Intimacy, in all its forms.

It is February, and my thoughts have turned to the heart. I’d like to keep that theme for the month as I explore my feelings about the human heart, the human psyche, and the human condition.

When you think of intimacy, you might immediately think of involvement in a sexual relationship with someone. Sex does not naturally equate to intimacy and vice versa. While I won’t go into a scholarly discussion on Erikson’s sixth psychosocial stage (Intimacy vs. Isolation) because this isn’t a scholarly blog, some of what is included in this post will give you the general idea.

When I was younger, I quite naturally equated intimacy with sex. I read a lot of women’s magazines at the time, and they would have you think that intimacy was all about the act (particularly Cosmopolitan). After watching Cocoon for the first time, I thought, “No, the man and the woman in the pool couldn’t get that kind of satisfaction without touching each other.” Coming of age in the seventies meant that I was front and center to the transition between the hippie, free love movement, and the “me” generation. Everyone was out for Number One and they were going to get some satisfaction every chance they got. But that was not intimacy.

And there are no shortcuts to intimacy, even when you have that love at first sight feeling with someone, or when you feel you’ve known them all your life. You haven’t. Just as you would not meet a stranger with whom you wanted to be friends and immediately tell that person your life story, you could not go from step one to step seven with a potential partner in short order. So no. As good as that first night was, you have not achieved intimacy.

Intimacy takes time. It takes trust. In fact the first step to intimacy between humans is to first build a trusting relationship. Over time, you each share first your observations on the world around you, your thoughts about the lecture you just heard, your views on politics or religion or any number of topics. You begin to feel it is safe to share your thoughts with this person and have those thoughts respected – even if you disagree. Gradually you open up more an more. If you disagree strongly about the big things, though, the intimacy might never be achieved, because you will naturally make a mental note and will no longer share about those things. It is one brick in what could eventually become a solid wall. We all know friends and couples who have fallen out over such things. Soon they can no longer see what they ever saw in the other person because the wall has obliterated them. We have had those fallings out ourselves with others. It scares us, and we never quite take down that last row of bricks. Over time, the bricks we leave in place might reach knee-high, then waist high. Soon we can no longer imagine there is anyone on the other side of that wall. We isolate.

One thing I’ve noticed is that the older I’ve gotten, the harder it is to achieve any real intimacy with anyone. Perhaps that is why they say it’s harder to make friends when you’re older. When you’re young, you haven’t been burned often enough to stop trusting anyone else. Sure, you learn who the mean girls or bullies are, and you learn what they can do to you. You then learn to spot the type and steer clear of them. But all in all, you are resilient. You trust someone enough to tell them your secrets. As you reach middle age and beyond, you might notice the hard edge of the world and fear getting too close to that hard edge. You are also less likely to engage in activities where you might have a safe way to engage in conversation and perhaps make a new friend. One of my mother’s gifts was that she trusted easily, so she always had friends. I tend to skim the surface with people until something happens that lets me see that they are indeed trustworthy. In other words, I don’t put myself out there for fear of getting hurt. And even after I form that trust relationship, it’s tenuous. If I share something that could hurt me if it got out, I fret about it for a while afterward, wondering if I were wise to be so open.

Maybe one of the reasons a particular ex has shown up in my dreams lately is that they were the one person I could tell anything to. It’s a strange thing to think my circle of intimate friends is so small that there is exactly one person on the planet who knows my deepest, innermost thoughts and has never used them to hurt me. Maybe we all only get one person like that. I’m not saying I haven’t achieved a level of intimacy with others in my life, but there is only one person who knew me as a girl and grew up with me, when I was unafraid to let them see the real me, warts and all. All of the friends I had back then are, for the most part, off doing their own lives now. We have less intimacy than we had in high school. We know each other only tangentially now. Lots of others know a different side of me and then only what I allow them to know. If I could be granted one wish in life, it would be to know someone deeply again. To trust them completely. To allow them to trust me completely. That is with or without physical, sexual intimacy. It’s more of a need to be known before I leave the planet.

I don’t know why this is one of our greatest needs as human beings, to be known. But it fuels all communication. Why speak to another person if not to be heard? Why even have language? Why make friends if not to have someone to rely on, who can also rely on us? Why form a physical bond with another human if not to allow ourselves to be seen completely in the fullness of our strengths and weaknesses, our courage and our fear, our light and our darkness? It will always be a mystery to me, but it is a subject that all of the great psychologists, philosophers, and mystics have plumbed since the beginning of time. Why do I write? To leave something behind so you will know that I existed and will know what I thought about some of life’s toughest questions. Further, you will know my daughter existed.

Finally, there is a different type of intimacy we have with family, like the kind I have with my son. I tell him all the stories of my life and of his life before his earliest memories. I tell him stories about his sister from before he was born. I tell him about his grandfathers, whom he did not get to know, and about his great-grandmothers. We share a wicked and twisted sense of humor between us. He tells me his thoughts, at least the ones he feels he can share without scaring me, and I tell him mine, to a point. It’s an easy relationship between the two of us, and he knows he can trust me. It’s a rare thing, it seems, to have this kind of relationship with your adult child. Most people don’t have it. If he were in a partner relationship with someone, our dynamic would change, I know. But I hope it wouldn’t change much. He was there for me at my very lowest point, when I was undergoing cancer treatment. He made sure I ate something (or at least drank a protein drink) and made sure I got to and from my treatments safely. I knew that he had me. He would help me make it through, because there was really no one else who could risk coming too close to me in the time of Covid. My immune system was non-existent.

I will tell you that I hung on for him when his sister died, and again when I had cancer. I know in my heart how much it will hurt him when I die. Even with my own mother, whom I did not completely trust, it devastated me to lose her. My son won’t just lose his mother; he will lose his confidante. I hope he finds his person while I’m still on this earth, so that he has someone to love and someone to rely on when my time comes.

I will share more of my thoughts on this topic in an upcoming post. Meanwhile, tell me your thoughts on intimacy. What does it mean to you? With whom do you have a level of trust and openness such that you could call it intimacy?

May you have an easy first week of February. Care for your heart, but open it up to someone, too.

Peace, Jude

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