Greatist has asked me to write a series on relationships to help people learn how to enjoy fantastic intimacy without the drama. In future columns, we’ll look at how clinginess, narcissism, and being a control freak can get in the way of love. We’ll also address why people end up with partners who aren’t right for them and why some people just can’t commit.
These topics might not sound uplifting, but the good news is that learning more about how things go wrong in relationships can teach us how we can make things right. In this first column, we’ll consider why intimacy can be so appealing—and so painful. Then we’ll learn some pointers for approaching intimacy in current or future relationships.
What Is Intimacy?
Is intimacy love? Is it great sex? Is it simply feeling comfortable with someone else? Some say it’s about physicality; some say it’s about emotions; some say it’s about "clicking" intellectually. Mental health professionals typically work from the definition posed by developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, who defined intimacy as "openness, sharing, mutual trust, self-abandon, and commitment ... [with] a sense of shared identities." Shakespeare took a more poetic approach (not surprisingly), describing intimacy as a bud transformed into a “beauteous flower.”
Whatever intimacy is, it’s clear that it’s complicated. And it’s something we crave. Take a casual look around and you’ll find people seeking intimacy. We see friends having heart-to-heart conversations, couples kissing, old married people looking after each other. Intimacy is in our songs, the movies we watch, and the books we read. For many of us (even those who love to be single), something in the back of our minds is often on the lookout for that special relationship.
It can be helpful to think of intimacy as a “Field” of sorts. When people are “outside” the Field (in other words, when they don’t feel intimate), they can talk, have fun, argue, or have sex without much emotional investment. Sex without intimacy is nice, but forgettable. An argument without intimacy stings, but is relatively easy to let go. A good time without intimacy is just another nice day—and not much more.
Intimacy, Meet Vulnerability
When a person enters the Field of Intimacy, things change. Their partner becomes incredibly important. The sex is more meaningful. The fun has magic. And the arguments hurt—a lot. While it’s delightful and desirable, true intimacy has a strange downside: It can be painful, and it can lead to people doing things they wouldn’t “normally” do, from obsessing over an argument to feeling rejected if a partner fails to respond to a text.
As Shakespeare also said, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” The (sort of) good news is this: We’ve all been there. And we can learn from each other’s experiences.
In coming articles, we’ll take a more in-depth look at issues of intimacy and vulnerability, including anger, clinginess, narcissism, and commit-phobia. Even though the definition of “intimacy” is widely varied, there are some elements to intimacy that are true across the board. I recommend people keep these points in mind as they consider the intimate relationships in their lives:
- Intimacy is psychological and physiological. As intimacy develops, the body releases powerful hormones like oxytocin and endorphins. It’s a chemical high that opens people up.
- The Field of Intimacy can cause people to remember (and maybe even re-live) past experiences of closeness. If a person was poorly treated by a family member or partner in the past, they may fear this pain will happen all over again. In some cases, this unconscious fear can make a person clingy or controlling.
- Maturity is required to make intimacy work. While great sex and deep bonding can happen to all of us when we’re young, these elements alone aren’t enough to make things last. In order to make it, partners need to accept that they will, at times, disappoint, insult, or annoy each other. This is just the way it is.
- Oftentimes, people are attracted to the very person who will hurt or deprive them. Patients often ask me, “Why do I date such jerks all the time?” The answer is that the non-jerks (a.k.a. nice guys or gals) don’t interest them—at least not yet.
Intimacy is hard. It challenges us. It asks us to give up our feelings of being in control. It is also, very often, worth it. In the midst of relationship drama, there are lessons for making it all work. Stay tuned.
This post is the first in a three-part series written by Dr. Mark Banschick, a Greatist Expert, practicing psychiatrist, author of The Intelligent Divorce, and creator of The Online Family Stabilization Course. The views expressed herein are his and his alone. Read the second installment here and the third installment here.