Nowadays, the word intimacy has become synonymous with sexual intercourse. However, the dictionary describes intimacy as a closeness or familiarity with another person. Intimacy comes about from reciprocal trust and safety between individuals. Intimate relationships involve multiple aspects of sharing that evolves as a relationship becomes safely established over time. Intimacy and intimate relationships are an integral part of over all wellness. As human beings we are meant to interact with each other. Such the case, that intimacy can occur in many facets. Here are just a few:
- Emotional intimacy – Being emotionally vulnerable with another person
- Intellectual intimacy – Achieving closeness through sharing of ideas
- Sexual intimacy – Erotic or physical closeness
- Creative intimacy – Intimacy involving creating together
- Recreational intimacy – Closeness related to sports, fun, and play of all kinds
- Communicative intimacy – This is the source of many of the aforementioned types of intimacy involving both verbal and nonverbal communication
- Crisis intimacy – Sharing a closeness that involves dealing with a struggle, loss, or pain
- Conflict intimacy - Closeness related to unity in argument or disagreement. Sometimes being in constant conflict with another creates an ironic intimacy (also known as codependency)
- Spiritual intimacy – sharing closeness related to ideas of a Higher Power, shared belief systems, or exchanges of a higher consciousness.
The benefits of intimate relationships have been documented in research. The brain is a social organ meaning that we are literally hard-wired for relationships. Research has shown that there is a kind of integration in close relationships that is health enhancing. The correlation between intimate connections with others and emotional/psychological well-being has increasing and is shown to positively influence diseases such as depression, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, various forms of cancer, and has been shown to even have a positive effect on the individual's immune system and reproductive health.
So how can we foster healthy intimate relationships? Marriage researcher John Gottman studied thousands of couples over the last 30 years in his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work gives the secret to a solid relationships is to build a friendship. This involves cultivating some relatively simple skills and behaviors.
Build Rather than Fix
Building a solid friendship is the most important part of building a lasting relationship. Friendship is borne of fondness, admiration, and mutual respect, and if how we communicate displays these things, then even in conflict the relationship will still thrive. Dr. Gottman in his book identified what he called the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse in which if any or all of these are permanently displayed in a relationship predicts potentially fatal difficulties for the relationship. These are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling (ignoring). If any of them are displayed intermittently, it is not so much of a problem as if they are displayed permanently. So remember to appreciate your loved one; why you became friends or fell in love in the first place, and truly appreciate them. See how this affects the foundation of the friendship even through the conflicts.
Exercise: Make a list 10 things you appreciate about your companion or loved one. Each day let him or her know one or two of these things. Share the other things with someone else (perhaps even in your loved one's presence). Add one or two things to that list daily. Notice how this affects you all's sense of closeness and appreciation for one another.
Be aware of others' attempts of making or creating connection, and be aware of your response
Being aware of others' attempt to make a meaningful connection and responding is another way to foster closeness in an intimate relationship. Dr. Gottman opened what has been identified as "The Love Lab" at the University of Washington in 1990 to study numerous couples and looking at intimacy between them. While he thought initially that self-disclosure was the key to intimacy, he found in his studies differently. In studying the couples he found that it was the simple daily interactions that most don't even think about that promote intimacy. Examples range from direct request for some quality time to the slightest glance or touch. These he termed "bids for connection." He also found that there were three essential responses to these bids:
- Turning-toward in which the receiver of the bid responds positively to the bid with humor, respect, attention, affection or a sense of joining. This response builds trust and respect and good feelings for the relationship over time.
- Turning-away in which the receiver ignores the bid by acting preoccupied. If this is a regular response it can be very destructive to a relationship.
- Turning-against in which the receiver of the bid responds in a manner that is belligerent, argumentative, hostile, or even filled with ridicule. This is also very destructive as it conveys disrespect and often contempt. Relationships are not likely to last long with responses such as these ongoing.
Exercise: Next time you and your loved one are together (or friend), notice these "bids for connection" and notice your response. Is it a turning toward, turning away, or turning against. Notice how your partners responses to your own bids for connection make you feel, and whether they make you want to continue to bid for his/her connection. This awareness will be eye opening and could improve and potentially save your relationship.
Be careful of "Fuzzy Bidding"
When bidding for connection be clear about what you are communicating. When the bid is not clear to the receiver it can be confusing and can in turn draw an unintended response. Unclear bids for connection are called "Fuzzy bidding." Examples of fuzzy bidding are statements like: "We never do anything fun!" or "why can't you be more romantic" or even "Why do you always ignore me when I'm talking to you?" These are actual bids for connection, but they are riddled with complaint, criticism, or lament. They make it difficult for the receiver to respond in a positive turning toward manner. The most common responses to fuzzy bids are turning-away and turning-against responses.
Exercise 1: Recognize your own fuzzy bidding and notice how your partner responds to it.
Notice how the response changes if you make your bid request more direct rather than indirect and negative.
Exercise 2: Notice when you receive fuzzy bids from your friend or loved one and attempt to turn-toward instead of away or against. Gently reassure them that it is okay to make direct requests for whatever they are bidding for (time, affection, fun, etc). Notice how the response changes and notice whether the next time your loved one bids for connection whether it is fuzzy or direct.
Respect other's boundaries and be clear about our own
In a healthy relationship there must be a balance between integration and differentiation. If the scales are tipped to heavily to integration the couple can become enmeshed which ultimately leads to co-dependence. In this case there is no recognition or respect for boundaries and the two can end up losing their own individuality in each other. This is not a healthy situation. In the case where the balance is too heavily tipped towards differentiation, the two partners are so focused on their independence and individuality that intimacy can be discouraged altogether. In this case, boundaries are rigid, more like walls and the couple ends up sharing the same space at the same time, but little else than that. This is also not the most sustainable situation in a relationship.
When integration and differentiation is at and ideal balance there is a respect for each other's individuality and privacy and at the same time the couple can, when desired, come together in supportive interactions on a daily basis. This actually promotes intimacy and self-disclosure, and makes for a more stable and lasting relationship in the long run.
In conclusion, remember that there are many different aspects of intimacy, and there are many ways to both foster and destroy the intimacy in your relationship. To positively impact your intimate relationship, remember to focus on friendship building, be aware of your and others' bids for connection, avoid fuzzy bidding when possible, and respect your partner's boundaries and make your own boundaries clear in a respectful but loving way.
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