The concept of intimacy is often misunderstood in relationships. It is mistakenly thought to be just physical rather than a complex interplay of emotional, psychological and physical needs. True intimacy stems from physical and emotional closeness. Each impacts on the other, meaning that intimacy is either increasing or dissolving in a relationship as one side cannot exist without the other. The need for intimacy often gets lost in the course of a relationship, either due to the demands and drudgery of everyday life or because of misunderstandings between couples which are subsequently denied or repressed. Yet intimacy is what makes a relationship truly fulfilling and increases happiness on both an individual and collective basis.
The impact of evolution
It could be argued that intimacy is even more important in our close relationships in this day and age. In the past, we often lived in closer proximity to others, either as part of larger families or communities, so in a sense we are herding animals. Therefore, many of our needs were provided for from this broader network from whom we could gain support and understanding and have a myriad of other needs met. Today we lead more solitary lives and consequently need more from the significant other in our lives.
Additionally, sex and emotion are increasingly separated in society with so much focus on diverse dating apps, websites and pornography which suggest a dichotomy between the physical and the emotional. The need for true intimacy has its roots in evolution with predispositions for attachment and biological needs - it is human to long for real connection with our partners.
Creating real intimacy is not just about what we do in a relationship. Although it sounds clichéd, it is vital to know ourselves, our beliefs and have an understanding of our desires and expectations before we can build intimacy with another.
The work we need to do on ourselves
We need to understand ourselves and how we have developed our attitudes to relationships before we can build true intimacy with a partner. Our beliefs from what we learned about relationships when we were young will influence our relationships today. Additionally, these beliefs will have led to experiences in previous relationships which determine how we interpret behaviour in our current relationship. Conflict in relationships is frequently caused by our interpretation of events in accordance with previous relational experiences rather than what is occurring currently. Understanding our biases, past hurts and positive aspects of our belief system will help us understand our responses. Furthermore, it is imperative that we are clear about our needs and expectations before we can communicate them to a partner, and being able to communicate them is the real key to intimacy.
The work we need to do with our partners
The biggest barriers to intimacy are misunderstanding and miscommunication. Most of us fall to attempting to ‘mind-read’ our partners, filling in blanks, making assumptions and failing to see that what we perceive to be going on in their minds is largely based on what is going on in ours. To overcome this we need to be open to listening to our partners and discussing our needs and expectations clearly with them. The most important thing to remember when listening to our partners is to understand that we are looking through different lenses. A deep understanding comes from empathy and perspective-taking rather than processing what we are being told through our own way of looking at the world. To do this well we must drop criticism and judgement and take a compassionate and open mind-set towards our partners. We must also avoid the tendency to engage in ‘selective hearing’ and only hear what is relevant or important to us. The more you can interrupt the routine and habitual ways of relating that are not working, the better your chance of building the deep connection that can only come from a true understanding of the other person.
With physical intimacy the basis is the same. You need to know your own needs and desires to be able to communicate them to your partner so that a fulfilling physical relationship can be achieved. A poor sex life is generally the result of poor communication and misunderstandings which are never explored, and so solutions never sought. Intimacy is a frequently misconceived concept in relationships, but its foundations are in open and compassionate communication.