BY: T. Franklin Murphy | March 2013 (edited 2020)
Intimacy requires more than attraction. Intimacy is the crowning reward from dedicating compassionate attention to the person we love.
We grow, moving through development stages, eventually breaking free of the tethers tying us to our parents. We seek our own adult connections. As mature adults, we can discover a new intimacy—connections of openness. We can be known (and accepted) in concert with knowing and accepting our partner. Not a one-sided nurturing-nurtured relationship but two equally loving adults giving and receiving. These connections can provide healthy interdependence—intimacy. As partners accept the individuality of their partners, working through conflicting differences with compassion and acceptance, they create a new security, safety built in trust.
Intimacy is more than openness. We don’t create safe bonds through uninhibited blabbering. Sharing emotions must be done with care; reckless exposures may overwhelm a new partner, as they face the whole brunt of our emotional drama. Healthy relationships must develop. We slowly give in proportion to that which can be received, not carelessly shooting out barbs of past hurts without any attention to the receiver.
Intimacy: A characteristic of an emotionally safe relationship where partners freely share emotional vulnerabilities, dreams, and fears.
We can’t ask someone to bare our pain while remaining aloof to their emotional capabilities. Knowing another person takes time; connections must develop while cautiously maintaining and respecting individuality. We initially share in small digestible portions, watching and learning. Am I safe to share? Does this person respect my sensitivities, kindly responding with compassion; or do they ruthlessly use my vulnerabilities to manipulate? Others may have good intentions but limited emotional capacity.
Relationships are Dynamic
A relationship grows in health or illness. Two people slowly create bonds of intimacy or co-dependence. Closeness can’t be forced. Noxious sweet declarations of love, no matter how often recited, do not replace the bonds formed through consistency of openness and respect.
If we are determined to run a marathon, we can’t run the entire 26.2 miles on the first day. The marathon is the final goal; but the path to the finish line requires a more reasonable approach. By running the entire grueling distance without preparation, we’ll suffer injury and fail. Intimacy is similar. The emotional development necessary to experience intimacy is achieved over several stages, progressing through shared experiences and healthy responses. Only through growth can we experience the desired emotional closeness.
Our childhoods significantly impact our abilities to connect, preparing or diminishing our capacity for loving connections. Some emerge into adulthood possessing great emotional skills, deftly processing felt emotions, and utilizing feelings to effectively guide. Others struggle, quickly flooded by emotion, exploding and shutting down at the slightest unplanned changes.
"The emotional development necessary to experience intimacy is achieved over several stages, progressing through shared experiences and healthy responses."
If we bombard a partner with more emotion than they can process, they will disengage or defensively retaliate. Unaccustomed to emotion, a partner’s heart rate quickly elevates, and blood pressure rises, overwhelming their brains and shutting down intelligent processing. The rush of emotion changes the body, demanding alertness, and sparking fear. Too much emotion and we seek escape. We can’t get lost in emotional expression, spewing out the feelings without checking in to see how these powerful emotions are being received.
An emotionally unprepared partner will not be able to compassionately respond. The soothing connection we desire might be met with defensiveness or even contempt. Their response, feels like rejection, leaving a mark. The relationship suffers an emotional blow, diminishing trust and limiting future openness. When we beckon for support and are rejected, the relationship suffers.
Opportunities to Build Trust
These are the “sliding door” moments of a relationship that establish trust or deepen insecurities. The emotionally insecure tend to find each other. The horror of aloneness often tempts the abandoning of self-respect. The two emotionally needy souls bond in fear, routinely shooting the shards of hurtful remarks, demeaning each other, but refusing to change. These are not bad people. They blindly carry the torches of childhood programming, lacking the emotional intelligence to escape.
Emotional Intelligence and Intimacy
Emotionally mature partners experience a different path to connection. Love feels different. They respect bids for support, willingly sharing tough emotions; but share within limitations of their partners. Healthy partners then respond, giving welcomed warmth to a world that feels cold. The emotionally mature skillfully respond with kindness during the emotional disturbances. They create security.
Relationships powerfully ignite deep feelings. Emotional communications give life to hidden demons, charging our bodies with feeling. We must work through these pivotal moments. Changing how we respond is not a simple task, requiring recognition of the emotional patterns, and implementing effective practices that soften feelings before they overwhelm. But to succeed in love, we must combat the defensive responses that arise to a partner’s emotional bids for support. We feel what we feel; but sometimes what we feel is not conducive to a growing relationship.
We have important choices at these critical junctures. Some responses are healthy and others debilitating. If we defensively attack by shifting blame, we curtail future openness. If we shut down, we express unwillingness to support. These tools protect against emotional vulnerabilities but limit and destroy intimacy.
Emotional Safety Necessary for Intimacy
For intimacy to improve, we first must soothe our emotions, recognizing the underlying feelings without chaotically blaming our partners. Intimacy mandates vulnerability—the courage to share sensitivities. Together with a loving partner, we can begin to grow, discovering new areas of safety.
When a partner flippantly belittles precious openness, we retreat seeking shelter. The partner’s unpredictable reaction destroys intimacy but with dignity we can still survive. Our willingness to test vulnerability exposes the darkness or light of a partner’s character. We sadly must accept that with some limited safety is given; future openness must be curtailed, and intimacy denied.
We can dodge the complexity of connection if we wish, excusing our contribution to destructive interactions. We can smugly believe we are appropriate and our partners selfish; but where does this get us? We often soothe our self-image by sacrificing intimacy. We minimize our frailties while magnifying the perceived evil of our partners. Denial and avoidance provide the protective shield; but at the heavy cost of intimacy. Failing to accept responsibility in the disconnection invites the same stupid relationship blunders that repeatedly mucked up our chances for connection in the past. With underdeveloped emotional and relationship skills, we never achieve our goal, collapsing long before the finish line, the ribbon is never broken, and intimacy never enjoyed.
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