Many of us think of intimacy as having sex, being physically or emotionally close or exchanging deeply held confidences. But if specific behaviors such as these produce intimacy, then why don’t we experience intimacy each time we do them? What makes one sexual encounter intimate and another not? If cultivating closeness is an avenue to intimacy, why do so many couples who have attained it report flatness, boredom, loss of vitality or a sense of being “stuck” rather than feeling passionately alive in each others presence? If confiding in another is supposed to bring about intimacy, why does one communication make us flush to our roots while another leaves us untouched and unmoved?
On Gender Differences
In our work with hundreds of clients-individuals, couples and groups-we have found that the intrinsic capacity for intimacy is the same in women and men, that men are just as willing and capable as women of moving through their defenses. Gender conditioning can delay this inclination in men, but once they recognize this and experience intimacy, the work of identifying and dissolving their defense structures is exactly the same as it is for women. We have also found no appreciable difference between how straight and gay partners do this work. The content of the conditioning might differ, but even this material is not as diverse as one would initially expect.
What is Our Essential Self?
In the work of cultivating intimacy it is helpful to draw a distinction between our essential self and our essential nature. In many of the world’s spiritual traditions, the most profound realization, the culmination of all spiritual quests, involves directly experiencing our essential nature. Variously referred to as the Absolute, The Ground Of All Being, our True Nature or our Original Face, this is the underlying nature of all existence. It is the impersonal, formless, timeless and changeless aspect of who we all are. Our essential self is our uniqueness. Think of a cloudless, star-studded evening sky. Now imagine the stars as cut-aways, letting light from beyond pass through them. That all-pervasive light from beyond is our essential nature, and the light that takes on the shape and form of each star is our essential self. We all share the same essential nature, that all-pervasive light, but each of us is a separate and unique manifestation of it.
The Role of Compassion
As we begin to unmask our negative self-images, we can feel a great deal of hurt and the fear of being hurt further. We may also experience self-loathing rising from the shame and assumed ugliness associated with our initial inability to absorb this new information. Usually, we contract around these feelings. We want to protect ourselves, run away, hide, defend, attack or go to sleep. Staying with this investigation in a nonreactive way requires something special, something to help us hold our ground and observe the truth exactly as it is, without trying to change it.
Closeness, a Safe Container
There is nothing wrong with using our relationships to work through issues of dependency. In fact, relationship may be the best place to work through them. What we are concerned with here is not that we are dependent but the level and duration of the dependency. The ability to move beyond an “other-focus” requires that we remain attentive to the feelings and reactions stirred within us, rather than turning our attention toward our partners to the exclusion of ourselves. Our closeness becomes a safe container, a kind of greenhouse in which we feel secure and supported to look at ourselves while we are developing our own self-reliance.
Agreements: How they can Prolong Closeness and Prevent Intimacy
A partnership rooted in the healthy closeness stage values equality; the couple places an emphasis on creating and maintaining a foundation of “shared-power” as opposed to “power-over.” Since we choose to take someone else’s desires into account, we negotiate instead of simply taking or being taken from. This ability and desire to compromise, however, can lead to more sophisticated approaches to maintaining our defense structure. Surprisingly enough because making agreements is based on a couple’s common interest in resolving a problem or issue, this method surpasses the fighting and despairing experiences that are common at the level of unhealthy dependency.
Dissolving our Defenses
If we are to realize our potential to know ourselves as whole and loving, to express the open, present beings we are, and to love ourselves and others from the undefended core of our being, we must turn and face all the places where we are stuck, wounded, withholding and contracted. We must work directly with all that we fear, resist, vilify, disown and reject. This includes our primitive or undeveloped aspects, negative self-images, emotional attachments, what we project as “other” and deny within ourselves, our self-doubt, judgment, greed, hostility, shame, confusion, and anything else that we consider negative or unpleasant.
Exposing ourselves to what we expect will be emotional annihilation is not easy. It means staying with an issue in the presence of our partners when continuing is the hardest thing to do. It means stretching to stay open even if shutting down is our main line of defense. It means speaking about what we are feeling when we are paralyzed with fear. And it means remaining fully present without lashing out when we experience our partners as critical, blaming or attacking. It even means staying with feeling bad, inadequate, less than or lacking without doing something to distract ourselves so we can feel better.
“Where the heart is willing it will find a thousand ways, where it is unwilling it will find a thousand excuses.”
~ Arlene Price
“For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been given to us, the ultimate, the final problem and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.”
~ Rainer Maria Rilke
“If you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?”
~ Rainer Maria Rilke
“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
“All the possibilities of your human destiny are asleep in your soul. You are here to realize and honor these possibilities. When love comes in to your life, unrecognized dimensions of your destiny awaken and blossom and grow. Possibility is the secret heart of time.”
~ John O’Donohue
“We need people in our lives with whom we can be as open as possible. To have real conversations with people may seem like such a simple, obvious suggestion, but it involves courage and risk.”
~ Thomas Moore
“Nothing bonds like the truth. Nothing dispels distrust like the revealed heart. Bonding is this willingness to reveal, to simple be in the heart of another.”
~ Stephen and Ondrea Levine
“While most of us enter relationships somewhat unconscious…the challenges of forging an authentic connection with another person inevitably spur us to become more conscious, to examine ourselves more deeply , and to develop greater intention, courage and awareness in the way we live.”
~ John Welwood
“One of life’s most profound discoveries is so simple that it’s easily overlooked: your innermost self is a lovable self. By embracing who you really are, you cultivate a growing kindness toward yourself that manifests itsef as increased attentiveness and gentleness toward others.”
~ John Amadeo
“Simply touching a difficult memory with some slight willingness to heal begins to soften the holding and tension around it.”
~ Stephen Levine