The joy and fear of intimacy

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The experience of an intensely intimate relationship is both wonderful and terrifying. David Schnarch, a well known expert of sexuality, titled the fourth chapter of his book Passionate Marriage (New York: W.W. Norton Company, 1997): “Intimacy is Not for the Faint of Heart.” He asserts that intense intimacy and intense sex are unbearably threatening and require more adult autonomy and ego strength than many can muster. At the same time, when we can truly expose everything within us to another person, the good with the vulnerable, helpless and inadequate, when we can allow ourselves to deeply know and be deeply known, then experiencing the awesome “one flesh” experience that the Bible talks about (Gen. 2:24) becomes possible.

People often confuse intimacy with emotional fusion, total sharing and closeness. Two people cannot share one mind, body, or personality. Intimacy is rather a process of knowing oneself in the presence of a partner while still recognizing the other’s immutable separateness. As John Welwood says in Journey of the Heart (Harper Perennial, 1990) “A delicate balance is needed between bonding with another and maintaining our integrity as individuals, yielding to our partner and asserting ourselves, reaching out and going deep within.” (Page 33)

Harriet Learner in The Dance of Intimacy (Harper & Row, 1990) discussed learning to balance the “us” and “me.” On the one hand we need to connect with ourselves, stand our ground, and honor our own truth. On the other, we need to loosen our preoccupation with ourselves, shift our perspective, be attuned to the other, and be genuinely present with the other person. If we go too far out of ourselves toward our partner, we start to lose ourselves, yet if we hold back and remain too self-contained, no deep contact is possible. Learner suggested that in a really intimate relationship neither party silences, sacrifices, or betrays the self, and each party expresses strength and vulnerability, weakness and competence in a balanced way.

Intimate relationships are an opportunity for growth. They can make us more fully awake and alive and enrich our lives. However, intimate relationships can also lead continually to moments of crisis and tension, fear and ambiguity. They can be awesome! Yet they can also be very scary! No wonder we have mixed feelings about intimacy. We yearn for it and yet we fear it.

Schnarch insisted that to be able to be really intimate, the key ingredient is the ability to maintain a sense of identity and self-worth when disclosing, with no expectation of acceptance or reciprocity. 

This capacity is directly related to the ability to maintain a clear sense of oneself when loved ones are pressuring for conforming and sameness. True and lasting intimacy depends on the ability of both partners to validate themselves rather than depending on their partner to make them feel safe. In this way, both contribute their unique strengths rather than their mutual weaknesses, and they can remain intimate even in times of conflict.

Many who talk about wanting more intimacy want only an “easier” type of intimacy, one that involves the expectation of acceptance, empathy, validation, or reciprocal disclosure from one’s partner. Schnarch calls this “other-validated intimacy.” A person who desires this kind of intimacy is usually trying to reduce anxiety and to get a reflected sense of self. 

Creating true intimacy can be frightening! Couples need to find the courage to show their real self to the other, accepting the possibility that the other might not totally like the reality; to work through conflicts instead of avoiding them for fear of “feeling bad” or “making the other feel bad;” to find the fine balance between standing alone and growing closer together. You can then experience the real joy of intimacy!

Photo via Flickr by Muriel Jordan

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