What does intimacy really mean?
It generally refers to a deep and mutual connection, something we can enjoy with other people, animals, nature, and even God. In the context of romantic relationships however, intimacy is also eroticized. To me, the word refers to both a tangible and metaphorical nakedness. It is the place where emotional vulnerability and sexual desire collide and it is something we co-create; we cannot own it for ourselves.
It is also paradoxical since sexual intimacy can enhance emotional intimacy but without emotional intimacy, the sexual connection will reach its limits. When I was in my early twenties, I was still learning about it all and my ideas were tangled up. I thought that having lots of sex could fast-track emotional intimacy; as if physical nakedness was the best way (in romantic bonds) to develop trust.
I think I really saw intimacy as a kind of physical and emotional knotting that, when done tightly enough, could never be untied. I hoped, or assumed, that, provided we were intimate enough, I might ensure that I could be protected against loneliness, disappointment, and pretty much any kind of romantic loss. I was terrified of heartbreak, quite convinced I could not survive it. And so I rushed and rushed and rushed. I hardly stopped to breathe and look. I rarely asked myself: am I actually ready to connect this way? And is that other person too?
My thirties were a decade of learning. I both threw myself at others and then withdrew myself just as fast. I was excessively cautious in some ways and excessively reckless in others. I learned that to be intimate involves both speaking and listening. We need to be able to move forward with someone, but also be willing to be patient, and stand still.
At almost forty, I am less fearful, more self-assured, than I was at twenty. I have evolved through different relationships, plenty of psychotherapy, and lots of reading. These days I think of becoming intimate as the gradual peeling away of one’s outer layers (those self-protective, socially-constructed personae) whilst simultaneously observing the other’s unveiling. Again, this is a co-created process; we must observe as much as we act; we must stay quiet as much as we speak. When done consciously and mindfully, developing a sense of intimacy is a privilege and to be honored.
Yet it is hardly a linear or straightforward process: layers that have been sharply peeled away can also be re-adopted, just as sharply. We can fall in and out of intimacy, just as we can fall in and out of love. When we show ourselves to another in this moment, we are not just being courageous now – today – but also risking rejection and loss in the next moment – tomorrow. It is fragile but can be healing. This beautiful process is full of responsibility. As such, we should be cautious who we choose to co-create such intimacy with so to as avoid unnecessary destruction. It is harder to go back and save our hearts, than to go forward and offer them.
I don’t think my twenty-year-old self would ever have understood this, but, developing deep physical and emotional closeness with someone is as much about respecting their autonomy as it is about becoming entwined. This is never more true than at the beginning of a relationship too, since we all have differing levels of emotional availability and move at different “heart speeds” according to our nature, inheritance, history.
Much like separation and connection, intimacy and space are less opposites and more equals. Each defines the other and acts as a counterbalance. If we cannot allow ourselves the necessary physical, mental and emotional space required to develop and maintain autonomy, then how can we truly show ourselves to another? Intimacy needs creating, nurturing, and cherishing, but it won’t endure demanding or devouring.
I have learned that, and learned it well, at the cost of at least one relationship. I know now that in taking care of and listening to myself (my need for space, and for connection) I am paving the way for intimacy with another. After all, it is difficult to engage in any kind of fulfilling, meaningful, or erotic connection if I am unsure of my own boundary, where I end and another begins. Having – and giving – enough space means there is a more distinctive me, with whom another can be intimate. Otherwise, we are enmeshed or disengaged. The closeness we create together may either collapse into co-dependency or else it burns off completely, much like water in the sun.