What does it mean to be intimate?
This may sound like an obvious answer but it is actually a bit more complex. Miriam Webster’s dictionary defines the word intimacy as the following: 1. the state of being intimate, and 2. something of a personal or private nature. Synonyms for this word include: Belonging, closeness, inseparability, nearness, and familiarity.
The formal definition only begins to describe something that can take years, even decades to develop and remains elusive and unattainable to many.
So what does it really mean to have an intimate relationship?
The answer is likely somewhat different for men than for women, and different for each culture. Additionally, what someone considers “intimate” at a certain age may later in life, and with a bit more wisdom, may change.
For example, in junior high it is common to have a “best” friend with whom you share your deepest and most personal stories and yet from one week to another, or sometimes from one day to the next who is considered your “best”, best friend may change in the blink of an eye (or a mean glance, rumor, or posting on social media).
In your twenties and thirties intimacy usually means finding a life partner which means sharing not only physically and emotionally but financially as well. Couples who have shared 30, 40, 50 or more years together have a unique perspective of what is like to intimately share not only children, events, and possessions but also a life together.
So what is intimacy and what is it not?
Intimacy is not some “thing” but an evolving process: In a more and more fast-paced world here is the bad news about intimacy… it takes time and it takes effort (and a lot of both). Think of true intimacy like a fine wine or aged cheese.
Intimacy takes place one-on-one between one human being to another: It is possible to be intimate with a group of friends or in a group but it is necessary to develop bonds of attachment individually with each person within the group, and then with the group as a whole.
Intimacy is not instant: Love at “first sight” does happen for some people but obtaining intimate knowledge and/or awareness of another takes time and many, many small moments when woven together create an amazingly beautiful tapestry.
Intimacy is not static: Because each of us grows with each new day so do our joys, sorrows, triumphs, defeats…what makes each of us unique. We evolve. What we may have known about someone months or years ago may no longer be true so we need to stay up-to-date with those we want to have an intimate relationship with.
Intimacy takes work to maintain: Work doesn’t have to mean a lack of fun but it does me that it won’t just happen on its own.
Intimacy can be intellectual: Sharing deep thoughts and ideas can show a true connection and can be incredibly exhilarating.
Intimacy can be physical/sexual: But it is important to know that just because body parts are shared that does not automatically mean emotional intimacy (other than the obvious sharing of the physical body) has been attained.
Intimacy can be emotional: Actually, some level of emotionality is pretty much required for intimacy to be achieved. It is a feeling that you just know when it is there.
Intimacy can be all encompassing: It is important to know that even in highly intimate relationships healthy boundaries must be established and maintained. The goal of intimacy is not to lose oneself but to share pieces of oneself.
How to develop intimacy?
For some it is easy to get and keep friends and relationships, even intimate relationships. For others this can be quiet a task. People are often born with the genetic makeup that helps them attract people. Others may be shy or were raised in an environment where the basic skills of connecting to others was not modeled or taught.
For those who are on the challenged side of things here are some essentials to developing an intimate relationship.
Communicate: This does not come automatically or easily for some but human being need, crave, desire communication between one another. It is also important to appreciate the varied ways we communicate. Some call it the ‘language of love’ as the look, touch, gestures between two lovers as it doesn’t take much at that stage. Non-verbal communication is often even more important than actual words in some cases. As soft pat on the back, a thumbs up emoticon, holding hands are all powerful ways to connect.
Be open: In order to be intimate with someone it is important to listen and hear about them, what they have to say, learn as much as possible.
Be humble: In today’s world humility is not often spoken about even seen as an admirable quality. But, in order to be intimate with another it is important to recognize, and communicate knowing you don’t know it all! Being able to acknowledge your mistakes goes a long way toward developing connections.
Be brave: Yes, it takes courage to put your heart, mind, soul, body on the line! This is especially true for those who’ve shared, been intimate…and gotten hurt! It won’t happen without your willingness to go places you haven’t gone, get outside your comfort zone, and courageously believe it can happen!
Be patient: Time, time, time…let the process happen.
Be kind: Be kind to others and be kind to yourself. A little gentility goes a long way to soften hurt feelings (and there always will be hurt feelings).
Trust: An ability to take a leap-of-faith is required to begin the process toward intimacy. Many small leaps lead to deeper and deeper levels of trust. Trust is not global as we can trust someone about certain things but not others.
Intimacy in a digital world
Since this is being written for a digital audience it seems only appropriate to at least acknowledge the changes in our world since the advent of internet dating, Twitter, Snap Chat (how intimate can a “snap chat” truly be?), Facebook, Instagram….! Our world has become bytes of data and often this not only affects how we meet one another but how we stay connected as well.
In some ways the digital world has been a boon to intimacy. Parents can almost know each movement their children take when they are not physically together. In a recent CNN documentary Anderson Cooper reported that the average 13 year old checks social media 100 times daily! But is staying or being “connected” digitally mean intimacy?
Whether in a digital or old school world intimacy still means all the items listed above are necessary. It isn’t how we meet or how we stay connected but the quality, honesty, intent and integrity of the sharing. No matter what the forum, human beings need to care and be cared for. People want to know that what they do and who they are matters…at the very least to one other human being. This is the essence of true intimacy.
About the author
Linda Rio is a Marriage & Family Therapist who practices in Camarillo, CA. She co-authored a book with her daughter, Tara, on eating disorders and her most recent book, The Hormone Factor in Mental Health: Bridging the Mind-body Gap, includes contributions from some of the world’s top experts in endocrinology, medical family therapy, nutrition, as well as real accounts from patients and their family members. Linda has authored dozens of articles for professionals as well as the general public, appeared on T.V. and radio, and is a public speaker. She has been married for 47 years, has two children and 3 granddaughters who are now in college.
To learn more about Linda, visit www.Lindamrio.com.