What is real intimacy?

Whenever I ask others how they are experiencing intimacy I tend to get responses in reference to sexuality, or a puzzled look. It is one of those words we all know but seldom define. There are no classes in a K-12 education on the subject. As adults we know it is important but find it difficult to navigate. We can become excited, frightened, or both at the very mention of intimacy. For something so crucial to healthy relationships, intimacy can elude us. What is it? How do we create it? Is it even okay to talk about?

Intimacy is the feeling of being deeply known and accepted by another person. It is found in strong connections within friendships, families, and marriages. There is an emotional element as well as physical. It is not forced. Forced intimacy is no intimacy at all! Rather than intimacy, force brings harm.

The emotional element happens when two people are able to let themselves be known in the good, the bad, and the ugly. Both positive and negative experiences are able to be shared, failures or mistakes can be discussed, and you know you will be met not with judgement or shame but love and acceptance. In those relationships one can say to the other “you really get me.” The delight that comes in those types of relationships? That’s intimacy.

Physical intimacy isn’t just sex and isn’t confined to romantic relationships. It is often experienced as one consoles a friend by putting his arm on the friend’s shoulder, two young girls brush each other’s hair, or a mother holding her child after he scrapes his knee. There is a particular feeling of safety and trust. The physical touch can send a message of care and love.

In marriage, sex is one of the highest forms and expressions of intimacy. When linked with the emotional, sexual intimacy can uniquely express this idea of being completely vulnerable, completely known, and completely accepted. In a very real sense it is a living out of the great description of Adam and Eve’s experience in paradise, being “naked and unashamed”.

There are obstacles to intimacy too. Lack of vulnerability and lack of empathy prevent people from being known to each other. This may be due to fear, shame, or even being hurt by others in the past after being known. Putting walls up to protect yourself from being hurt by others makes sense, and may be necessary especially when they prove themselves to be unsafe. This can become a problem, however, when it keeps you from connecting with those who are genuinely trustworthy and loving. Opportunities for redemptive experiences are possible!

Security is a major key to cultivating intimacy in relationships. It allows for the feeling of safety in order to take the risk of being vulnerable. When you are met by someone motivated by unconditional love and acceptance you are able to trust them with your story, shame, fear, joy, and desires—this normally takes time. The opportunity will then arise to extend to him or her your own unconditional love and acceptance. The bond that is created is unique to that particular relationship. Intimacy ensues.

Much of our work here at St. Louis Counseling Center focuses on client’s experiences with intimacy throughout life. Some are trying to regain it while others are learning about it for the first time. Some work we do includes helping those who have been deeply hurt by others who promised intimacy but provided heartache instead. Some then wrestle with both a fear of intimacy and deep longing for it. Whatever the case may be, we are ready to help you as you work through what you want for your own life and relationships. Counseling itself is an example of taking the risk of letting yourself be known.

By Spencer Griffin

Paul Loosemore