Why Intimacy is Important, Practically and Theoretically

How is it possible that we get closer through difference? Dealing with our deepest differences can lead to greater intimacy. How can it be that I am closer to you because we are so different?

When we look back at the precious times in our lives, I think they are usually times of intimacy. I think that for most of us it is our intimate relationships which we regard as most important — and perhaps are even what we live for. My life is more enjoyable and nourishing when I have intimacy with others. I think intimacy is usually amongst our most important experiences. This is what I mean by intimacy being important practically.

I think intimacy is important theoretically, too. We need to be able to think about intimacy and have a way of making sense of it, if we are to be able to think well about our most important experiences. This is why I think intimacy is important theoretically.

What do I mean by intimacy? I think there are two senses.

Firstly there is an internal perspective, the sense that intimacy is something that we experience. Intimacy is when we are close to our own core motivations, what is precious to us. We can have intimacy all by ourselves, so to speak. We can have this as the member of an audience addressed by a speaker. We can also be seduced by an effective seducer — we experience the intimacy and they don’t — and they can even be quite consciously manipulating our reactions.

Secondly is an external perspective, the sense that intimacy is a particular kind of relationship. When two people are close to their hearts, and willing to disclose, magic can happen. One of the remarkable aspects to this kind of relationship is that it can be enriched by difference. Usually we get to know others by building on common interests and finding common ground. However, after some time with some people, we can get to dealing with our differences.

When we are willing to welcome and try to understand these differences this can also lead to intimacy. The most memorable example from my own life was when someone was explaining to me why they liked cake decorating. This wasn’t then, isn’t now — and probably never will be — something I have the least interest in. It was very difficult for me to understand what they were on about. I don’t think I completely understood. However, it was something about the tininess of the decorating; I couldn’t get any closer than this. We both knew that I wasn’t really getting it, but we did arrive at a new depth in our relationship. We didn’t really have a common interest and we didn’t really establish any common ground, but we did end up at a place of greater intimacy.

For me this is very hopeful.

It means that we can have deep and rewarding relationships not only with those who are like us, but also with those who are quite unlike us as well.

It also means that there are things we can do to increase the chances of having more intimate relationships — by being willing to disclose what is important to us (when we feel safe to do so) and listening to those who are different to us.

It seems to me that the experience of intimacy needs to have a place in our ideas about people and their relationships.

The second kind of intimacy I see as a challenge to an emphasis on individuality and willfulness.

Firstly it challenges our sense of individuality.

How is it possible that we get closer through difference? Dealing with our deepest differences can lead to greater intimacy. How can it be that I am closer to you because we are so different? How can our distinctiveness bring us closer?

The most famous articulation of this experience (at its deepest level) is probably Buber’s “I and Thou”. Buber emphasises that this experience isn’t so much done to someone — he calls this an “I and It” relationship.

The school of thought which emphasises goal setting, efficiency and achievement is usually in the world of “I and It” in Buber’s terms. This usually has a mechanistic flavour to it and emphasises will: the benefits of this approach are that it makes things happen, you get the outcomes you want, and you have control over your destiny and so on. All of which may have its place — but is unlikely to lead to the experience of intimacy that comes from listening to our profound differences.

Secondly it challenges our emphasis on the will.

The “I and Thou” kind of intimacy has, in my experience at least, more of a flavour of allowing. It is not so much an achievement as an experience of presence.

This leads to a third challenge, which I find harder to express.

This sense of allowing and difference, this second kind of intimacy, for me at least, means that I feel that I have a core to me. Some things I feel are simply me, and I don’t feel that I have much choice about these parts of me: they just are me, in ways that other parts of me aren’t. I simply do care about authenticity; I don’t feel that I could change this about me, even if I wanted to. How I dress, where I live, and what my surroundings are like I’m far more indifferent to.

At some level, about a few core things, I either accept who I am or I fight who I am (and make myself miserable). This means that I am not only who I make myself.

The best metaphor I have for this is from James Hillman who talks about “the acorn”. We each grow into an oak tree (we are all humans), but each acorn is different and each oak tree responds to the environment it grows in. This puts it very well I think.

With this post I feel that I am struggling to articulate things that are quite close to my heart. I am unsure how well I have expressed what I want to say. So I am keen to hear any comments you may have. Do you also share the sense that intimacy is very important to you? Do you feel that it needs to be at the core of our ideas about ourselves and others? Do you have ways of understanding that do give intimacy some kind of privileged place in your ideas about people and their relationships? I am very keen to hear your comments about this.

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