Intimacy (emotional, as well as physical intimacy) involves a particular kind of sharing. Intimacy isn’t a surface experience. You can converse with your partner without it being an intimate moment; the same is true for sex—you can have sex with your partner with little or no intimacy involved.
How can this be?
Key Ingredient to Intimacy: Emotional Presence
There are two types of emotional presence required for intimacy.
Your other-focused presence
The most widely-discussed topic in marriage/relationship help literature is the subject of intimate moments involving two people who are able to be fully present with each other. The importance of mutual presence and openness cannot be overstated.
Your ability to be fully present and engaged with your spouse/partner requires another kind of presence that is often overlooked by many couples. Let’s turn our attention to the foundation on which interpersonal intimacy is built.
Your self-focused presence
It’s important to remember that your ability to be fully present with your partner arises from your ability to be fully present and connected to the tapestry of your own self-experiences (your values, feelings and desires, longings, fears, struggles, and any area of internal conflict). Barriers to relatedness are created by one’s inability to be fully present, grounded in and accepting of a full range of self-experiences (those you embrace, as well as those that make you uneasy).
Whenever you judge, reject or do battle with a part of yourself (or self-experience) you wish didn’t exist, you not only close yourself off from these experience(s) within yourself, you also close yourself off to these experiences in others.
In other words, self-connection/self-acceptance leads to a deeper, more open connection and level of acceptance with your spouse/partner (and with others).
Let’s look at a brief example:
Meet gentle Todd
Todd prides himself on being a kind, gentle and compassionate person and husband. In fact, it was Todd’s gentleness that his wife Janice found so appealing when they first started dating. Having grown up with a father who was prone to excessive drinking and unpredictable outbursts of anger, Todd worked his whole life trying not to be like his father. In fact, Todd also prides himself on not feeling any anger. As he stated, “I just refuse to have that ugly feeling…I’m not that kind of person.” In essence, Todd is estranged, having cut himself off from any feeling of frustration and anger—he equates all anger (even anger that leads to appropriate assertion) with being like his father, an out-of-control tyrant.
What’s the result of Todd denying this part of himself?
Whenever Janice feels any level of frustration, Todd either retreats or he immediately tries to placate her. As Janice describes, “It’s like he’s not there in those moments. He becomes a caricature of a person. I want him to stand up for himself, to share his opinions and reactions. I’m not saying I want someone who’s abusive, but I feel like I can’t even assert myself or argue about an issue without Todd vanishing…I feel totally alone when this happens.” Authentic relatedness and intimacy are lost in these moments.
The Dance of Self-Intimacy and Other-Intimacy
Janice’s and Todd’s struggle shows us how self-intimacy is the centerpiece to intimacy with others. Todd’s lack of self-acceptance (in this case, denying any self-experiences associated with anger) prevents him from being fully present and engaged whenever Janice is annoyed or angry. Todd’s inability to be emotionally present in the face of his own anger causes Todd to disengage whenever his wife has the very experience Todd cannot accept within himself.
Relationship Truism: Whenever your spouse’s/partner’s experiences/reactions parallel the very same experiences you cannot tolerate within yourself, intimacy suffers.
There are a wide range of self-experiences we all struggle with and try to avoid when possible. For instance, if Todd had been in conflict with his own passivity, or indecisiveness, or feelings of helplessness, or erotic desires, or longings for connection, it is possible that when his wife exhibited any of these reactions/experiences, Todd would have responded negatively in some way.
Self-Reflection Action Step
The questions that follow are designed to help you become more mindful of how your struggles with self-acceptance impact your relationship and the level of intimacy you’re able to achieve with your partner.
What self-experiences do you have the most trouble accepting? What prevents you from accepting and being fully present with these experiences?
Where did you learn to react negatively to these kinds of self-experiences? How has this learning short-changed you in your relationships?
How do you react when your spouse’s/partner’s experiences parallel those that you struggle to accept within yourself?
Take your time with these questions and, if it feels appropriate, share your responses with your spouse/partner. After all, the greater understanding you have about each other, the greater likelihood of shaping your marriage/relationship in the direction you both desire.
Strengthen Your Marriage/Relationship Resources
I’d like to share 2 resources with you today:
1. All relationships need periodic checkups. When was the last time you gave your relationship a checkup? Check out the Marriage/Relationship Checkup.
2. Forgiveness (the ability to forgive for things small and large) is essential for a healthy marriage/relationship. Find out what forgiveness can do for your relationship (click Hurt by the One You Love).
Wishing you and your relationship all the best!
Dr. Rich Nicastro