It started with what seemed like a simple question. That question, not surprisingly for anyone who knows me, led to a series of additional questions. Somehow though, I wasn’t getting clear answers, so I asked the people around me the same question. The results fascinated me and I was curious to explore the topic more fully. The basic question was: “What does intimacy mean to you?”
The range of responses was wide and varied. I included both men and women, (as I know that each gender has their own way of defining intimacy), of different ages, some in relationships, while others were not. Most people had to stop for a moment to really think about and put into words what intimacy meant to them. As I looked more deeply at the topic, I found the reason why. There are in fact four key types of intimacy.
What Does Intimacy Mean to You?
The people I asked generally started with the most common of the four types of intimacy: Sex. This wasn’t too much of a surprise because sexual intimacy is probably the most stereotypical and familiar definition of the word in modern society. Having sex, however, often has less to do with intimacy than with a physical act between people.
As it turned out, the people I talked to wanted more than just the act of sex — they wanted depth. They wanted to feel safe while being vulnerable, wanting to be seen by his/her partner. That made sense, as this form of intimacy also includes a wide range of sensuous activity and sensual expression, so it’s much more than having intercourse.
Interestingly, the word intercourse is defined as an “exchange especially of thoughts or feelings.” This had me curious as to why intimacy is challenging to people. I continued to look further.
How Different Genders Define Intimacy
Dr. Helen Fischer, well-known human behavioral anthropologist, reports that the genders do often define intimacy differently. To women, intimacy is all about talking face-to-face, locking eyes and then sharing their hopes, worries and their lives. Dr. Fischer suggests this behavior probably evolved millions of years ago when ancestral females spent their days holding their infants up in front of them, soothing them with words and sounds.
Men, however, often regard intimacy as working or playing side-by-side, rarely sharing their secret dreams and darkest fears. If they do, men often use “joke speak,” to camouflage their feelings with humor. While women use an eye-to-eye “anchoring gaze,” men almost never look deeply into each other’s eyes. Dr. Fischer says that men’s approach to intimacy probably also dates back to prehistory when ancestral males gathered behind a bush, quietly staring across the grass in hopes of felling a passing buffalo. They faced their enemies but sat next to their friends.
The next of the four faces of intimacy is emotional intimacy. This happens when two people feel comfortable sharing their feelings with each other. The goal is to be aware and open to understanding the other person’s emotional side. There’s probably little question that women have an easier time with this in their very close female friendships, but I’d like to believe that men are becoming more comfortable experiencing emotional intimacy as well.
In fact in her research, Dr. Fischer was surprised to discover that 95 percent of all respondents rated “talking heart-to-heart with your partner about your relationship” (emotional intimacy) as something they’d do to be intimate, while 94 percent felt that “doing something adventurous together” spelled togetherness — with hardly any difference between the sexes.
She commented that it is possible these results are an indication that men are learning to appreciate a more feminine need to talk, while women are understanding the more masculine way of showing love —”actions speak louder than words.” Very encouraging indeed.
Love and Intimacy
If we believe that there are only two major energies we humans experience, love and fear (or an absence of love), then it’s interesting that in this area of intimacy, it seems people have moved from their hearts and love, to an energy that stops them from experiencing what they often yearn for the most. Love and intimacy.
In her book A Return to Love, the brilliant Marianne Williamson says it eloquently:
“Love is what we were born with. Fear is what we have learned here. The spiritual journey is the relinquishment or unlearning of fear and the acceptance of love back into our hearts. Love is our ultimate reality and our purpose on earth. To be consciously aware of it, to experience love in ourselves and others, is the meaning of life.”
Even the Bible says, “There is no fear where love exists.” To me, love and intimacy are both highly spiritual.
Could true intimacy be as simple as a matter of moving back to loving ourselves first? To rediscovering the unconditional love we all were born with? The idea of self-intimacy and self-love is a fascinating concept. I’ll leave these as open-ended questions for you to ask yourself for now. On to the other two types of intimacy.
Intellectual intimacy, is something I personally have the most comfort with. This one is about communication, and as someone who lives and breathes words, it’s extremely familiar to me. The ability to share ideas in an open and comfortable way can lead to a very intimate relationship indeed.
Finding myself engaging in this type of interaction all the time, offers me a wonderful, fulfilling form of intimacy. I wondered if this was my strongest area of intimacy and realized that this kind of intimacy is exactly what Dr. Fischer referred to when she described how men view intimacy, saying that “men were far more likely to regard ‘debating’ as intimate.” Intellectual intimacy in its finest form.
The fourth kind of intimacy is experiential intimacy, an intimacy of activity. When I get together with a group to create art in a silent process I’m having this experience. It’s about letting the art unfold, by working together in co-operation. The essence of this intimate activity is that very little is said to each other; it’s not a verbal sharing of thoughts or feelings, but it’s more about involving yourself in the activity and feeling an intimacy from this involvement.
Recalling an encounter I had at a contact improv jam was also this form of intimacy. I interacted with a young man, letting our body energy lead the dance, with no eye contact and no words, just movement in a sensual and open, if not dramatic, dance. So, I understood that this experiential intimacy is also, somewhat surprisingly, in my intimacy vocabulary.
Joining and Separating
Rick Hanson, PhD says that having intimacy in our lives requires a natural balance of two great themes — joining and separation — that are in fact central to human life. Almost everyone wants both of them to varying degrees. He goes on to say, “In other words: individuality and relationship, autonomy and intimacy, separation and joining support each other. They are often seen at odds with each other, but this is so not the case!” This also made perfect sense to me. Yin and yang. Light and dark. All the polarities we live in life, lead to a balance.
My understanding of intimacy expanded during this exploration of its four faces. Maybe this awareness just might make it easier for each of us to find our own perfect personal balance between them all. For me, it comes down to our willingness to explore intimacy in all its forms.
What I learned makes me believe that with some balance in these areas, we might find a deeper connection and understanding of the relationships in our lives. I also recognize that we all have our own definitions of intimacy and that men’s and women’s definitions have traditionally differed dramatically. Hopefully, they are moving closer together.
Then, almost synchronicity, I received my daily Gaping Void email with the subject: “Has your soul been seen lately?” It went on to say, “I saw your soul today and it made me want to cry with joy and thanks.” The topic was intimacy. What followed was a beautiful way to end my piece.
“Intimacy isn’t strictly about romantic relationships, or even relations with family — sometimes it happens quickly, and often times in ways we hardly notice.
I’m talking about that moment when someone allows the world to see what’s inside… what they are really about. It’s about seeing someone for who and what they are and that the glimpse was offered either voluntarily or without the person’s knowledge. This is an incredible moment where our existence suddenly makes sense and all comes together in a singular place.
For those of you who have experienced this, it’s something that never gets lost in memory or time. It’s like a little mirror we take out every now and then to remember a time when something so complex became so inconceivably simple. It’s pretty incredible.”
This is the essence of what intimacy is really all about. Regardless of who you are and how you define yourself—dare to be vulnerable, dare to be seen.
Now let me ask you my starting question: What does intimacy mean to you?
Photo Credit: Maddi Bazzocco