We are made for relationship. We are social animals. Yet, we are ambivalent about intimacy: We seek it, we shun it, we long for it, we dodge it. We need it. A whole and authentic life is marked by the ability to forge lasting, intimate relationships.
It’s a goal of mine – that, before I die, there could be a handful of folks who might say they knew me. Really knew me. And that, dare I ask, on whole, they were glad.
We seek intimacy – sometimes intentionally, many times unconsciously – in the inspiration of art, in the yearning for romance, as we plant a vegetable garden, in the nod to a stranger, in our sex drive, in spirituality, even in the anonymous call to a late-night radio talk show. We long to know and be known.
We shun intimacy – sometimes intentionally, many times unconsciously – with laziness, the curmudgeon of grouchiness, the oppression of self-importance, the sedation of alcohol, drugs, and compulsions, and most especially with vacuous pop-philosophies like “If you love someone, set them free.”
Nope. For those seeking intimacy, the parable goes like this: “If you love someone, then make a radical, exclusive commitment, always respect yourself, always have high expectations of your mate and then decide to spend the rest of your life showing up every day to nurture the connection and growth of the relationship.”
I admit that second parable would require smaller print or a bigger poster.
We fear intimacy. We know that intimacy requires vulnerability, and vulnerability means risk. To know and be known is a surrender of control. We lower the drawbridge. We open the castle gate. Intimacy is an exchange of power, and with this power we may nurture and honor, or we may disdain, exploit and destroy.
Intimacy requires trust. There’s no way around this. If there was, believe me, I would have found it by now. Try to demand proof of trustworthiness, and you will queer the very trust you so ardently wish to share. If your mate could prove it, then there would be no need for trust, now, would there? Every day we must decide again to believe in our beloved. To give our mate the keys to the kingdom. To lower our guard.
We need intimacy. We are designed for relationship, and the refusal of intimacy creates its own kind of vulnerability. Loneliness, despair, depression, addiction – if we avoid all vulnerability, we risk the terrible consequence of becoming invulnerable. And that, Good Reader, might well be my favorite working definition of hell: that condition of my soul wherein nothing can get in … and nothing can get out.
Intimacy requires time and space.
Intimacy requires time to emerge and grow. We make that time possible with constancy and commitment. It is a safe general rule to say that “instant intimacy” is anything but intimacy.
Intimacy requires proximate space – a sense of psychological safety that makes human vulnerability possible. For example, “marriage” is the name of a space designed to safely contain the radical vulnerability of a lifelong commitment.
Intimacy requires healthy psychological boundaries. Intimacy begins with the confession, “I am not you.” We can only achieve intimacy to the degree that we are in possession of our whole, separate self. Boundaries define us, preserve us, and protect us. A great cosmic irony, perhaps, but the only way to participate in profound intimacies is to continue the work of nurturing a healthy, separate self.
In practice, healthy interpersonal boundaries include words like “no, stop, enough ….” Good boundaries help us keep things in (discretion/privacy) and keep things out (renewal/protection.) Boundaries balance our desire to know and be known with a healthy caution about what we share, what we receive, with and from whom. Boundaries guard our physical, emotional, and spiritual safety. Boundaries help us keep clear distinctions between our needs and desires and those of a colleague, kin, friend, or mate.
The deciding measure of our healthy boundaries is our ability to notice and respect the boundaries of others.
Steven Kalas writes a weekly column for the Sparks Tribune. Mr. Kalas is a Nevada author, a therapist and an Episcopal priest. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.