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What Is Intimacy Anyway?


Love and sex never seem to lose their appeal as subjects in books, film and television. But, while we are fascinated by the obsessions and dramas of other people’s lives, we overlook the subject of real intimacy itself. We use the word as if we have all agreed upon its definition–but we haven’t. And even though people say they want it, many are actually afraid of it, ambivalent about it, and avoiding it– consciously or unconsciously. Marriages are supposed to provide intimacy, but too often they don’t. Divorce is common, lots of people are single, and sex-businesses are booming.

What is intimacy, anyway? How does it contribute to our lives and how does its absence negatively affect us? Why are people afraid of it and how can fears be overcome? Intimate interactions between people are too complex to be reduced to generalizations. There are many types of intimacy, and they are not all the same. Intimacy with your lover is not the same as with your friends, your siblings, your parents, your children. So let’s just look at what we could call “romantic intimacy” and try to define it.

Intimacy is a complex and dynamic interaction, encompassing the following characteristics:

  • Dimension–Our dimensions of contact include emotional, physical, sexual, mental, spiritual.   In any relationship, we are close to each other in some ways but not others. The combination of dimensions we share with the people in our lives shapes and differentiates those relationships. Moments when we are able to be intimate on all levels are rare, but wonderful.
  • Depth and intensity–In any interaction, the quality of closeness is determined by the two people involved. The limits on depth and intensity are set by the person least capable, or willing, to be close at that time. To illustrate, think of mechanical communication like television, movies, or the internet. The quality of communication depends both upon the technology of the transmitter and the technology of the receiver. If there is a problem at either end, you lose quality. If a problem is bad enough, you lose the connection entirely.
  • Ebb and flow–Intimacy is not a constant. No matter how profound or intense a connection is established between two people, the intimacy between them will vary in quality over time. Much depends upon the fluctuating circumstances of daily life, and the attention the two people give toward maintaining the closeness between them.
  • Commitment–In a relationship between two people, commitments form a structure within which intimacy can live and grow. If commitments are not made, intimacy cannot grow past certain limits. If commitments are betrayed, intimacy suffers, and sometimes dies.

It is up to both people in a relationship to choose intimacy, and make the efforts required to nurture and sustain it.

Even for those who know the value of love in their lives, real intimacy is not always easy to find, and to maintain. But the world of intimate relationships is rich with possibility, and certainly worth making an effort to experience. If you suspect you are subconsciously sabotaging your chances, read more about avoidance, and take action to do something about it.