Intimacy - for married couples and singles

I eased myself into the space behind the kitchen door and leaned forward to hear the whispered conversation. Mother sat stiffly at the table, phone in hand, an expression of shock on her face.

“Had they ever been intimate?” her voice rose as she shook her head in disbelief. Then leaning closer to the phone, she whispered hoarsely, “You mean nobody caught them?” A shiver of fear shook my body. I didn't know what “intimate” was, but obviously it was nothing I ever wanted to be accused of. I may have learned more about it had I not bumped into the door handle, giving myself away.

“Young lady, march yourself out of here!”

“Whatever she's talking about must be really bad if I'm not supposed to hear it,” I told myself. “Intimate, intimate,” I repeated, wondering if it was a swearword and feeling proud to be in the know at the tender age of eight.

Though many years have passed since then, I have remained intrigued with the notions people have about intimacy. For though many of my single friends believe it pertains to future events, intimacy is often an all consuming topic.

Some months ago I engaged a male friend in an exploration of the topic.

“How would you define intimacy?” I asked nonchalantly. Alan was someone I knew quite well, and we often enjoyed a lively exchange of ideas.

His eyes rapidly scanned the room, and he ducked his head as though he was afraid to be seen.

“Shhh!” He stepped back from me and drew in a sharp breath. “That's not your typical question, you know!” he rasped.

“Yes.” I laughed at his discomfort. “But I'm still curious to know what you think. Would you say it is a noun or a verb?”

He thought for a moment, scratching his chin. “A verb.” “Does it refer to something sexual or a way of being?” I continued. “Uh… sexual?” Alan stared at the ceiling for several moments as if waiting for the answer to drop through the roof. “Sexual…yes, it's definitely something sexual.” As I opened my mouth to continue he blurted out, “But I don't know how to describe it exactly.”

He turned as though to leave.

“Wait a minute!” I remonstrated. Alan rolled his eyes and faced me.

“Would you say that intimacy is something that can be experienced only in a marital relationship?”

“That's easy,” he answered without hesitation. “Yes.”

“Then celibate singles, children, and the elderly without spouses don't experience intimacy?” I queried.

Alan shifted his weight to his other foot and again looked up imploringly at the ceiling. “Well, I'm not sure about that one.”

I plunged on. “Then is it fair to say that anyone who has had a sexual encounter has experienced the full meaning of intimacy?”

“Well, uh … no … ” Alan visibly shrank back against the filing cabinet.

“That's interesting,” I responded smugly.

“Come on, Barbara!” he exploded.

“Can't we discuss Congress or the weather instead of something like this!” He pushed his hands into his pockets and turned to leave. “What would people think if they overheard us?” he asked over his shoulder as he stalked off. I was about to tell him that they would think he was pretty confused, but I thought better of it and kept quiet.

I used to think the same way Alan does - that I would have to wait until I was married to understand intimacy. Then, after I had made the ceremonious trip down the aisle, intimacy would follow automatically. I would be forever emotionally astir in the love and attentions of Mr. Right. By moving from a platonic to a sexual relationship, intimacy would be produced automatically.

This illusion is reinforced almost every time I watch a movie. Woman meets man. A thrilling heroic act occurs. Soulful eye contact is made. An intense, terse conversation ensues. The next thing we know, the morning sun streams through the window over two partially covered bodies nestled close together. You've seen it too. Have they truly been intimate? I doubt it. They've had good chemistry and good feelings. But they probably don't know much more about each other than when their heads hit the pillows. Harriet Goldhor Lerner, author of The Dance of Intimacy, points out that “intense feelings - no matter how positive - are hardly a measure of true and enduring closeness.”

So it was interesting to me when, as a new therapist, I began seeing married couples who were worlds apart emotionally and disenchanted with physical intimacy. They could hardly even converse with each other. They had to learn how to talk and share before they could discover how to invest in their marriages. Their struggles were the same ones I had encountered while trying to keep communication open and foster closeness with my friends and family members.

I believe that it is the absence of intimacy that demoralizes singles, breaks the spirit of the elderly, stunts the emotional growth of children, and boosts the nation's divorce statistics. We are all created for intimacy, whether young or old, single or married.

Lillian Rubin, a well-known sociologist, gives this useful definition: “Intimacy is putting aside the masks we wear in the rest of our lives.” This means sharing your deepest nature with another person who values and accepts you. The emotional bond that results does not form quickly. The sad fact is most of us have never taken time nor found words to convey what is hiding behind our masks. It takes trust and reciprocation, shared activities, and long conversations. It requires more self-disclosure, honesty, and self-knowledge than a sexual act ever does. Does sex provide a vehicle for intimate sharing? Absolutely! But it is most meaningful in the context of emotional engagement.

So singles are not alone in their quest for intimacy. We may feel challenged as we search for appropriate opportunities to share intimately. But maybe it is already more accessible than we think. I am reminded of friends who wistfully remark, “I really miss those long talks I had with my girlfriends before I got married.” Whether we're single or married, happy or discontent, intimacy is something we all need.

Here are some ways intimacy may be enhanced in your life:

  • Take time to discover what or whom you hide behind your mask.
  • Master new relationship skills. A good self-help book or counselor may help you develop the qualities you need to sustain intimate relationships.
  • Exchange honest feedback with a trusted friend about your style of communication, feelings you avoid discussing, character flaws you may have, concerns, hopes, etc.
  • Recognize that no one person can provide for all your intimacy needs, whether spouse, friend, child or family member.
  • Realize that your relational skills as a single individual often determine the degree of intimacy you achieve in a marriage.

When we come out from behind the mask, we share our humanity through our fears, hurts, and joys. It is then that we begin to feel in our hearts that we are loved unconditionally, vulnerabilities and all.

This is intimacy. Doesn't everybody need it?

Society | Relationships | Self-Help

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