The Art of Intimacy: how to foster closeness & connection
Intimacy often comes up in discussions of love and relationships — but do you really know what it means to be intimate with someone? We delve into the workings behind intimacy, how one can overcome fears of intimacy and what this could mean for your potential relationships.
On a first date, author Michelle Hiller played a quiz titled “36 Questions — How to Fall in Love with Anyone” with a complete stranger, and ended up marrying him years later. Given the outcome may feel too good to be true or even a little extreme, we set out to explore how this could be possible. The quiz is founded on a psychological background, based on a study by Arthur Aaron revolving around how people can foster intimacy and closeness through conversation.
The 36 questions are split into 3 sets, each getting deeper than the previous one — it starts with questions about what one likes, their personality, moving on to questions about personal memories and relationships and finally, questions that require one to search their heart and soul for answers. After reaching the end of the quiz, the two participants are meant to stare into each other’s eyes for 4 whole minutes. While it all might sound a little awkward and intimidating, this activity facilitates conversation which requires vulnerability and honesty, ultimately serving to create a relationship between two strangers. This goes to show that fostering intimacy through such conversations are important for relationships, even at the get go.
What is intimacy?
There is a need to be clear about what intimacy really means, often mistaken to be synonymous with sex. Per Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love (1986), intimacy is one of the three key components of love, amongst passion and commitment. Intimacy is defined as the closeness each person in a relationship feels to the other; and the strength of the bond that binds them together. Feelings of closeness and bondedness gives rise to the experience of warmth in loving relationships. Intimacy hence clearly extends beyond a physical realm, into areas of emotion, experience, intellect and even spirituality.
Sternberg (1986) posits that intimacy might include, but is also not limited to, a number of feelings for one to experience love. Firstly, the feelings of desire to promote the welfare of a loved one, but also ability to experience happiness with the loved one. Intimacy can encompass being able to count on the loved one in times of need, mutual understanding with the loved one and being able to share one’s self and possessions with a loved one. It can also involve the receipt of emotional support from the loved one while giving emotional support back. Intimacy also requires intimate communication and being able to value the loved one in one’s life. Having a genuine heart-to-heart conversation, just like answering those 36 personal questions and listening to your partner answer those 36 questions, is an act of intimacy in revealing your whole self to someone else and having them reciprocate.
Why is intimacy so important?
While people might express and display intimacy differently, Sternberg found that the structure of intimacy does not appear to differ consequentially from one loving relationship to another (1986). This finding suggests that the intimacy component of love forms a common core in loving relationships, whether romantic, parental, towards a sibling or completely platonic.
Intimacy is essential to relationships because it can not only be the foundation of, but also create different experiences of love when combined with components of passion and commitment.
Firstly, we can see that the absence of intimacy can result in infatuated love and fatuous love — both akin to love at first sight and whirlwind romances, where feelings can arise almost instantaneously and but also dissipate as quickly under the right circumstances.
On the other hand, intimacy being present at the beginning of a relationship establishes liking, which refers to the set of feelings one experiences in relationships that can be characterised truly as friendships and the baseline of many relationships. One feels connection, closeness, bondedness and warmth toward the other, without feelings of intense passion or long-term commitment.
Companionate love evolves from a combination of both intimacy and commitment, illustrating a long-term friendship where physical attraction does not exist. Conversely, romantic love results from a combination of intimacy and passion, which is essentially liking with the added element of physical attraction. According to this view, romantic lovers are not only drawn physically to each other but are also bonded emotionally. This perhaps serves as an explanation why having an intimate conversation, accompanied with prolonged eye contact after can promote feelings of closeness between two strangers, or even develop existing intimacy between partners. Finally, a combination of intimacy, passion and commitment results in consummate love, which is what many romantic relationships strive towards becoming.
The Types of Love proposed by Sternberg clearly highlights that intimacy plays an important role in relationships; whether it serves as basal mutual attraction, contribute to affection and emotional connection and which forms trust, acceptance and compassion in relationships. Those high in intimacy like, and are able to value and understand their partner, which does sound like the bare minimum someone would want in a relationship. There are no workarounds.
Intimacy can be scary: what can we do?
The journey towards intimacy is not easy for all — to be intimate is to do it one-on-one, face-to-face, soul-to soul. One has to be prepared to be able to lay yourself bare to someone else, body, mind and soul. As such, it is important to understand that intimacy is not only an act of love but also self-love and an act of defiance against the walls we might have built up to protect ourselves. The nature of intimacy is emotional, raw, unfiltered, unpretentious and unguarded. The act of becoming intimate becomes more than being physically close or talking about things together. It is being and becoming about things together.
Thus, intimacy can feel demanding and this leads some people to develop a fear of letting themselves become too close to another. A person who is living with a fear of intimacy may not be comfortable becoming vulnerable, and even if they are — there are often limits to how vulnerable they allow themselves to be. The fear of intimacy can manifest in the following ways:
- Serial Dating and Fear of Commitment
Someone who is afraid of intimacy might be able interact with others initially — however, it is when they find themselves growing closer to their partner and having to be vulnerable that things fall apart. Rather than try to connect on an intimate level, they end the relationship and replace it with a more superficial relationship. A pattern of short-term relationships might emerge.
- Seeking Perfection
One of the underlying reasons for being a perfectionist might be from a fear of intimacy. One might feel like they are unlovable and do not deserve to be supported for being themselves and hence, might not get close to anyone. Instead, they focus on external achievements that might garner affection and attention.
- Difficulty with expressing needs, or physical contact
This, again, might stem feelings of being unworthy of others’ love and support and result in refusing to open up. As others are unable to read your mind, such needs go unfulfilled and a vicious cycle occurs — more feelings of unworthiness and the inability to trust others. The fear of intimacy also leads to extremes in one’s physical contact. Either they avoid it completely, or make up for the lack of intimacy in other areas with their bodies.
If the above sounds familiar to you from others or even yourself, do not fear for not all hope is lost. According to Sternberg, one has some degree of conscious control over the feelings of intimacy that one experiences if one is aware of them. Hence, you have taken the first step towards allowing yourself to be intimate by learning what intimacy is all about. Here are other ways you as an individual can overcome your fear of intimacy and prepare for being in a relationship, one that is warm and life-giving.
- Accept Uncertainty
Someone who fears intimacy, fears the consequences of opening up to someone and getting hurt, like if the relationship going south. The truth is that there are no guarantees in relationships and this is important to accept. Every connection with someone else is a gamble, yet it is these very connections that are the driving force of our human existence.
As such, one can practice courage in opening up and developing current relationships positively to reduce fears of intimacy. You can do this with someone you feel like you can trust.
2. Express Self-Compassion
Be kind to yourself. Expressing self-compassion allows you to know and accept your value and worth as a person. It is only then will you find out that rejection is not as crushing as it seems, which may ease you into being more comfortable with opening up to others.
3. Practice Empathy
Intimacy, just like empathy, is a two-way street. More than just being able to listen and hear someone out, empathy also means being able to see from someone’s perspective. Emotionally engaging with someone else’s emotions can create intimacy by letting the other person know that they are seen and understood — and that you value them. You can practice empathy in any of your relationships, by being honest about your own emotions and showing compassion.
4. Giving Yourself Time
Overcoming a fear of intimacy does not happen overnight. However, it is important not to view this fear as a character flaw. Instead, view it as something that likely stems from your past that you can work through. Even when it feels like you have made progress, setbacks are inevitable. Grant yourself forgiveness when this happens and speak kindly to yourself. Working on positive experiences in your current relationships may improve your ability to form intimacy over time.
Intimacy is the key towards meaningful relationships, a meaningful life
In essence, intimacy is connectedness and what are humans in this world, if not connectable parts? What is all the joy and suffering we go through, if not meant to be shared? When we feel the emptiness of loneliness, we strive to be closer to others — that is why we talk, read, write, create, meet, call, have sex and love. But we cannot run away from the fact that, at the core of loving relationships, Sternberg reminds us, is intimacy. Each deeper connection we make with intimacy present, creates a deeper character for ourselves. We learn to love ourselves and others, and in doing so, we make more room to grow, more to lose and more to become.
Whatever is making you feel like you cannot open up and be vulnerable, it is reducing the possibilities for you to engage and experience love at its fullest. Though it may seem scary, you can overcome your fears of being close to someone while being yourself, so that you can show your good parts but also not have to hide your ugly sides. So instead of playing safe and solo, you can bring yourself to or work slowly towards challenging yourself to embrace intimacy and what it can bring to your life and future relationships. You can start off by having an honest conversations with the person you are interested in — and if you are not sure where to begin, there are always guides available like the 36 questions or even with Kopi Date’s own experience kits.