We seem to have a love-hate relationship with intimacy. We say we want intimate connection, yet we create blocks to receiving it. We struggle to share the deepest parts of ourselves despite wanting our partners to see, hear, and know us.
The quality of our intimacy can mirror relationship problems, but often it reflects our conflict with intimacy itself. How do we reconcile wanting intimacy while fearing it?
First, let’s better understand intimacy. Intimate moments happen when we share our innermost selves—thoughts, feelings, desires, longings, wounds, dreams, faults, and more—with another person. The word intimacy has often been pronounced “into me, you see.”
In his book Passionate Marriage, David Schnarch, PhD acknowledges that our ultimate quest for intimacy is the search for love and we cannot be fully loved until we are fully known. To be fully known requires that we not only share our similarities with our partners, but also our differences.
So, based on this, intimacy looks like this: In order to be intimate with you, I have to be willing to let you fully know me. If I let you fully know me, I risk losing you. I risk your rejection. I risk your abandonment. I risk you suffocating me. I risk your envelopment of me. I risk you knowing too much about me. I risk.
Then we have Robert Sternberg’s triangular theory of love, which tells us that passion, intimacy, and commitment make for loving relationships. Sternberg further states intimacy helps couples establish a sense of security.
How can something that feels so scary and risky bring safety and security? This is the paradox of intimate connection. While it feels risky, it often brings couples closer. It helps couples establish connection, fulfillment, and meaning.
In their book Couples in Treatment, Gerald R. Weeks and Stephen T. Fife note four major fears that accompany intimacy. These include:
- Loss of self (dependence): Do you fear that if you fully reveal yourself, you will have somehow given up parts of yourself you wanted to keep private? Or that if you share too much, you somehow become boundary-less? While it may seem full disclosure leaves no boundary, it is through the process of revealing differences that boundaries become clearer. Disclosure can mark where your partner ends and where you begin.
- Loss of other (abandonment): This loss is most commonly reported. If you share too much or differ too much, your partner might disapprove of you, reject you, or abandon you. Rejection can be one of the most painful human experiences.
- Fear of emotions (anger and sadness): Anger and sadness bring extraordinary discomfort. Your expression of anger and/or sadness can create conflict with your partner. If you typically avoid conflict, you may tend to ignore these feelings and brush them under the rug.
- Fear of exposure: Intimate moments can leave you feeling “naked.” Our greatest fear lies in showing ourselves fully and not being loved for who we are.
So how do you develop a rich intimate life when intimacy feels so scary?
Step 1: Understand the Paradox
You may opt to not “rock the boat,” not “ruffle feathers,” or simply not reveal all of you. You may avoid, withhold, and spare your partner your true thoughts and feelings. It may feel counterintuitive to do otherwise. But research shows us the most robust intimate relationships involve high levels of vulnerability. Understand that intimacy is paradoxical. What feels scary has the greatest potential to bring you closer.
Step 2: Practice Courage
Great relationships require you to practice courageous intimacy. Since vulnerability feels uncomfortable and scary, you must exercise courage. Use your courage to propel you into conversations and/or actions that you might otherwise dismiss or withhold.
Step 3: Let Go of the Outcome
Intimacy requires you to let go of control. You want to be loved, but you cannot control whether someone loves you. You can control only you. You can be only you. Let go. This may be the greatest gift you can give your partner and, more importantly, yourself.
Intimacy can feel like a spiritual experience, tapping into a complex tapestry of our human existence. It can include extraordinary moments of deep connection along with experiences of profound, painful loss. Intimacy is the breath and life of all healthy relationships. It becomes the fertile ground for true love to flourish.
To learn ways to build intimacy in your relationship, contact a licensed therapist.
- Schnarch, D. (2009). Passionate marriage: Keeping love and intimacy alive in committed relationships. New York, NY: W.W, Norton & Company, Inc.
- Weeks, G.R., & Fife, S.T. (2014). Couples in treatment: Techniques and approaches for effective practice. New York, NY: Routledge.
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