“This is my skin. This is not your skin, yet you are still under it.”
This experience of being human allows us to know others in ever increasing levels of profound intimacy. We can create an attachment with other humans, other sentient beings, and even inanimate objects. In the movie, "Cast Away" with Tom Hanks we encounter a character alone on an island who is forced to develop the only intimate relationship available to him. His most intimate relationship is with a volleyball named Wilson. He is so emotionally attached to Wilson that when he is lost at sea, the loss to him is catastrophic. Of such importance is intimacy to the human experience, we will establish a bond with anything to which we can ascribe a meaning.
We are interested in knowing each other in intimate ways. We are hardwired to know others and to be known by them. Social interactions are fine for what they do. That is, they assist us to get along in the world. But, by and large we want relationships with others to grow progressively more intimate and meaningful to us. In short, relationships are often thought of as either always being in the process of growing or in the process of dying. There doesn’t seem to be an in-between for us humans.
Relationships with others involve liking, loving, physical/sexual attraction, and a mutually supportive network of emotional and psychological enmeshment. We typically think of intimacy in relationships as involving meaningful levels of verbal and non-verbal communication, genuineness, authenticity, and a sense of reciprocal interactions of cognitions and emotions. We appear to want to feel close to someone by intellectual discourse and emotional interactions.
Intimacy is often an intuitive sense that cannot be measured concretely. It is often communicated in counseling as a nebulous something that escapes definition, but is present nevertheless. In addition, often there is a difference in how a male might define and describe intimacy and the way a female may experience the same thing.
Fear of Intimacy
"My friends tell me I have an intimacy problem. But, they don’t really know me.”
A person’s fear of intimacy has been determined to be an anxiety disorder and the dysfunction associated with this disorder demonstrates itself as an inability to initiate, form and sustain close relationships with others. The essential fear being expressed is the notion that any attempts at intimacy will be met with negativity and rejection.
Often, the person with a fear of intimacy is responding to present events based on the emotional experiences they may have had in the past. Past traumas such as childhood abuse, intimate partner violence, and possibly rape may be causes for this symptomatic presentation of fear related to intimacy.
Self-esteem issues often present during counseling when fear of intimacy is revealed. Clients demonstrating these symptoms often feel inadequate and unworthy of love from significant others.
Varieties of Relationships
“You can be in love and you can be in a relationship. But they’re not always the same thing.”
It is important to note that intimate relationships do not necessarily have to be romantic ones which may lead to marriage. Intimate relationships, especially in this 21st century can be between same sex individuals, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, and questioning individuals. Intimacy, in all its forms is not limited by gender, culture, age, or sexual orientation. All people, from all walks of life seek to discover intimacy with others.
The way these intimate relationships are found, the ways they are nurtured, and the ways they may become dysfunctional may be encased within the cultural norms from which the individuals come. But, the desire for intimacy knows no boundaries and is not limited by demographic.
Eight Stages of Intimacy
“The more you know yourself, the more patience you have for what you see in others.” –Erikson-
Physical: The physicality of the person is often first recognized. This may be an infatuation or flirtation. The intimacy experienced is based on the way the person may think, what they say, how they look, or even how they appear to interact with the world around them. At this stage, social presentation, smells, sounds, body attributes, and how you feel when around them are the primary causes and basis for intimacy.
Aesthetic: During this stage of the relationship process, the partner is looked at in terms of what they think about the arts, culture, style, and other compatibility dimensions. Intimate partners often begin to think about food they are going to eat together, what to wear, where to go, and how they will spend money between them at events and social occasions. Conflicts can be experienced as mutual decisions are reached in regard to music, styles of furniture, and general appearances. The underlying, primary question being asked at this stage, is does this person embarrass me or do they fit my idea of how I want to present my relationship to the world.
Recreational: In the recreational dimension of intimacy development, the partners begin to think about and enact their concepts related to how they prefer to spend recreational time. Will you see a movie, go to a sporting event, or have a quiet coffee in a coffee shop. Discussions are also had regarding which activities will be done together and which activities are better done alone. The goal here is to share meaningful time together while also maintaining individuality in life choices for recreation.
Intellectual: The intellectual dimension of relationship intimacy covers areas such as personal fears, existential hopes, opinions, and belief systems. At this stage, partners have made the decision to trust the other with their thoughts related to their deeper self. This stage includes learning how to mirror the partner and support them in their intellectual positions. Engaging in meaningful dialogue related to philosophy, religion, politics, and educational attainment and focus become important.
Spiritual: This dimension of intimacy includes arriving at where you stand on morality, ethics, how to share the human experience, and the goals of the relationship. This part of the process can be the most challenging as this is often viewed as the “religious” part. But, it need not be so. Religious teachings have the potential to profoundly impact personal positions, but this stage is more about reaching a place both personally and relationally where often there is an expression of the “We” and not the “I” in the relationship. This stage requires a strong personal identity definition and a willingness to accept the spiritual positions of the other.
Emotional: This dimension shows the partners beginning to share emotions related to trust, security, and safety. This stage requires the complete acceptance of the significant other. This can be difficult as this means acceptance of what are perceived as flaws. This stage also finds the partners able to express their own sexuality, anger, secrets, and any other thing needing to be expressed within the confines of a safe and secure relationship.
Sexual: This stage of relationship intimacy covers how to touch, physical contact, romance, and copulation/procreation. This can be the trickiest stage to navigate through as sexual intimacy is often substituted for true intimacy. This, unfortunately is the area most people feel comfortable in expressing themselves. It is the only way they know how to express love and foster intimacy. The goal of this stage is to reach a degree of sexual liberation wherein each person is able to express themselves wholly and completely to the other.
Unconditional: This stage is the Holy Grail! Partners in this stage are experiencing an unconditional positive regard and profound love for one another with no regrets, no unrealistic expectations, and no strings. This is the most difficult stage to attain, but also the most rewarding.
The definitions and above-mentioned stages of intimacy can give you insight into where you're at with your partner with this issue and may help you either deepen your level of intimacy or seek counseling either individually or as a couple if you feel there is a problem with it.