Two Persons One Relationship
Intimacy and Autonomy
People generally seem to have two conflicting needs in relationships. We want a sense of space and autonomy, of being allowed to do our own thing. Our independence is important to us.
We also want to be close to someone else, to know that we are loved and accepted for who we are, despite our faults. We need to know that we matter deeply to someone else, and that we are valued by them. In other words, we long for intimacy.
Intimacy strengthens how we value ourselves, reassures us that we matter, and enables us to face the world with confidence.
As children, we achieve this sense of intimacy with our parents. As adults we seek to achieve it in close relationships and with other adults – in friendships, in family relationships, and with a partner.
Intimacy is important in relationships, but is not always easily achieved.
This page provides information about relationship issues, to help couples think about their relationship, to share their thoughts and to explore together ways of making their relationship happier and more fulfilling.
It does not attempt to give answers, because what works well for one couple may not work well for another. Instead, issues which trouble most couples at some stage in their relationship are described, as well as possible ways of tackling these issues are suggested.
Intimacy in Relationships
Intimacy is about being emotionally close to your partner, about being able to let your guard down, and let him or her know how you really feel. Intimacy is also about being able to accept and share in your partner’s feelings, about being there when he/she wants to let their defences down.
We all have an `inner world’ of feelings and experiences, the world of our day dreams, hopes, fears, hurts and memories, the world of our `inner-most’ thoughts. To be able to share our `inner-world’ with a partner we love, and to be able to share our partner’s experiences, is one of the most rewarding aspects of a relationship.
Intimacy often doesn’t need words, but being able to put feelings and experiences into words makes intimacy more likely to occur. Intimacy involves being able to share the whole range of feelings and experiences we have as human beings – pain and sadness, as well as happiness and love.
Most of us, however, find it easier to share some types of feelings than others. For example, are you and your partner able to let each other know how you feel about each other?
Saying `I love you’ is important. Assuming your partner knows about your love because of the way you behave is usually not enough.
How do you feel when you are sad, a little depressed, in need of some comforting and reassurance? Are you able to let yourself be dependent and to receive some nurturing? Is this balanced in your relationship, or is one partner the `strong one’ who never needs to show any vulnerability? If so, is this really how you want things to be in your relationship?
How do you feel about yourself? When you’ve taken a bit of a knock and are feeling ‘small’ and ‘put down’ or when you’ve achieved something that makes you feel good about yourself.
How do you feel about sex? What you like and don’t like in your love-making, and about how your sexual relationship could be made more enjoyable for you.
Do you really know what your partner thinks and feels, or do you have to guess and `mind-read?’ Are you able to be open with your partner, or do you feel that your partner would not be able to accept some of your feelings?
Intimacy is a journey of discovery in a relationship. Many couples start out their relationship sensing they have achieved a new dimension of intimacy which they have not experienced before. They are in love, it is exciting, and they cannot imagine a greater degree of intimacy.
Yet as the years pass and they go through some of the highs and lows in their relationship, they discover a series of deeper levels in their intimacy. Each discovery makes the relationship more rewarding and fulfilling.
Intimacy and Sex
For most couples, one of the times when they are most aware of being intimate is when they are making love. This is not surprising – sexual activity involves trust and taking the risk of being vulnerable with each other. It is a time when, both physically and emotionally, partners let themselves get close to each other.
Making love can then lead to intimacy. Indeed, this is one of the purposes that sex serves in relationships – bringing the couple back into emotional closeness with each other. A good experience of sex in the relationship often makes it easier to remove the risk involved in talking about other experiences.
Sex cannot, however, carry all the burden of intimacy in the relationship. Being able to share feelings of anger, hurt, sadness, pride – the full range of emotional experiences – is also necessary. Without this, some couples find that after a while they begin to feel lonely and unappreciated, however good their love-making might be. It is sometimes necessary for a couple to learn how to be close and express affection for each other without this leading straight on to lovemaking.
This is particularly difficult for some men, who may have been brought up to believe that showing their feelings is somehow a betrayal of their masculinity. When they feel sad, as we all do at times, they can only deal with their sadness by being angry. And when they feel close to their partner, they can only express affection through sex. The more a couple is intimate with each other in ways other than sex, the more rewarding their sex life usually becomes. So, sex and intimacy are not the same, but they are closely related and easily influence each other.
Intimacy and Separateness
Intimacy is one of the high points of a relationship. But relationships can’t run on a high all the time. Space is also necessary so that each partner can develop as an individual. Separateness, being able to be an individual, makes the coming together of intimacy deeper and more special.
So ask yourself these questions. Are you able to have a part of your life to yourself? Are you able to do things on your own that give you satisfaction, or are you totally dependent on your partner for happiness?
Real intimacy is when two independent people choose to come together. The words of Kahil Gigran from the poem “The Prophet” are often quoted about the balance of intimacy and separateness in relationships.
‘Let there be spaces in your togetherness … Love one another, but make not a bond of love … Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone … And stand together yet not too near together; For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other shadow.’
Barriers to Intimacy
Some couples find it difficult to achieve intimacy in their relationship. Others can find that, after achieving intimacy, it seems to slip away. There are many reasons for such difficulties, and each couple’s story is unique. There are, however, some common themes.
Lack of communication
This is a common problem. One partner or sometimes both, simply don’t know how to put into words what they feel. They may have grown up in a family where personal feelings were never talked about, and so they lack the confidence to be open with their partner for fear of looking silly or being rejected.
Unresolved emotional differences
These can put a very firm brake on the development of intimacy in a relationship. Anger, hurt or resentment of one partner by the other, along with a lack of trust or a sense of not being appreciated by their partner, are examples.
These can reduce the level of intimacy in some relationships at different times. Examples might be money worries, pressures at work, concern about difficulties with children, or just being too busy to really connect with each other.
These are often at the root of some people’s difficulty establishing intimacy. A person who has experienced a great deal of hurt as a child will often find it hard as an adult to trust their partner, however much they may be in love. Examples of childhood pain that affects adult relationships include long-term conflict between parents, physical or sexual abuse, or a loss or death that was never properly accepted and mourned.
Such experiences can lead to a child having a poor self-esteem, a basic doubt about whether or not he or she is worthy of love. These doubts can be carried into adulthood, making it very difficult for the person to open up to someone else in case they are rejected and their doubts are confirmed.
Intimacy in Relationships
Intimacy does not happen by magic. It must be built up over time. This takes some people longer than for others. Often the harder you work at intimacy, the more valuable and rewarding it is. The following are some steps that may help.
Be positive about what you have in your relationship and let your partner know what you value about him/her and about the relationship. Put it into words, don’t assume they already know. Everybody likes to be told that they are appreciated and loved.
Create opportunities for intimacy. Times when you can be alone together in a situation where you can focus on each other and on your relationship. The harder it is to do this because of the children, work or other commitments, the more important it is that you do it! Try to plan a regular evening, day or weekend for the two of you to be alone.
Practise making “I” statements about how you feel. This avoids putting your partner on the spot, and may help him or her do the same. For example “I feel hurt you didn’t ask me before you decided” instead of “Why didn’t you ask me first?”
After an argument look at the deeper feeling behind the anger, the hurt, anxiety, sense of being let down, or whatever. Talk to your partner about these feelings.
Sometimes the issues are too complex, or the feelings too painful or confusing, for talking together to be successful. Counselling can, at these times, be of great value.
A relationships counsellor acts as an independent guide to help the couple talk things through. The presence of the counsellor makes it possible to say the things that are otherwise too hard to put into words.
If you feel your relationship has changed and you are concerned, consider talking to a counsellor.
It makes good sense to spend a little time talking to someone about your concerns instead of waiting until things get worse.