It started with a simple question. That question (not surprisingly for anyone who knows me) led to a series of additional questions. When I couldn’t get clear answers for myself, I started asking others. The results of this process have fascinated me, and I wanted to explore the topic more fully. The basic question: “What does intimacy mean to you?”
The range of responses I received was wide and varied. I asked both men and women, different ages, some in relationships and some 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 seem to be four types of intimacy we engage in in our relationships.
1. Sexual Intimacy
The people I asked generally started describing the most common of the four types of intimacy: Sexual. This wasn’t too much of a surprise, as 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 and more to do with a physical act between people. As it ended up, the people I spoke with desired more than just the physical act of sex, they wanted depth. They wanted to feel safe being vulnerable, wanted to be seen by their partner. That makes 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 is interesting that the word intercourse is actually defined as “connection between persons or groups” and as an “exchange especially of thoughts or feelings.” Curious to explore why intimacy is challenging to people in their relationships, I continued to look further.
2. Emotional Intimacy
Emotional intimacy occurs when two people feel comfortable sharing their feelings with each other or when we’re able to empathize with the feelings of another person. The goal of emotional intimacy is to be aware of and understand another person’s internal experience. My guess is that women have an easier time with this, but I’d like to believe that men too are becoming more comfortable experiencing emotional intimacy. Emotional intimacy is a healthy part of the exchange in all relationships, whether female or male. But not everyone is comfortable with it.
Margaret Paul, Ph.D, refers to the fears people have in relation to emotional intimacy. She says that, “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 makes sense to me.
In this area of intimacy, people must act from their hearts and love unconditionally. As I talked about in my piece on what makes a good relationship, the heart of a spiritual partnership is love. Love is also at the core of emotional intimacy.
3. Intellectual Intimacy
Intellectual intimacy is personally the face of intimacy I am most comfortable with. This one is all about communication, and as someone who lives and breathes words, it’s extremely familiar to me. Intellectual intimacy happens when two people share ideas and explore the similarities and differences in their personal opinions. The ability to do this in an open and comfortable way can lead to a very intimate relationship indeed. As someone who engages in this type of interaction all the time, I can say that it has offered me a wonderful and fulfilling form of connection with people I care about. I think this may be my strongest area of intimacy.
4. Experiential Intimacy
Experiential intimacy is the intimacy of activity, and it happens every time we get together with a group to create art in a silent process. This type of intimacy is all about letting the art unfold and working together in co-operation. This form of intimacy is not about a verbal sharing of thoughts or feelings, but more about the activity and feeling that emerges from this involvement. I recently experienced this at a Contact Improv jam with a complete stranger. 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. I was somewhat surprised to learn that experiential intimacy actually is in my intimacy vocabulary.
According to Rick Hanson, Ph.D, to have intimacy in our life, we must have a natural balance of two great themes — joining and separation — which are in fact central to human life. Almost everyone wants both of them, to varying degrees. He goes on to say that “individuality and relationship, autonomy and intimacy, separation and joining… 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 about intimacy were greatly expanded by asking others about what intimacy means to them. I believe that when we establish balance in the four faces of intimacy, we find a deeper connection and understanding in all the relationships of our life. I also fully recognize that we all have different definitions of intimacy. Are men and women’s definitions dramatically different? A fascinating conversation to continue to explore.
I recently received a daily Gaping Void email by Hugh MacLeod with the subject: Has your soul been seen lately? Synchronistically, 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 the question I began with: What does intimacy mean to you?
Visit me at: beverleygolden.com
Originally published February 2012