It started with what seemed like a simple question I asked myself. That question, not surprisingly for anyone who knows me, led to a series of additional questions. Without questions it isn't possible to uncover meaningful answers. Somehow, I wasn't getting clear answers for myself, so I started asking people I came in contact with the same questions. The results were fascinating to me and I wanted to explore the topic more fully. The basic question: "What does intimacy mean to you?"
The range of responses was wide and varied. I included both men and women, different ages, some were in relationships and others were not. Most people had to stop for a moment to really think about and put into words what intimacy meant to them. As I looked more deeply at the topic, I found that there are in fact four key types of intimacy.
The people I asked generally started with the most common of the four types of intimacy: sex. This wasn't too much of a surprise because sexual intimacy is probably the most stereotypical and most familiar definition of the word in modern society. Having sex, however, often has less to do with intimacy than with a physical act between people. As it ended up, the people I talked to wanted more than just the act of sex -- they wanted some depth. They wanted to feel safe while being vulnerable, wanting to be seen by his/her partner. That made sense, as this form of intimacy also includes a wide range of sensuous activity and sensual expression, so it's much more than having intercourse.
It's interesting that the word intercourse is also defined as an "exchange especially of thoughts or feelings." It's curious why intimacy is challenging to people in their relationships. I continued to look further.
The next of the four faces of intimacy is emotional intimacy. This happens when two people feel comfortable sharing their feelings with each other. The goal is to try to be aware and understand the other person's emotional side. My guess is that women have an easier time with this in very close female friendships, but I'd like to believe that men too are becoming more comfortable experiencing emotional intimacy. This form of intimacy I've become comfortable with and see as a healthy part of the give-and-take in all relationships, whether female or male. Apparently not everyone is as comfortable with this face of intimacy.
Margaret Paul, Ph.D, refers to the fears people have in relation to emotional intimacy. She says, "Many people have two major fears that may cause them to avoid intimacy: the fear of rejection (of losing the other person), and the fear of engulfment (of being invaded, controlled, and losing oneself)." This made some sense to me.
However, if we believe that there are only two major energies we humans experience, love and fear (or an absence of love), then I find it interesting that in this area of intimacy, it seems people have moved from their hearts and love to an energy that stops them from experiencing their true essence and what they often yearn for the most. Love and intimacy.
In her book A Return to Love, the brilliant Marianne Williamson says it most eloquently:
"Love is what we were born with. Fear is what we have learned here. The spiritual journey is the relinquishment or unlearning of fear and the acceptance of love back into our hearts. Love is our ultimate reality and our purpose on earth. To be consciously aware of it, to experience love in ourselves and others, is the meaning of life."
Even the Bible says, "There is no fear where love exists." Of course I believe that love and intimacy are highly spiritual. In her book Love for No Reason, Marci Shimoff states, "Love for no reason is your natural state." She also tells a wonderful story about a spiritual teacher who once said to her, "I love you and it's no concern of yours." To love, from your heart, just to love. As I talked about in my piece on what makes a good relationship, my ideal is definitely a loving spiritual partnership.
I kept wondering if true intimacy could be as simple as a matter of moving back to loving ourselves first? To rediscovering the unconditional love we all were born with? The idea of self-intimacy and self-love is a fascinating concept. I'll leave these as open-ended questions for you to ask yourselves for now. I was curious to look more closely at the other two types of intimacy.
The next, intellectual intimacy, is something I personally have the most comfort with. This one is about communication, and as someone who lives and breathes words, it's extremely familiar to me. The ability to share ideas in an open and comfortable way can lead to a very intimate relationship indeed, as I'm fortunate to discover quite frequently. As someone who engages in this type of interaction all the time, it offers me a wonderful and fulfilling form of intimacy. I wondered if this was my strongest area of intimacy.
The fourth kind of intimacy is experiential intimacy, an intimacy of activity. I realized I experience this every time I get together with a group to create art in a silent process. It's about letting the art unfold, by working together in co-operation. The essence of this intimate activity is that very little is said to each other, it's not a verbal sharing of thoughts or feelings, but it's more about involving yourself in the activity and feeling an intimacy from this involvement. During a recent encounter I had at a contact improv jam, I realized was actually this form of intimacy. I interacted with a young man, letting our body energy lead the dance, with no eye contact and no words, just movement in a sensual and open, if not dramatic, dance. So, I understood that this experiential intimacy is also, somewhat surprisingly, in my intimacy vocabulary.
Rick Hanson, Ph.D says that having intimacy in our lives requires a natural balance of two great themes -- joining and separation -- that are in fact central to human life. Almost everyone wants both of them, to varying degrees. He goes on to say, "In other words: individuality and relationship, autonomy and intimacy, separation and joining support each other. They are often seen at odds with each other, but this is so not the case!" This also made perfect sense to me. Yin and yang. Light and dark. All the polarities we live in life, lead to a balance.
My understanding and curiosity were greatly expanded after exploring the four faces of intimacy. This is very interesting, as maybe this awareness just might make it easier to find your own perfect personal balance between them all. For me, it comes down to our willingness to explore intimacy in all its forms. It's not necessary that every intimate relationship includes all the different types of intimacy. Ultimately it is each individual's choice.
What I learned, makes me believe that with some balance in these areas, we might find a deeper connection and understanding of the relationships in our life. I also fully recognize that we all have different definitions of intimacy. Are men and women's definitions dramatically different? It is a fascinating conversation to continue to explore.
Then, as often happens with perfect synchronicity, I received my daily Gaping Void email by Hugh MacLeod with the subject: Has your soul been seen lately? It went on to say, "I saw your soul today and it made me want to cry with joy and thanks." The topic was intimacy. What followed was a beautiful way to end my piece.
"Intimacy isn't strictly about romantic relationships, or even relations with family -- sometimes it happens quickly, and often times in ways we hardly notice.
I'm talking about that moment when someone allows the world to see what's inside... what they are really about. It's about seeing someone for who and what they are and that the glimpse was offered either voluntarily or without the person's knowledge. This is an incredible moment where our existence suddenly makes sense and all comes together in a singular place.
For those of you who have experienced this, it's something that never gets lost in memory or time. It's like a little mirror we take out every now and then to remember a time when something so complex became so inconceivably simple. It's pretty incredible."
For me, this is the essence of what intimacy is really all about. Dare to be vulnerable, dare to be seen.
Now let me ask you my starting question: What does intimacy mean to you?
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