Intimacy. It’s an easy word, sort of trips off the tongue, but the thing itself is so often elusive for people in long-term relationships.
Usually it’s there in force at the beginning. The other person really gets who you are. You can tell your partner everything because that person accepts you like no other. Quickly they come to seem like your other half. Sex feels so intimate and beautiful. Things are wonderful!
A few months later, that amazing feeling wanes somewhat. Instead, comfortable routines develop. Things feel nicely predictable, familiar, and safe. It’s good.
The cost, however, is that without really noticing, we relinquish our differences so that we can be assured of the other’s acceptance.
Fast-forward a few years, maybe after the birth of children, and the relationship now feels far from electrical. The routines shape the relationship and they feel oppressive. What once was nicely predictable, now feels boring in its unswerving sameness. The connection between the partners is tenuous. There’s withdrawal, communication problems, lack of intimacy, or estrangement.
What happened to the intimacy and how can we recover it?
Like the word itself, it’s easy to say how to get things back. It’s the doing that’s hard and that’s because sustained intimacy begins with yourself. It’s about exploring, knowing, and most importantly revealing who you really are and what you really want – exposing your inmost self to your partner – perhaps one of the hardest things you can do.
Most commonly we don’t fully know ourselves, even less accept that self. If we did, we wouldn’t have relinquished parts of it to feel acceptable. We present only a slice, burying other parts out of awareness. We are afraid that we wouldn’t be loved if we were truly known. Over time, to keep that partner close and accepting, we reveal less and less and this constricts the relationship and shuts down intimacy.
The couples’ therapist David Schnarch writes in Passionate Marriage that to keep your partner propping up your sense of self: “you start misrepresenting, omitting, and shading information about who you really are (self presentation), rather than disclosing the full range of yourself (intimacy). Self presentation is the opposite of intimacy; it is a charade rather than an unmasking.”
The trail out of this canyon is to become comfortable with your own vulnerability. You allow all of yourself to exist and you accept that self even in the face of possible rejection from your partner. You self-validate. Your sense of self no longer hinges on another’s acceptance, and so you no longer have to compromise intimacy with yourself.
Says Schnarch: “Intimacy is the two-prong process of confronting yourself and self-disclosing to your partner – not just self-disclosure. There has to be self-confrontation and personal growth.”
And that’s why intimacy, in the end, is about our relationship with ourselves. That relationship is always evolving and it takes decades – through trials, tribulations, and risk taking – to uncover who we are. It’s hard work, it’s an act of courage, and it’s a beautiful thing.