Some of the stuff I write about today is going to sound very basic, a few of you might even think to yourself ‘duh, doesn’t everyone know that?’. But for each person who finds this information to be obvious I hope there is another who has never given it much thought. The goal is to spark self-reflection, discussion and ideally positive development. So whether this is all new to you or not, I think an introduction that dives into some of the nitty-gritty is a good place to start.
What Do I Mean Why I Say “Intimacy”?
I will do my best to define terms in order to combat ambiguities, because it is frustrating how ill equipped English can be to discuss the nuances of interpersonal relationships. The vocabulary is sadly underdeveloped so that even when I use the word “intimacy” your mind may jump straight to ideas about sex and/or some vague concept of a sacred emotional bond between “soul mates”, without considering the full range of possibilities. No worries, Clara is here to clarify the shit out of some terms and concepts.
What do I even mean when I say intimacy? Distilled down to its most essential, intimacy is a bond forged between people through knowledge and experience. The word itself comes from the Latin intimatus, ‘make familiar’. To truly be intimate with a person, to form a substantial and secure bond, one must know them as they really are, which is achieved and maintained through authentic experiences. This definition may seem like an oversimplification, but I promise you, while it is very simple it is also very powerful.
Most of us will recognize that the bonds and attachments that form intimacy are important to our quality of life. They can bring pleasure, comfort, satisfaction, happiness, excitement and fulfillment to our lives. These bonds can take many forms: the bond between parent and child, platonic friends, respected teammates, sexual partners, co-parents, etc. I will even argue that it is possible (and ideal) to build and cultivate intimacy with one’s self. As far as types of intimacy, most psychologists agree there are four main paths of development: physical, emotional, cognitive and experiential.
Even Aristotle thousands of years ago recognized the importance of intimacy. Every relationship, he argued, is based on one of three things: utility, pleasure and virtue. With the first two it is easy to see how transactional they can be and that neither requires knowledge or experience of the other – I don’t need to know you to take pleasure from you or to make use of you. But a bond built on virtue (a person’s characteristics, personality and the integrity of their deeds) does require knowledge and experience. Aristotle valued these virtue based relationships the most and predicted they would be the longest lasting, because he believed they are the only ones in which a person is appreciated for who they are and not what they provide. I personally agree with Aristotle for the most part, but I would insist that there is nothing inherently wrong, lacking or degrading about bonds built on utility, pleasure, or what have you. As long as they are respectful and consensual they all have their place.
A lot of emphasis is put on trust and communication in relationships, and it is true they are important. Both will bring you experience and knowledge of others, but the whole process of building and maintaining intimacy can be difficult in and of itself for anyone. This is due to the challenging reality that often the same avenues through which intimacy is achieved can be the same activities/states of being that frighten people: dialogue, transparency, vulnerability, and reciprocity.
We humans are undeniably social animals. While it may take different forms and expressions, love, closeness, affection, recognition, and validation are all things we each crave. Even the most fiercely independent people have social needs and, as I will argue again and again, you are your only true life-long companion. So building intimacy with yourself can only enrich your life.
You might ask though, how could you develop self-intimacy? Aren’t you already and always by default intimate with yourself? Having a healthy functional relationship with yourself works much the same as having a working relationship with others, it is built on knowledge and experience. It is true you are always in close proximity to yourself, but too many people go through life ignorant, sometimes willfully so, about themselves. Without a good working knowledge of who you are and what you want, or without the experiences that bring you such knowledge, you may go through life feeling lost, anxious and estranged. I will write about self-intimacy/love more exhaustively in a future blog post. Honestly, every concept I touch on today could have its own dedicated post. But right now we are just talking about the basics and hopefully I will persuade you that intimacy matters – it matters for your satisfaction and your happiness.
Why Intimacy Matters
Many people feel depressed or unfulfilled in life because they sense something is lacking. Some are lonely, some feel deprived, some feel insecure and some are making unconscious choices that are hurting themselves or others. Still others do not have a sense of who they are, what they want, or where they are going. Feeling estranged from yourself and/or others is a good indicator that you need to work on intimacy. Many people spend their time and energy chasing things they think will make them happy only to feel deeply dissatisfied in the end. Happiness can become an elusive goal with ephemeral results, or a poorly defined destination point; the myth that once we make it to graduation, marriage, or a particular threshold we will live happily ever after. Happiness is not a destination, because life is a journey that is in constant flux.
What many of us have been taught to believe is happiness I would argue is actually just pleasure. We have been taught hedonism, to focus on pursuing one aspect of happiness, as if it were something we can unlock and achieve, but instead of long lasting content it is a short-lived thrill. Our culture values infatuation rather than secure, lasting bonds and immediate pleasures and instant gratifications rather than long term satisfaction. We have been told that you can love someone and not be “in love” with them and that if this happens it means the relationship is flawed or doomed. The truth though is that infatuation never lasts, it can come and go, ebb and flow, but that chemical excitement a person feels can only last a few years at most. If we valued intimacy as much as we valued infatuation then perfectly good relationships need not be abandoned when the fireworks fade. There is nothing wrong with either, and one isn’t right or better. My argument is that constantly pursuing what is easy, quick and pleasurable and ignoring the rest will lead to hurt and countless issues. It creates a life of coping instead of thriving. I believe all these experiences satisfy best when kept in balance, when you have stability and security as you chase your thrills.
Are you getting your needs met? We each have numerous needs and each and every one of them is valid. Do you feel that you are fulfilled in your need to be known, to be seen, to be heard, to be understood, to be loved, to be touched? Are you secure in your own ability to fulfill these needs? The questions go on and on and on and each of them is serious. Never underestimate the weight of basic human needs and desires. If it matters to you, whether it is sex, companionship, love, good banter and/or stimulating conversation, then it is not trivial. Even the most independent loner still has their needs. Wherever you might feel lost or unfulfilled in your life, becoming literate in intimacy can help.
Are you afraid of stagnation and boredom? I know I am. Often a fear of stillness, stagnation, quiet and/or being alone is really a fear of being alone with yourself. If deep down you have trouble liking yourself and enjoying your own company you will do whatever it takes to avoid/escape being on your own. Building intimacy with yourself can help relieve these fears and even help you ultimately overcome them. This can be achieved through cultivating a healthy curiosity about yourself, courting yourself as you would a new lover, getting to know yourself and experiencing the person you are rather than the person you wish you were. If you can learn to appreciate the person you are then you will always find yourself in satisfying company.
Are you making conscious choices? I mean choices, especially major ones, that are grounded in awareness and security rather than desperation and insecurity. For example, how familiar does the following sound?
‘I don’t know what I’ll do without her.’
‘I feel lost without him.’
‘The best part of me was always you.’
‘I can’t go on without you.’
‘I don’t know who I am without you.’
‘What is my purpose without him?’
‘What is my reason to live without her?’
Being in a relationship or being intimate with another person, whether it is your family member, your mentor, or your spouse, should be a conscious choice. When fear, insecurities and/or desperation are the driving force behind choices of how to spend our time and who to spend it with, we will inevitably hurt ourselves in all manners of way and cling onto unhealthy behaviors or situations far too long. How do you leave an unhealthy relationship if your whole sense of identity was at risk of being lost when it ended? When relationships end it is sad and sometimes painful, but it isn’t supposed to feel like amputation. Intimacy, in all its forms, cannot be demanded it can only be invited. So it takes a conscious choice to invite intimacy into our lives as well as to share it with others. It is truly my dream that we all learn to make conscious choices so that we spend time engaged in activities that we actually want to be doing, in places we actually want to be, with people we actually want to be with, and all the while no one, including ourselves, need to suffer for such content.
My hope with what I’ve written today is that I took you on a little hike through the wild expanses of what intimacy is, what it can mean and how it can affect your life. As you see I have much (maybe too much) to say on these matters.
Till next time!
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