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Intimacy

There is something I eventually say to almost all my clients about relationship:

“Vulnerability is the admission price for intimacy.”

In order to explain this statement, we first have to agree about our definition of intimacy.

The dictionary definition of intimacy is pretty vague. It says things like ‘closeness’, ‘belonging’, ‘togetherness’, or ‘feeling connected’. Some people talk about it mainly in respect to sex, while others think of intimacy in emotional terms.

When I talk about intimacy, I am talking about the quality of relationship that lets you believe that you can be yourself with the other person without fearing that he or she will reject you or use your words or actions against you. There is a feeling of comfort, safety,
and trust in an intimate relationship.

How does intimacy develop between two people? This is where vulnerability comes in.

Think about what happens if you tell a friend an embarrassing secret about yourself. You feel nervous talking about it. If your friend says, “Oh, I’ve done that before! I know just how you feel”, your nervousness disappears. Your friend didn’t laugh or make fun of you. You took a chance and made yourself vulnerable, and s/he responded in a way that felt good to you. Now you probably trust your friend a little more, and feel a little closer to him or her.

Intimacy grows deeper every time you let yourself be vulnerable with someone and they respond in a way that makes you feel supported and understood. Likewise, intimacy grows when the other person is vulnerable with you and you respond in a way that feels supportive and understanding to them.

In this example intimacy became stronger by talking, but actions can create intimacy, too. Soldiers often have a strong, intimate bond with their fellow soldiers, especially when they have been in combat together. There is a sense that “when I needed you, you were there for me”, and as a result they believe that they can trust each other with their lives.

What happens when someone makes him or herself vulnerable and doesn’t get a response that feels supportive or understanding? Intimacy could end up decreased or increased, depending on what happens next.

Let’s imagine that when you told your embarrassing secret to your friend s/he laughed and hurt your feelings. Let’s further imagine that you expressed your hurt to him or her, and s/he responded by saying, “I was imagining what that must have felt like for you, and thinking about one time when I did that. You know that nervous laugh I get when I’m embarrassed? That’s what I did. I am really sorry it hurt your feelings. I truly didn’t mean to laugh at you.” Now your friend has made him or herself vulnerable by sharing his or her feelings and shortcomings. If you then forgive him or her, you may both feel even closer than you did before.

Of course, if your friend laughed at you and responded to your hurt by saying, “Well, of course I laughed! You must have looked like a complete idiot!” then in all likelihood you are going to feel a great deal less trusting towards him or her, and correspondingly less intimacy.

As with all human activities, intimacy usually has limits. Obviously some relationships are more intimate than others. A relationship may be more intimate in some ways and less intimate in others. And for some people there are some degrees of vulnerability they are not willing to risk with anyone.

Limits to intimacy are generally not a problem unless one or both people don’t agree to those limits. For example, there are many people who believe that there should be complete and total intimacy between spouses. If such a person is married to someone who wants to have limits on intimacy, one or both people will probably be dissatisfied.

When this situation occurs, it is useful to remember that you cannot force intimacy. Demanding that your partner shares him or herself with you in ways that feel too vulnerable to him or her will not create intimacy. It is also important for the reluctant partner to remember that trying to reduce his or her own vulnerability also reduces intimacy with his or her partner. Intimacy requires courage, sometimes a great deal of it.

It is useful to know how much intimacy you want in relationship, because it is hard to have a satisfying relationship with someone whose desire for intimacy is extremely different from yours. On the other hand, remember that many people in relationship have differing desires about intimacy, and with work people can usually reach a satisfactory compromise.

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