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

© 2020, Jenny Rose. All rights reserved.

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