To be close is not to be intimate. I can cuddle up to my dog, but that does not equate to intimacy. A mother is exceptionally close to her newborn, but, again, that does not imply an intimate relationship. These examples seem obvious, but most people I work with, and most people I talk to, automatically couple intimacy with closeness. This unfortunate linking usurps intimacy of its true meaning. Not only is the attempted – and widely accepted – synonym inaccurate, but carries with it unfortunate consequences. Closeness is characterized as being “together with,” “part of,” or “at one with”. It is the unobjectionably wonderful experience of feeling that our minds and our hearts are one, that there is no disharmony between the two of us, that any sign of separateness is a simple illusion. It is tantamount to the symbiotic relationship between child and mother. The aim of this post isn’t to discourage or demean closeness.
However, in my experience as a couples and family therapist, problems are want to arise when this desire for closeness is mistakenly thought of as intimacy and becomes the primary aim of relationship.
The resulting belief goes: I must maintain closeness to my partner, I must minimize disagreements, I must compromise who I am so as to minimize said disagreements. If my aim is to feel that I am one with you, it would not be advantageous to set boundaries and assert my needs, wants and opinions (if they conflict with yours). Instead, I would set aside the things that make me different from you in order to feel joined with you. If I am successful, I will maintain “intimacy”. “Intimacy” is then contingent upon the relinquishing of self.
But the true definition of intimacy very much entails a self. Indeed, it is the place where two “others” meet. It is where my world comes into contact with your world, creating our world.
You and your partner are separate beings. And that truth will make itself known, one way or the other. Oftentimes disagreements are the manifestation of our own beings rising up in affront to overwhelming closeness. Consciously, we try to sort out disagreements in order to feel close again. Unconsciously, we rely on disagreements to maintain a degree of distance.
These disagreements represent an inevitable attempt to reclaim ourselves. The more of myself that I have set aside to feel close to you, the more I have to reclaim. This process oftentimes involves a certain level of resentment – it might be said that this resentment fuels the drive to separate.
True intimacy is a stark contrast to closeness. It isn’t about giving myself up. It isn’t about fusing with my partner. Instead, it is the act of discovering, owning and becoming myself while in relationship with you.
This quote sums it up eloquently: “When I am close, I know you; when I am intimate, I know myself. When I am close, I know you in your presence; when I am intimate, I know myself in your presence.” In my experience, intimacy of this nature is a more viable path to rewarding, enlivening and long-term relationship than is closeness. Both partners use the relationship to challenge themselves to grow. Instead of regression – a return to the symbiotic stage describe above – the emphasis is on genuine maturation and courageous self-confrontation. In an intimate relationship, there are, of course, moments of supreme closeness. Again, these are moments to be treasured. The difference is that an awareness of separateness is maintained. I feel at one with you in the moment, but I know I am not. I will enjoy it while it lasts without compulsively trying to recreate the experience (which would mean trying to change you to fit me or trying to change me to fit you) when its over.
My co-therapist Lisa Chatham and I have helped many partners reclaim themselves in the context of their most important relationships. This transformation turns the relationship into a place for play, sincerity, rawness and possibility.
Intimacy is the wonderful experience of claiming both yourself and your relationship simultaneously.