When you hear the word intimacy, what do you think of? If you’re like most people, you immediately think about sexual activity. As in, “My partner and I were intimate last night.” Meaning my partner and I had sex last night.
It’s also possible your thinking is a bit broader when it comes to defining intimacy, especially if you’re in a process of healing from your own or your partner’s sex or porn addiction. In that case, you may think about intimacy as pleasurable emotional connection. As in, “My partner and I had the most wonderful conversation last night. We each shared our biggest fears and our biggest hopes. It was amazing, and I feel more connected to my partner now than ever.”
Either way, you’re almost certainly connecting the word intimacy to some sort of pleasurable experience that involves yourself and another person. Maybe it’s sharing sexual pleasure. Maybe it’s sharing hopes and dreams or a joyful experience. Maybe it’s as simple as sitting quietly on the couch together while eating popcorn and watching a show you both enjoy.
Sounds nice, right?
But that’s not the full definition of intimacy. Intimacy also involves vulnerability (facing fear), recognizing and admitting our shortcomings (facing shame), and engaging in disagreements (risking rejection).
Sounds awful, right?
Well, that’s the nature of true intimacy. It’s both wonderful and awful (occasionally at the same time). And that’s OK, because intimacy itself is the cornerstone of healthy long-term relationships.
With true intimacy, we allow ourselves to be known exactly as we really are. And we allow another person to be known exactly as they are. Warts and all. And even with the downside of this, we manage to stay together, loving and supporting one another no matter what—even in the midst of a huge fight.
In fact, fighting with a person we love is one of the most intimate things we can do. Because this is when we show the other person who we really are while allowing them to show us who they really are. This is when we are willing to risk some unpleasant moments (or even hours) as we can work through our disagreement (whatever it’s about) plus our feelings about that disagreement (whatever we are feeling).
It is perfectly OK for intimately connected people to disagree at least occasionally, and sometimes that might get heated. For a while, those people might not like each other very much. They might even start to wonder if they really want to be in a relationship with this much strife.
The good news about disagreements like this is that we can learn and grow from them—as both individuals and couples. For this to happen, however, we need to remember that arguments are intimate moments. Arguments are when we each expose the soft underbelly of who we are, which can make us a bit fearful, which can make us a bit defensive and argumentative. But still, this is intimacy.
To survive this type of intimacy with as few dings and dents as possible, couples simply need to remember in the heat of the moment that despite their current disagreement, they do indeed love and care about one another, and they do indeed want to resolve the argument and stay connected.
That, of course, is easier said than done. Which is why many couples rely on the guidance and emotional buffer of therapy to resolve their most difficult issues. Other couples find that a mutually agreed-upon set of boundaries helps them work through their painful moments.
Several years ago, Dr. Rob Weiss created a “Respectful Conflict Agreement” that couples can implement when they are struggling with the non-pleasurable aspects of intimate connection. That agreement can be found by clicking this link.
There are many boundaries in this agreement that couples find highly useful. In particular, couples benefit from the first and last items on the list. The first boundary is, “We agree that we are allies and on the same team.” This allows couples to fight the problem (to focus on resolving the issue) rather than fighting each other. The last boundary is, “We agree to ask for help if either of us feels that we are unable to remain respectful in our attempt to resolve a particular conflict.” This stops arguments from completely running off the rails and creating irreparable harm.
At the end of the day, couples need to recognize and accept that not all intimacy is a pleasurable experience. That said, all intimacy helps to create a stronger, more emotionally connected relationship. When viewed through this lens, even arguments can be seen as contributing to (and maybe even integral to) true intimacy.
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If you or someone you care about is struggling with sex, porn, or substance/sex addiction, help is available. Seeking Integrity offers inpatient treatment for sex, porn, and substance/sex addicts, as well as low-cost online workgroups. At the same time, SexandRelationshipHealing.com offers a variety of free webinars and drop-in discussion groups, podcasts, and more.