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As a verb, to intimate means to make known. Intimacy is about seeking or having closeness of some kind with someone. When we're being intimate with another person, we're letting them -- or they're letting us -- get closer by inviting and allowing each other into places beneath the visible surfaces of ourselves; places we don't show to just anyone, or places people can only really come into if we invite them.
Healthy intimacy involves intentionally, willingly and safely sharing more private, vulnerable parts of our hearts, minds, bodies or lives with each other, and having others share with us in ways we want and feel comfortable with. Intimacy asks for transparency (being open and honest), vulnerability (letting our guard down), trust, and a means of communicating or connecting. When we're experiencing healthy intimacy, we'll tend to feel accepted or accepting, known or more knowing, valued just as the people we are, not because we did something important or something that someone wanted, and, since so many of us keep so much of our inner selves reigned in tightly so much of the time, we'll tend to feel a certain sense of peace or release by loosening those reins.
Intimacy is something that can happen in a brief period of time and can be built over time, so it becomes deeper, there's more of it, or it's something we experience more often. A truly shared intimacy involves both or all people involved sharing and being shared with. Shared intimacy requires all people involved be open and receptive, vulnerable, trusting and trustworthy, sharing and communicating together, not just one person.
One way to conceptualize intimacy is to think about it like the place you live. There are people you won't even let in the front door. There are others you let in, but only in the living room or lobby. Others, still, you may let into your bedroom or another place that's more private. Then there are people let into all those rooms and who you may let stay and even make spaces with you. You might also show some people where you keep things that are secret or of value to you and give them permission to access those things. Which people those are, and for which spaces, is something we should ideally have a choice about. When we do, those choices are rarely random.
We're usually selective about who we're intimate with and in what ways. If and when someone lets us into some part of their private space, or we them, that's an extension of trust. To honor that, take part in it in a healthy way, and have intimacy be something that's beneficial for everyone, everyone involved has to be open to it, respect everyone's boundaries, and treat each other with care. Trashing the proverbial bedroom, stealing food, or even just going into a room anyone hasn't expressly invited us into in would disrespect all of that, and most often result in doors, validly, being shut and staying shut to whoever didn't treat a house -- be that house a heart, mind, body or an actual house -- with care.
When some people say someone was intimate, they mean they engaged in sex. Sex is one way to be intimate and develop intimacy, but that's not all there is to it, and sex isn't the only way to be intimate. To say sex is all there is to intimacy is like saying eating only one thing at a restaurant with a thirty-page menu is knowing is all there is to the place. To say someone was intimate doesn't tell us if they were sexual or not: maybe they engaged in sex, or maybe they were intimate in other ways. And to say someone engaged in sex doesn't tell us if that even involved intimacy: often sex is an intimate experience for everyone involved, but not always. Doing or sharing any one things never means intimacy is a given: intimacy is something we experience (or don't) through things we do or share, but no given share or way of sharing means we can be sure intimacy is what everyone involved has experienced or will experience.
Whether we're talking about sex, or any of the many other ways we can be intimate, intimacy is a seriously subjective thing. No one thing or activity is feels intimate for everyone, or for any one person all the time or in every situation. We all have different personalities, life experiences, opportunities, relationships, ways of expressing ourselves and boundaries, so it'd be impossible for us to all experience intimacy the same ways, or want to explore it in the same ways. We're also not the same person through all of our lives, so will experience intimacy differently throughout a lifetime.
If and when we want to be intimate with someone else that means saying, doing or otherwise expressing something more hidden or private to or with someone else (or more than one someone else). How? In millions, probably billions, of ways.
Intimacy isn't only for pairs: two people can experience intimacy together, but so can three, four, five, ten, twenty or two hundred. People in support groups like AA or abuse survivor forums, jam sessions, families, poly relationships, intentional communities or in large events often experience or build intimacy. Certain kinds of relationships also don't mean people are necessarily more or less intimate. Someone in a romantic or sexual relationship is not automatically more intimate in that relationship than they are in their best non-sexual, non-romantic friendship. How much intimacy has to do with how long we have known someone, or in what capacity, varies. We can experience intimacy with romantic or sexual partners, but also with friends, family, neighbors, caregivers or someone sitting next to us on the bus. We can experience intimacy with someone we've known for all our lives, or with someone we just met.
When I worked in abortion counseling, people often shared very personal, vulnerable things about themselves and their lives with me, even though we'd just met and were unlikely to ever see one another again. In big things that deeply impact many people, like natural disasters or cultural revolutions, once-strangers helping each other often experience intimacy. I had one of the most intimate conversations of my life with a stranger I was seated next to on a long flight. That's important to bear in mind especially when you're young. There are a lot of messages that suggest only time gives relationships value, and that real intimacy can only happen over time, so it can feel like many of your interactions or relationships aren't as valuable because you haven't often even had the chance yet for them to last over time, and a lot of our intimate relationships growing up are shorter, rather than longer.
Intimacy that only happens briefly with someone, in only one way, and isn't mutually built and deepened over time, is different than the long-term kind. When people intentionally build intimacy over time, it usually has more layers and depth, since people are also building trust, becoming more comfortable being themselves, bringing more accumulated life experiences, feelings and reflection to the table, and learning, together, to be intimate. But there are people who know each other -- including within close relationships like families or marriages -- for years, even a lifetime, yet never share much intimacy of any kind, so time alone doesn't mean a relationship is more intimate (or valuable), or that intimacy will occur just because people stick around a long time. Intimacy isn't only "real" when it's the kind built over months, years or decades. Intimacy can occur and be something of real depth in a relationship that's gone on for forty years or one that's only four weeks old.
We get to experience really being ourselves with others, not just showing or sharing the stuff everyone will applaud or approve of, the easy stuff or the ways we can comfortably be ourselves just anywhere, or with just anyone. What does that give us and others? Self-acceptance, and the opportunity to be accepting. More room to be more of who we are in the world; places, relationships and interactions where we feel more free to just be, rather than presenting or performing, or keeping certain parts of ourselves hidden or protected. A feeling of freedom: it's freeing to be able to just be ourselves, rather than being at work all the time to please people, or to be the person someone wants us to be, especially when that's not the person we are. It can feel less scary to make mistakes, because we know we have people who accept us no matter what, and who'll have our backs if things get rough. That also makes us feel more able to take positive risks that can net us what we want in life. We get room to grow: when we have relationships and interactions where we start going deep, we get opportunities for personal and interpersonal growth. Over time, in relationships where we've built and keep building healthy intimacy, those relationships start feeling like a home: a place where we feel safe, warm and able to be at ease in ourselves.
Being intimate with others can increase our ability to be compassionate, sympathetic and empathic with others, and when we get better at extending compassion to others, we also tend to get better at doing it for ourselves. Being intimate helps us learn how to be more patient and forgiving with and of ourselves and others. Healthy intimacy makes us all a lot better at coexisting with kindness, understanding and care.
In ongoing relationships, intimacy is what creates real bonds between us: we can only get truly close, after all, if we let each other get to know who really we are, not just the shiny bits or what we see just by looking. While a lot of people talk about the quality or integrity of relationships being about things like how long people are together, what level of commitment people make, or exclusivity, intimacy, how healthy it is, and how invested people are in it, is a better metric. How able are we, and do we feel, to really be, or start being, ourselves with someone else, and they us, even in ways we are different? How much room do we make for each other to have and respect the boundaries we need for intimacy to develop? How emotionally safe is it for us and those involved with us to be vulnerable; how much trust have we built and kept together? Things like this tell us a lot more about the quality of a relationship or interaction than if people are married or not, sexual together or not, or how long they've been together.
When we talk about depth with intimacy, or building intimacy, what we're talking about is both sharing more and more of ourselves and our lives, but also learning together how to do that in ways that are healthy and feel beneficial to everyone involved.
Building intimacy -- rather than more singular experiences of it -- can't happen all at once or fast: it takes opportunity, time and practice. Generally, we're going to build intimacy with someone else by sharing smaller things first, seeing how that goes and how we, and they, feel about it, and then seeing if they, too, want to open up to us.
If we have the opportunity and choose to keep getting closer we'll share more and more, or things that, to us, are bigger and bigger. We'll make a commitment to each other, spoken or not, to keep working on getting closer, and to learning to get better at it. To build intimacy together, everyone involved has to actively participate, each making their own efforts, alone and together, to get closer, and go deeper, in ways that feel right for everyone.
If you've ever done some kind of stretching to help your body become more flexible, you know what it's like to do something again and again, but to try to go a little deeper into those stretches, and open your muscles up a bit more, each time. If you've ever done stretches with a friend or partner, you know you're both working together to help yourselves and each other to go a little deeper and more open. When you stretch together, you have to pay attention to you and the other person, being sure what feels like a good stretch for you also feels good for them. Building a healthy intimacy with someone else is like that: a shared effort to gradually go a little deeper, to become more open, all while staying aware we're doing this with someone else, so we need to pay attention to each other, and learn how to emotionally stretch together in ways that feel comfortable for all of us.
How deep intimacy is or gets has a lot to do with how reciprocal it is, and the dynamics of how we're intimate with someone else. If we share a secret with someone, we are seeking intimacy with them. If they react with indifference, are not really paying attention or engaging with us, or don't actually want us to be sharing secrets with them, that's a very different thing than when we have their full attention, when they're invested in and value the way we are opening up with them, and they maybe share something big and secret back, or offer us acceptance and support.
Building intimacy has an awful lot to do with how we behave when someone is being intimate with us. Being accepting, compassionate, sensitive, respectful, holding and honoring everyone's lines, and showing ourselves to be trustworthy and patient usually all play huge parts in how intimate people can be together, how healthy that intimacy is, and how positively everyone feels. The building process of intimacy is never just about one person, and isn't a one-way, static transmission: it's something circular, always moving and growing, and always about how everyone involved is behaving, not just one person. We can't create or build intimacy with someone all by ourselves.
Sometime things can get in the way of intimacy occurring, being shared or becoming deeper. Some common reasons intimacy doesn't happen, isn't reciprocated or doesn't get built are things like:
It's so important that when someone is making themselves vulnerable with us, we treat them with extra care.
There's a readiness factor to intimacy, and not just when the shares are yours or only when the intimacy is sexual. We have to want to share and be shared with in the first place, and be able to handle our own, or someone else's vulnerability. If and when we know or suspect there are certain things, or ways of being intimate, we don't feel we can handle or react to well or with care, it's best to set and hold limits with those things for everyone's sake. It's always okay to have limits, and to let someone know that we appreciate the way they want to be intimate with us, but it's not something we want, feel ready for, or feel able to handle well. If someone doesn't want or feel ready for a certain kind of intimacy, that doesn't necessarily mean they have "trust issues," or don't like or care for someone else: but even when either or both of those things are so, they still get to set limits around intimacy, and those limits still should be respected. No one learns to trust or like someone by being pushed into a closeness they don't want or feel ready for.
Some intimacies can be hard to react to well. We may feel shocked, disappointed, sad, scared, angry or freaked out in some major way based on what someone has told us, how someone is asking us to be intimate, or with how intimacy goes between us. We may wind up feeling more vulnerable, insecure and less accepting than we thought we would, and have emotional reactions we just were not prepared to deal with.
At least once in your life, and probably more than once, you're going to louse this up and react poorly: everyone does. When we have very strong feelings or reactions, or our own big stuff gets triggered by someone else's, it can be a sort of temporary blindness, where we're just not seeing the other person and their feelings because our own stuff's blocked them out. When we have big feelings, we can have big reactions, especially if we haven't ever learned how to handle big feelings with someone else well.
When that happens, all we can do is what we can when we've been crummy or inconsiderate to someone else. We can first apologize, and do whatever we can to make sure the other person is okay; asking if there is anything we can do for them. Then we can each give ourselves a breather, be it for a five-minute walk alone or a week of our own processing, or going to other people in our lives for support. When we feel ready to come back to the other person or people calmly, a good start can be to take responsibility for our reaction, acknowledge it wasn't okay, and make and honor a commitment to doing much better. After we check in with them about what, if anything, they want from us, we can fill them in on what we were feeling or experiencing and what we may need. We can talk together about how to do things differently, so that intimacy really works for all of us, feels safe, and so we can build some more. Sometimes, someone won't want us to commit to doing better or talk to us more, because they just don't want to be intimate with us again. If that happens, all there is to do with that is to respect it, wish them well, and move on.
It's a risk to put ourselves out there in an intimate way. When it pays off, and we get the benefits intimacy can offer us, it's great. When it doesn't, we or others can get hurt, and in some of our deepest places, where wounds can take a long time to heal. So, when we're being intimate, we do want to choose with care: about who we're sharing with, how and why we're sharing, what we need for it to be safe for us and others, what we're all open to and what we're not, and if we feel we have the resilience to share, even if we might not get the reaction we want. If any kind of intimacy feels like it's happening too soon, too fast, or we're not sure it's right for everyone, it's a good idea to step back and slow down, only sharing as the pace feels right, and everyone is up to handling it and really wants to be part of it. There's a good reason we don't share certain things with just anyone, anywhere and in any given way: it's just not always safe to do so.
Being close, or seeking closeness, is not automatically beneficial or healthy. There are ways to go about or experience it we know are healthy for most people, and ways we know usually aren't. The first place most of us learn about intimacy is in our families: some family relationships are unhealthy or dysfunctional. Plenty of us grew up learning ways of being intimate or seeking intimacy that aren't healthy. Interacting with each other isn't something we're born knowing how to do, but something we learn over a lifetime, so a lot of our earliest relationships -- family, friends, boyfriend or girlfriends -- may have or have had unhealthy dynamics when it comes to intimacy. Many cultural ideals about love or relationships have a lot of unhealthy stuff all tangled up in them, too. Any of that can make figuring out what is and isn't healthy tricky, especially if what isn't healthy has been our normal or seems ideal.
Healthy intimacy isn't enmeshment, a term used to describe people or groups who can't, don't or won't see themselves as separate or let others be separate from the pair or group. It's closeness, for sure, but the kind that suffocates, rather than feels good: a kind of closeness we feel we're mushed into a too-tightly-packed subway car. There's just no real space between people, so we don't feel a real choice in intimacy and don't really a get a separate self to share -- especially any parts of us that don't fit with the group. When people are enmeshed, they can have a hard time even figuring out what their own feelings are separate from the other person or people's feelings, or who they would be as a person if they were not part of the relationship or group.
In enmeshment, there are few to no boundaries, or only some people get to have them while others don't. Privacy is often a serious no-no or cause for suspicion; relationships outside the pair or group, especially close ones, are usually unsupported. You may have experienced something like this in peer groups. If you were in or observed a group where you literally felt like everything about you had to be approved by the group, and experienced fear or anxiety about not conforming in any way because you knew or felt you'd be abandoned or rejected if you didn't, you were probably experiencing enmeshment. (This is some people's experience of all of middle school and high school.) Often, romantic love is presented as something where the ideal is to be enmeshed. But when it's happening in reality -- not in a novel, film, or for more than a few days or weeks -- people in it will find it anything but ideal.
Because enmeshment is so all-engulfing, it often feels like connection, since we literally feel inseparable or like we can't be disconnected in any way. Closeness is certainly happening. But it's not a healthy closeness. When we're intimate in healthy ways, we get to be ourselves with someone else, even when who those selves are, what they feel, or what they think or want to express doesn't meet someone else's needs or isn't approved of. Healthy intimacy needs healthy boundaries, and healthy intimacy means people are sharing who they are, not only who others want them to be.
Codependency -- which enmeshment is a type of -- is also sometimes confused for intimacy. That's a term used to describe people who become so dependent on someone else, they make their own selves and lives about that other person. Often, this happens because someone very much wants to avoid themselves, or being by themselves, rather than really getting closer to anyone, including themselves. Codependence is usually based in big fears of being abandoned or alone.
Codependent people need to feel indispensable, including with things other people really should be doing, and supported in doing, for themselves. People in codependent relationships often suffer from low self-esteem: they try and find esteem by taking care of the other person or people rather than themselves; by taking on the role of the rescuer. "They couldn't live without me," is something people in codependence tend to say or want. In reality, the person whose existence really hinges on others is the one working so hard to have others be dependent on them. The "help" people in codependence are often giving, whether intended or not, usually isn't help at all, but is more often a kind of control or enabling. Someone codependent "helping" needs others to be or stay in crisis, because otherwise, they wouldn't get to be needed: wanting to help is motivated more by their own needs than someone else's.
When someone is codependent they will often feel a deep need to please others, rather than allowing themselves room to sometimes disappoint. Intimacy in codependence is often very one-sided. Poor boundaries, or a real lack of boundaries, are a hallmark of codependency. Getting closer to someone in healthy ways isn't about making them feel like they can't be separate or go away from us, or making them be dependent on us. Intimacy also is something we do not tend to do out of fear: quite the opposite, it requires everyone be at least somewhat fearless.
People's motives in sharing intimacy aren't always good. Sometimes people want others to be intimate with them so that they can exploit the vulnerability that person is showing them. This is a core part of what makes anything abusive or dysfunctional: when someone uses intimacy or vulnerability in a one-sided, predatory way, where their goal in getting closer isn't to better understand, care for or deeply connect with someone, but to try to gain power or control.
Some people try and force intimacy or push through someone else's boundaries for it. Intimacy isn't healthy or beneficial when it's forced, whether we're talking about sex, reading a personal journal, disclosing trauma or insisting on knowing what genitals someone has in their pants. Healthy intimacy is choosing to open up, or have someone else open up with you in some way, because we want to. In healthy relationships or interactions, we always get to say no to sharing private parts of ourselves, or having others share with us, if we don't want to or feel good about it.
Sometimes intimacy occurs in abuse or assault, or abuse or assault can feel like intimacy. Big secrets are often kept between people. People can feel or present control as help or trust. Some forms of abuse or assault, or abusive relationships, also involve things, like sex, voicing conflict or crying, that people consider or experience as intimate. And for sure, often someone being abusive is showing us a usually-secret part of themselves they most often will do anything to keep other people from seeing.
Abuse or assault are not healthy intimacy. Hallmarks of healthy intimacy are things like boundaries, choice, safety and care in our vulnerability, shared trust and open, honest communication. Those things are the opposite of what's going on and intended within abuse or assault.
Healthy intimacy just can't happen or be built in the context of something that isn't interpersonally healthy, just like we can't reach into a loaf of bread utterly covered with mold and get a piece that magically hasn't been touched by any of it. As a simple rule of thumb, figure healthy intimacy is something we can only share or experience when it's something everyone involved is freely and gladly willing to be part of, and when the interaction or relationship it's part of is healthy.
Sharing some parts of ourselves and getting close to other people can be scary. Sometimes it's scary because we know or suspect it isn't safe, or just don't know yet it is safe. It might be that we don't know if we can trust someone else (or that we know we can't), or it might be that we aren't sure we're in the right space, or have all we need, for intimacy to be something that feels safe, and right, for us. What we want to share, or the way we want to share it can also be something where we are particularly vulnerable, or something where it feels like how it goes carries a lot of weight. Sometimes it's scary just because sharing protected parts of who we are or what we can do is scary: but we want to try and do it sometimes because this is how we really bond with each other, and experience a part of life that's often one of the richest things life has to offer.
Healthy intimacy teaches us to be both fearless and careful in all the best ways. Seeking out and taking part in intimacy is, ideally, about choosing to take a positive risk to open up in some way, because for all the unwanted or negative things we may risk when we do that, there are huge positives intimacy can offer us and others. We all benefit by deeply connecting to each other in healthy ways. Learning to be more and more of who we really are with each other, even in our most tender or loaded places; to be more accepting, compassionate, open-minded and caring? These are some of the very best things life has to offer, things that are usually some of the biggest parts of our growth and lives as people, both within our relationships and interactions and outside them.
Illustrations copyright 2014, Isabella Rotman. All rights reserved.