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The Search for Intimacy
Thought for the fortnight
If the infamous ‘man from Mars’ were to suddenly arrive on this earth, what would he think that people were all about? From scanning traditional media, not to mention social media, I would surmise that he would see a search for beauty, wealth, fame, power and influence – in short, worldly success.
And I guess a lot of people do want exactly these things. They want to be beautiful, rich or famous or, preferably, all three. They want to be powerful and/or influence people. And when they achieve any of these aims, they feel they have succeeded in life.
Not me. And not a lot of people like me. What we are constantly striving for is on a very different plane. We want to achieve various forms of intimacy with others. It makes us feel more truly alive than anything else.
This needs a little thinking about.
What is intimacy?
Intimacy entails a feeling of enormous closeness to another person, due to a willingness to be honest about one’s deepest thoughts. It means a lack of guile. Nothing hidden. Even things that might otherwise feel shameful.
We let the other person see us without the usual protective veil we put around ourselves and we see him or her in the same naked light. It can be quite scary on both sides.
Very occasionally, it happens almost right away. We meet someone and we know that there is something held between us, although we would find it difficult to explain what. Something about ‘knowing’ them even when we don’t.
But more often, it takes time to develop, building up over shared experiences, laughter and common interests. Plus some other ingredient that is very difficult to specify, but we know it when we feel it.
Sex and intimacy
When we talk of intimacy, the first word that comes to mind is sex. Quite reasonably. Sex is the purest form of intimacy, in the sense of physical – and, at its best, emotional – closeness to another person.
And perhaps I should have added sex to the list of things the man from Mars would see us searching for. But this is to confuse matters.
Yes, there is a very visible search for sex, but this is generally sought in its most physical form. It is wanted now. It should be exciting. It should result in sexual satisfaction.
But little of this is intimacy. Certainly not automatically.
Yet, at its very best, sex is a form of intimacy to be treasured and encouraged.
Intimacy and family
Sex is not the only form of intimacy by any means. We can – and frequently do – feel intimate with members of our family.
Some people say that ‘of course’ they have a sense of intimacy with people in their family. They feel very close to either one or both of their parents all their lives. Sometimes, a woman will say that her mother is her ‘best friend’, with all that that implies.
Or one or more of their siblings. Brothers and sisters share many of the same memories – whether of a happy or of an unhappy childhood – which brings its own form of closeness.
Looking down the generations, perhaps the ‘purest’ form of intimacy comes between parents and their small children.
No woman who has ever breast-fed her baby, whether for a few days or weeks or for much longer, will deny the enormous sense of intimacy generated by this simple act. Indeed, we know that we produce hormones which foster it.
And this continues to various degrees as our children grow from small infants on up. Adolescence is not the easiest moment for inter-generational intimacy, but it can come back as adolescence becomes a thing of the past.
Going further down the line, grandparents can have a special form of intimacy with their grandchildren, especially when they see them frequently. Do look out for my book, which sets out the views of a range of grandmothers on this role in their own words.
But intimacy is not automatic with family members, especially once they are adult, so it should not be assumed to be the case. Many feel the complete opposite. It depends on so many factors of circumstance and personality.
Intimacy, we all know, also develops between friends. Not all of them, of course, but one or two special ones. Not enough attention is paid to such bonds in our culture.
Close friendships are important. The friends who know everything about us. The ones we haven’t seen in years, but we pick up where we left off as soon as we meet or hear them on the end of a phone.
We know they are there for us in any hour of need. And vice versa.
Intimacy between friends can develop for much the same reasons as do those between family members. We may have known them since childhood and gone through all life’s stages together – the marriages, the divorces, the grandchildren and so forth.
Or they may have developed through joint interests or activities, which can bring people together in a special way, although they don’t necessarily do so.
Intimacy may also stem from a very intense joint experience. Working on a joint project that is very demanding. Sharing a moment of deep vulnerability.
I remember well sitting with my arm around a friend (up to that time not especially close) when her husband had just committed suicide unexpectedly and her immediate family had not yet arrived. It changed our relationship forever. It happened some fifty years ago, but the feeling of closeness is still there.
I have left spouses (or partners) for last not because they are least important, but because they are so essential to this discussion.
The intimacy we feel with our partner has many different stages.
There is the initial meeting and courtship, which is exciting because it feels like a major positive shift in our lives. We become deeply involved in getting to know them and their ways and letting them see us – the very meaning of intimacy. My husband reminded me recently about the first time we kissed and what it meant to him.
Then, there is the period when we have passed the initial stages and are settling down to a more prosaic day-to-day life. Children are being born, careers are being advanced and it is harder work to keep the relationship on a good path.
Some couples lose their sense of intimacy at this point for a whole host of reasons, but not all do. It feels like a major accomplishment to hold it all together. And some who lose it along the way manage to regain it.
But then, if we are very very lucky, there is the intimacy of old age. When we have been through all the early and middle stages, the children have left home and it is only ourselves. There are many pleasures here – and a very strong sense of intimacy.
I feel that I am one of the lucky ones and thank my stars for this almost every day.
What does intimacy do for us?
I have sought out intimacy for years without quite knowing why. But on reflection, I think there are two gains – the immediate and the longer term.
We humans are supposed to be very social animals. Intimacy is the very essence of being social – not in the sense of doing some activity together, but in the sense of developing a closeness to another person.
It feels good. It makes us feel more alive.
But in the longer term, it is an important avenue for learning. When we feel intimate with someone, we are able to explore all sorts of inner thoughts together in a way that we cannot do with other people. And through that process, we learn more about ourselves and the other person than we can learn through other means.
I have often caught myself explaining something to a good friend – or to my husband – and realising it is the first time I have captured that thought and pinned it down. And it may well be something important to me.
And those who are intimate with us know us closely – by definition – and can often have insights into our character or our needs that won’t come from any other source. And, of course, we can give to them in the same way.
Academics can study human activity and thought til the cows come home. They can create detailed protocols and undertake trials of what leads to what – and that is all to the good. But for me, I will take a deep conversation with a close friend any time.
Intimacy and love
And finally, you may ask, is intimacy the same as love? The whole meaning of love requires at minimum another post or, far far better, a long and thoughtful book. The love of two siblings is not the same as the love of newlyweds. But the love of newlyweds is also not the same as that of a couple who have lived together for countless years. And so on.
Love and intimacy are clearly intertwined. Intimacy may well engender a sense of love and love is likely to lead to a sense of intimacy.
May you experience both during the course of your life.
A version of this article was initially published by SixtyandMe.com