? Protect myself?

I was confused, embarrassed and compelled. I kept the doll with me as I moved around my little log cabin, not to handle, but just to look at. Occasionally, I talked to her, in the same way I talked to the cat I belonged to at the time.

Then, one day, something distressed me. I was trying to calm down and think more clearly, and I saw the doll, sitting propped on a table. I picked her up and held her against my shoulder, patting her back and swaying on my feet in the age-old motions of comforting a baby. I had worked for years with chronic and terminally ill children and their families as a young woman and then raised two kids of my own. I love and understand children, and the familiarity of holding one again made me weep.

I was also instantly comforted, as though I myself was being held in spite of my age and ugliness. I’ve been aware all my life of the longing to be safe, secure and loved in someone’s arms, a longing I rarely admit, always endeavor to bury deep, and feel much shame about. Something about holding the doll assuaged that longing. In a strange sort of way, I was holding myself, or at least some part of myself.

I can’t explain the neurophysiological effect of being able to hold and comfort my doll. Perhaps a neurologist or a good psychiatrist could. What I do know is that it’s been enormously and unexpectedly healing. The gnawing need for nonsexual physical reassurance and affection has been something I’ve learned to live with, never revealing it or expecting to have this need met. If I could not find it as a young, reasonably attractive woman, I’ll surely never find it now. I can’t hold myself, but I can hold my doll. I don’t always treat myself with unconditional love, but I can give that to my doll. In fact, I’m incapable of giving her anything else. I’ve always found it much, much easier to love others than myself. Loving others is a beautiful way to live, but it’s not always reciprocated or even recognized for what it is, and much of the love I’ve given has walked away from me, never to return. With the doll, somehow my love comes back into my own starving skin and heart.

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

I’ve had the doll for about six years now. I’ve turned to her in times of fear, insomnia, emotional pain, panic attacks and PTSD. I’ve wept with her (and perhaps for her), rocked her, kissed her, practiced Havening with her, snuggled her and slept with her in my arms. Until now, I’ve kept her presence in my life a secret from all but one person. She’s been more useful to me than any psychological therapy or pharmaceuticals I’ve ever tried, with the single exception of emotional intelligence coaching.

I’m writing this post now because I thought it would be fun for Halloween, haunted dolls being a thing in our culture. As I write, however, I’m slightly sobered. I’m not prepared to debate whether haunted dolls or haunted anything else are “real.” The belief in such things is what fascinates me, along with the history of such objects, investigation into this kind of phenomena, and the way it captures our imaginations. What I will say is that if an object or person can be haunted or possessed, I would assume intense energy or emotion is associated with such possession.

It’s not hard for me to understand why dolls, like clowns, have so captured our imaginations. I’m quite certain that my doll is the most intimate object in my life. I would never want to see her in another’s hands. God forbid she ever takes it into her head to talk about my demons and vulnerabilities. I don’t mind if she wants to move around in my attic space, though, or even look out the windows, as other haunted dolls are alleged to have done.

Playing with my doll. My daily crime.

Lightning storm

True Love

My partner and I have hired a permaculture group called the Resilience Hub  out of Portland, Maine, to collaborate with us in the development of a 30-year plan for our 26 acres.

Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash

Permaculture, for those of you who didn’t follow the above link, is “the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient.” In other words, it’s a holistic management plan that includes plants, animals (insects, birds and reptiles), people, water and land. The land we live on consists of wetland, a river, a pond, a year-round daylight spring, streams, fields and woodland.

That’s what we tell people, anyway. I’m beginning to understand what permaculture really means to me, though, is a commitment to love.

I’m interested to discover that I’ve achieved the ripe old age of 53 and discarded nearly my entire definition of love after two marriages, two long-term non-marriage relationships and raising two children. At this point I know a lot more about what love isn’t than what it is.

Here’s my current working definition: A relationship revolving around what we want others to be is not love. A relationship revolving around the question “Who are you?” is love. Notice that sex is not part of the definition. I’m talking about love in the wide sense here, the act of loving another human being, independent of legal or blood ties. For me, this is also the root of self-love. Do we endlessly tell ourselves what we should, must, and have a responsibility to be, or do we allow ourselves to discover who we in fact are?

Creating a permaculture plan for this piece of land is a deliberate and intentional journey into what the land and the life it sustains is, as well as what we are as individuals and as partners. From our most private thoughts and beliefs to the boundary of the 26 acres we live on, we become note takers and observers. We practice surrender and acceptance. We listen and watch with curiosity and attention. We are present every day with ourselves, one another, and the land. We don’t think about imposing our will. We think about collaboration and cooperation, weaknesses and strengths, effectiveness and healing.

The consent to see and be seen is a profound and intimate expression of love rippling from the inside outward.

The consent to see and be seen is a profound and intimate expression of love rippling from the inside outward. We are not intruders here. We inhabit this land and want to protect and preserve it. The porcupine living in the barn cellar, the owls down by the river, the phoebes nesting in the barn, the passing bear who wiped out our suet feeder, are not intruders, either. The poison ivy, stinging nettle, ticks and mosquitos live here. The snapping turtles in the river and the leeches in the pond call this place home, just as we do. Permaculture is a peace treaty, the practice of appreciation for the variety and complexity of life around us, and the humility to admit much of its elegant mystery is beyond our knowledge or understanding.

Photo by Takahiro Sakamoto on Unsplash

As I walk these acres, alone, with my partner or in a group with the Resilience Hub, I’m learning the land as I would learn a beloved one’s body. I’m noticing the animal trails that wander from field to forest to river, lines and wrinkles of use tracing their way along the contours and folds of the land, suggesting where we, too, might make a path, a place to pause, a spiritual resting place.

I map old stone walls like the delicate sculpture of a spine, huge mossy boulders and landmark trees, learning the texture and landscape of this place. I wander in the thin-skinned places where old bones of ancient glacial esker are revealed. I think about bird nesting boxes, bee and pollinator boxes and honeybee hives.

Over the years, my partner has discovered all the delicate veins of water, daylight and underground, seasonal and year round, the lifeblood of the land. Thick forest hides damp, humid hollows and shallow bowls where the leaf-dappled air is filled with mosquitoes and the turkey and grouse hide. The grassy hair on the open slopes and fields is twined, in this season, with black-eyed susan, purple vetch, queen Anne’s lace, wild pinks, blooming milkweed and red clover.

The land shows us where wildflowers thrive, and which type decorate which season. It demonstrates where water runs, so we know exactly where to position a well. The trees inform us of water availability, drought, crowding, disease and age. The raptors flying over us, hunting, help us know where raptor roosts would be welcome in order to protect the woody agriculture we think of introducing against rodent damage.

As we wander this terrain, we look for nothing and try to see everything. 

As we wander this terrain, we look for nothing and try to see everything. This is how the sun falls during each month of the year. This is where the field floods when the river ice dams thaw in the spring. This is where the doe that was hit on the road lay down and died. This is the special spot where I come, early in the morning, to sit by the river and be alive. This is where the wind strokes the exposed slope, and this is where the trees shelter a small clearing that catches the sun. This is the place where a bittern pounced like a cat on some small rodent by the pond one morning. Here the snow drifts, and here it lies late in the season as the bluets bloom in the boggy field. Here was the old fox den.

Trees topple, decay into humus where fungus thrives and new trees reach for the sun. The land stretches, sheds, sloughs away and reconfigures. Species populations rise and fall. We aspire to that resilience and sustainability. We aspire to the harmony and complexity innate in the landscape around us. We don’t want more than we need to eat, to live, to love. We don’t want to be well-groomed, civilized, obedient and sterilized. We want to root the rest of our lives in the color and scent and texture of the primordial wisdom of life and death as naturally and unapologetically as the raven, the fern or the tree.

Who am I? Who is my partner? What is this land? I believe these are the questions that open the way to true love; to sustainability; to reciprocity, respect and surrender. As long as we ask and cherish these questions and receive and cherish the answers, hour by hour, day by day, season by season, cycle by cycle, love endures.

True love.

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Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted