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By Robin Levick, MFT

Intimacy is a frequent theme in psychotherapy, a sometimes elusive experience that is recognized more by its felt quality than by any objectively measurable conditions.  Clients very often come to therapy with issues that relate to a desire for intimacy in some way – anxiety about finding it, depression due to grieving its loss, avoidant or controlling behavior in an attempt to tolerate it.  Some couples come to therapy having lost the intimacy they used to share, and others come in to understand the ways in which their relationship has prevented intimacy from ever truly deepening.

Often one partner desires more intimacy and the other more autonomy, and the former is left feeling lonely while the latter feels invaded. Whether they are avoiding conflict or seem to be forever mired in it, couples misunderstand conflict as an enemy of intimacy rather than an unavoidable component of it.

A fresh look at the origins of the word ‘intimacy’ itself might be a helpful way to wonder what might be embedded in this concept. Psychotherapist Thomas Moore wrote that “Intimacy means ‘profoundly interior.’  It comes from the superlative form of the Latin word inter, meaning ‘within.’ It could be translated as ‘within-est’ or ‘most-within’.”  So there is something about intimacy that relates to one’s inner world, or one’s deepest self.  Intimate seems also related to the latin word intimare, meaning “to put or bring into, to impress, to make familiar.”  This conveys the relational aspect of this idea, that the word suggests making oneself known, or even penetrating another (i.e. to put or bring into).

Intimate and intimidate are curiously related words, reminding us of the potentially terrifying impact of revealing our innermost selves, or of being affected by someone in ways that we can’t control.  Intimacy seems to exist at a precarious edge between terror and safety, a type of contact that involves trust and surrender but not a loss of self or a submission.  While it involves letting someone know your fear, it goes beyond vulnerability, which one can unilaterally choose, because it requires the other to see, understand, and reciprocate in this act.  This is what can make it an elusive experience, and a precious one, because while one can learn to behave in ways that nurtures intimacy, one cannot create it omnipotently: it requires the willing participation of another person.

In the relationship between a therapist and a client, the moments of intimacy are often those when the therapist shows some of their vulnerability, opening up in some way by expressing emotion or disclosing something of their experience in the moment to the client such that they are both open and recognizing each other’s humanity.

Intimacy between adults requires boundaries, and it requires mutual recognition of differences.  Often what prevents people from having more of the intimacy they desire in their lives is their avoidance or fear of having conflict. The effort to avoid conflict to keep things “ok” mistakes a lack of conflict for closeness, and implies that intimacy requires both parties to want and experience the same thing.  One way to think about co-dependence is the type of relationship that created when a couple has a difficult time tolerating the reality of their separateness, leading them to conspire to maintain a fantasy of merger or fusion. This type of union actually obscures rather than reveals the “profoundly interior” aspects of each person – richly unique, shadowy aspects of the self that are hidden or ignored in order to preserve a conflict free relationship.

While conflict can be intimidating, it can also be profoundly intimate.  We might think of this as the end goal of couples therapy; helping a couple learn to have intimate conflict.  When two people are in a respectful conflict in which they are each taking ownership of their experience and their needs, they are revealing their inner worlds in a way that makes possible a kind of closeness that can only be possible when each person is willing to define their boundaries. When anger and disappointment can be met with curiosity and respect, or when two people can be angry and loving towards each other at the same time, intimacy can deepen through conflict. Intimacy requires staying connected while feeling the intensity of emotional connection.  Some feelings are more easily tolerated than others, and intimacy is easier to maintain in moments when both parties are experiencing emotions they enjoy.  But it can be just as intimate, if more difficult, to stay connected and feel painful, intense emotions with someone you care about.

Intimacy is an experience that requires nurturing and care.  It deepens when two people feel safe enough to open in ways that can be terrifying, and trust that what they reveal will be received with respect.

Photo Credit: Donna Southern


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