In my work, the problem that brings a client to my door is often merely the symptom of a more fundamental issue. The hyper busy woman isn’t going to benefit as much from learning to be more efficient as from exploring what gets in the way of her saying ‘no.’ And the man stuck between careers may not need yet another inventory of his skills so much as an understanding of how and for what sake he’s come to not know what he wants.
Many of my clients report problems that point at an underdeveloped capacity for intimacy. But what do we mean when we say intimacy? For many men, if you ask them for a definition of intimacy, they say: well, that would be sex. And what they mean is having sex is what they do to experience intimacy. Yet for many women, being intimate is something they want to experience before becoming sexual. So, here’s a problem.
For me, intimacy shows up in every relationship we have, and it simply means the mutual and reciprocal revelation of ourselves. How much do I know of myself, and how much of that am I willing to show you? And just as important, how much can I tolerate your showing me what’s congruent for you?
To my way of thinking there are different realms of intimacy including physical, emotional, erotic, sexual, psychological and dialogical. Let me touch on the first four because they tend to get collapsed into each other.
Physical intimacy simply means the granting of physical access for play, competition or tenderness. A hug may be more intimate than a handshake, but it’s not sexual.
When we talk about emotional intimacy, we’re talking about our ability to speak from the emotional experience we have as opposed to about it. That means we feel in real time what we’re saying. Try this at home: Think of something you ache about, and try to keep feeling the ache as you speak of it to someone.
This becomes much harder when the emotion is something we’d prefer to keep hidden like shame, or fear or anger. And harder still is the intimacy of speaking from feelings that we ourselves don’t fully understand. But even if we can achieve this degree of intimacy, it isn’t fundamentally about sex.
Both physical and emotional intimacy are different than erotic intimacy. And I can almost hear you thinking: ‘Ok, this is about sex.’ But Eros is about desire. It’s the experience of yearning. It’s yearning you might feel for the wilderness, or the desire to become something, or to be alive to life in your life.
This kind of intimacy—holding on to our desire no matter what happens—is difficult because we all get pretty good at managing the pain of not getting what we want. And one way we do that is by stifling desire. We get so good at protecting ourselves in this way that at times we can’t even tell what we want.
And then there’s sexual intimacy. The good news here is that this isn’t about orgasm, although there’s nothing wrong with that. Sexual intimacy is the capacity to transmit the energy of loving through sex. Many of us may have had an experience of this, but it’s quite another thing to make the purpose of sex be the vehicle for the exchange of love.
You probably already appreciate that intimacy is shaped by lots of factors: our childhood experiences, the degree of trust we feel, the culture we’re part of. But fundamentally, it’s not binary—present or absent. Rather, it’s a function of capacities we have to develop. It’s actually more about our relationship with ourselves than the people in our relationships. And that’s my orientation as a coach. Whenever we have trouble being congruent—which is when what we say and do is consistent with what we feel and think—we’re having a problem of intimacy.
A metaphor I like that points at this is to imagine that you’re sitting on the shore of a mountain lake on a midsummer night. The lake is totally smooth, no wind ripples its surface. And now the moon comes up. It’s so clear, and the lake is so still that the reflection of the moon on the surface of the water is indistinguishable from the moon itself. Intimacy is like this.
You know, we all understand that there is a world out there. But the only way we know about it is by means of its reflection on the surface of the lake that’s inside us. If our lake is agitated, we don’t see a very accurate representation of the world. And at a certain level of agitation or defensiveness or fear, we can’t see the world at all. All we get is the choppy surface of that lake.
So being intimate with another—a boss, a client, a partner—starts with being truly intimate with and compassionate towards what’s inside us. And that’s a developmental process.