Sex and intimacy are not the same thing. Sometimes sex can be intimate and personal, sometimes it can be impersonal and without intimacy. The truth about intimacy is that is built and maintained by a whole range of activities.
A big part of intimacy is quality time. When we meet someone we are attracted to, we want to spend time with them, we become a bit obsessed with them, we want to know everything we can about them. We want to get to know them on a deeper level than we are interested in with other people we meet. That deeper level is one level of intimacy. Let’s call it the ‘best friend’ level of intimacy. To deepen this we make time to hang out with them, we watch them in shared moments, we learn how they behave in social situations, what they enjoy, what they don’t. We learn about their values, their life experiences, their beliefs, wants, needs and desires. As we learn these things we deepen our intimate knowledge of them. Either we like what we learn or we don’t.
If we like what we learn, we begin to develop more complex and stronger emotions in regard to that person. We feel more than physical attraction, we begin to enjoy them, feel proud of who they are and what they have experienced to become that. We feel compassion for their struggles, their fears and their losses. We admire their way of being in a range of situations, how they are with their friends, their family, our friends and family, how they behave towards strangers. . We begin to feel protective, possessive, vulnerable towards them. We begin to love them. This is another level of intimacy. Let’s call it the ‘lover’ level of intimacy. We love them because we like the way we feel around them. Now we either learn how to be loving towards them or we don’t.
To be loving towards another means that we understand, value and validate their emotional needs. We listen to them, really listen. We focus on them, we are present to them, we communicate “in this moment there is nothing more important than you.” We remember what they say, what they like and don’t like. This includes how and when they like to be touched, held, left alone, made love to, etc. We learn how to provide emotional support to them, we learn how to encourage them, how to soothe them, how to empathise with them, support them, join with them in their joys and their struggles. We demonstrate time and time again that we are ‘there’ for them. When they want to share good news, we are there. When they want to vent about something, we are there. When they feel sad, or mad, or tired, or scared, or vulnerable, we are there for them. When we do this consistently, they learn to trust us and we move towards another level of intimacy, attunement.
Attunement occurs when we both develop each of the aforementioned levels of intimacy. We both feel the other is our best friend, we both feel love for the other, we both behave in loving ways to the other, in ways that meets the other’s wants, needs and desires.
In amongst all of this we may have developed physical intimacy, another level of intimacy. The good news is, this level can begin at anytime in the development of the other levels. The even better news is it can be sustained in a mutually healthy and satisfying way through ensuring the other three levels of intimacy are strongly developed and carefully maintained over time.
Imagine a structure with 3 pillars and a flat roof. The pillars begin as thin and weak bits of scaffold but as we work on them we make them stronger, thicker, more resilient. Our flat roof may be built at the very beginning, but it is lying on the ground waiting to see if we can build 3 strong pillars underneath it to hold it up. We may do that well to start with, but then other things get in the way, we get called away to work harder, earn more money, we give attention to children, we get distracted by other people, other goals. When this happens our pillars begin to crack and chip. When this happens our physical intimacy roof becomes unstable, it begins to fail, holes begin to appear, until it falls apart completely.
So the truth about intimacy is, you have to:
And then, you get physical intimacy for free! It becomes part of the loving culture of your relationship, another ritual of connection that keeps your relationship safe, stable and trusting.
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