Intimacy and space
Why we need both and simply enough
What does intimacy really mean?
It generally refers to a deep and mutual connection that we can enjoy with other people, animals, nature and even God. In the context of romantic relationships, however, intimacy is also eroticized. For me the word refers to both tangible and metaphorical nudity. It’s the place where emotional vulnerability and sexual desire meet, and it’s something we create together. we cannot own it for ourselves.
It is also paradoxical that sexual intimacy can enhance emotional intimacy, but without emotional intimacy, sexual connection will reach its limits. When I was in my early twenties I was still learning everything and my ideas were mixed up. I thought that having a lot of sex could speed up emotional intimacy; as if physical nudity is the best way (in romantic bonds) to develop trust.
I think I really saw intimacy as a kind of physical and emotional knot that, if tied tight enough, can never be untied. I hoped, or assumed, that provided we were intimate enough, I could make sure that I was protected from loneliness, disappointment, and just about any romantic loss. I was scared of heartbreak and was pretty sure I couldn’t survive it. And so I hurried and hurried and hurried. I barely stopped breathing and looking. I have seldom asked myself: am I actually ready to connect this way? And is that another person too?
My thirties were a decade of learning. I both threw myself at others and then withdrew just as quickly. I was overly careful in some ways and overly inconsiderate in others. I learned that intimacy means both speaking and listening. We need to be able to move forward with someone but also be willing to be patient and stand still.
At almost forty, I’m less anxious and more confident than when I was twenty. I developed through various relationships, a lot of psychotherapy and a lot of reading. Nowadays I think of getting intimate as the outer layers of one (those self-protective, socially constructed people) gradually peel off while watching the other’s exposure. This is also a jointly created process. we must watch as much as we act; we have to keep calm as much as we speak. When one acts consciously and mindfully, it is a privilege to develop a sense of intimacy and to be honored.
However, it is hardly a linear or uncomplicated process: Sharply drawn layers can be reapplied just as sharply. We can fall in and out of intimacy just as we can fall in and out of love. If we show ourselves to another in this moment, we are not only brave now, but also risk rejection and loss in the next moment – tomorrow. It is fragile, but it can heal. This beautiful process is full of responsibility. Hence, we should be careful with whom we create such intimacy to avoid unnecessary destruction. It is harder to go back and save our hearts than it is to go forward and offer them.
I don’t think my twenty year old self would have ever understood this, but developing deep physical and emotional closeness with someone is as much about respecting their autonomy as it is about intertwining. This is never truer than at the beginning of a relationship, as we all have different emotional availabilities and move at different “heart rates” depending on type, inheritance and history.
Similar to separation and connection, intimacy and space are less opposites and more equality. Each defines the other and acts as a counterweight. If we cannot allow ourselves the necessary physical, mental, and emotional space to develop and maintain autonomy, how can we really show ourselves to another? Intimacy needs to be created, nurtured, and cherished, but it will not bear to demand it or devour it.
I’ve learned this and learned it well, at the expense of at least one relationship. I now know that when I take care of myself and listen to myself (my need for space and connection) I am paving the way for intimacy with another. After all, it’s difficult to make a fulfilling, meaningful, or erotic connection when I’m not sure where I end and where another begins. When I have enough space and give, there is a more pronounced self that another can be intimate with. Otherwise are