Q&A with therapist Jim Dolan
D+E: Let’s start with defining what INTIMACY really is, vs what we tend to think it is.
Intimacy is bigger than just the physical sphere. It is a much more comprehensive state of being. It is the experience of being completely revealed to whoever you are with- emotionally, mentally, psychologically, and spiritually.
It takes place over time in a relationship, growing and changing over time.
One interesting thing about intimacy is that we seek it yet run from it at the same time, bc it represents a loss of control.
Can intimacy exist in friendships too?
Intimacy in friendships doesn’t have the threat level that a relationship might bc we don’t completely reveal ourselves to friends. Since we last spoke about this, I’ve thought more about the intimacy that exists among friends. One of the defining features of friendship is that there is not a physical component. ‘Friends with benefits’ is simply a different kind of relationship and we’re not talking about that today. With no physical element, there is not the risk of body shame. That said, many find themselves freer and more at home in the intimate sharing of self with friends. For example, think of the deep intimacy found in the friendships of older women, who may or may not also have husbands/lovers/long time partners, but who share on a different level with their women friends. I’ll also say that men lag far behind in developing intimacy with their male friends.
How do communication skills factor into INTIMACY?
1) Acknowledging vulnerability is the key to resolving issues. “I’m feeling…”
2) Just as important is being able to hear and accept it when you hear it from someone else.
3) The ego always wants to maintain rigid boundaries. To make those comments acknowledges that you are opening the gate and allowing the other person to look into your own feelings. It is true intimacy.
So true intimacy includes vulnerability? Can you expand on this?
Intimacy is ultimately imperfect, because it exists between human beings. We are the only animals who experience intimacy because we are the only animals who are self aware. In order to experience intimacy we have to set aside the posturing of the ego-as much as possible- and let things flow where they may. This is the essence of vulnerability, when we stop trying to control the thoughts and feelings of the other.
We all know that “perfect couple” who seems to experience life in the perfect flow of intimacy. What might they be doing that the rest of us can learn from?
To me, the word ‘perfect’ does not belong in any discussion of vulnerability or intimacy. The word ‘intimacy’ comes from Latin for ‘inmost, deepest, innermost’. There is no such thing as being ‘good at’ this state of being we’re talking about, as it always involves a stumble, a step into the unfamiliar, the unprotected or unguarded. I would say that regarding a couple as ‘perfect’ is either a projection of my own longing for what I feel that I don’t have, or that couple has developed a performance intended to shield the imperfections in their own relationship.
At any rate, identifying others as ‘perfect’ is the result of comparing myself to what I imagine someone else possesses. What I can learn from them is what Mama taught me, when I compare myself to someone else, I always come up short.
In the big picture, what is counterintuitive is to allow plenty of space and plenty of apartness for each person. It is important that you allow for separateness. Whether it be going for a walk by yourself or having alone time and alone space in the house, it’s very important to ALLOW for this because intimacy is as much a matter of togetherness as it is separateness. You can’t have one without the other.
Intimacy always involves togetherness and separateness. Just as music is made of sound and silence.
How can couples get along better together?
I say make sure you are each getting enough alone time, enough separateness, enough apart time.
Doing so has a way of renewing and freshening our togetherness with the other, when you are able to pull away and have your own space.
How can couples address conflict in a way that will maintain intimacy?
Quite often, the conflicts in a relationship are as much of the glue the keeps a relationship together as the feel good stuff. Recognize that conflict is important to the health of the relationship and should not be feared. If we reflexively avoid conflict, we eventually find that all we ever get…is conflict. When I respectfully enter conflict with my partner, I am showing respect for her individuality and my willingness to get my hands dirty with her.
2 important elements of intimacy are mutual respect and vulnerability. The Ego always wants what it wants, and will say/do whatever in order to get it, even if it means discrediting or harming the other in some way. We all must be aware of this and be ready to set Ego aside and step into the other’s shoes.
And one more thing- in order to set the Ego aside, we must first HAVE an ego.
How might you advise a person who maintains that intimacy is only physical?
I would advise that person that if that is truly how he sees it, he has committed himself to something that will eventually weaken, fall apart and die.
So… is the yin/yang of together and apart the secret sauce to intimacy?
I wouldn’t say it is the secret sauce, but it is certainly one of the main elements.
The idea that it is important to not spend every waking minute together. If you cannot bear separateness from the other, you are betraying the dangerous absence of intimacy in the relationship. Furthermore, you are showing that you have failed at the development of object constancy, one of the most important tasks of early childhood.
Some people do NOT like to be alone. What is right for one person is not necessarily right for another.
A person who does have a troubled intimate relationship with themselves would be the type to avoid being alone (with themselves). I’d say that this person would be well served to get some help to explore and work through whatever is going on.
Readers might ask what they should be doing in their apart time…
When you’re not together with your partner, meaning, when you do not have to take into consideration whatever it is you are doing or not doing, you might wonder how you can support the intimacy you’ve worked hard to create?
Some things that are obvious are below, but in addition, I would say, do you have a labor of love? Something you love to do that makes you feel whole, that takes your mind away from all the things we usually concern ourselves with? A hobby, a sport, a charitable activity of some kind? Something that says to the world, ‘This is the best of me’- Becoming an individual involves exploring all aspects of ourselves and developing our gifts. All too often a person will feel they must give up something that expresses who they are, which is almost always a mistake.
Pointers for staying healthy:
-Get plenty of exercise
-Eat well, but not too much
-Get plenty of rest
-Be present-focus on the here and now
If you enjoyed this content, Jim Dolan has an article in the latest issue of D Magazine:
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