I recently posted a short piece on instagram suggesting that certain kinds of intimacy can actually be limited by an insistence or over-emphasis on safety, trust, and validation in relationships. Someone asked a great question in the comments – “If it’s not safe, why would you even bother? Why would a person remain with someone who is untrustworthy?”
Rather than address this question on instagram, I thought I would take the time to unpack it more thoroughly here. First, here’s what I said about safety and intimacy in my original post –
There’s nothing “wrong” with expecting your partner to provide safety and validation in order for you to reveal yourself to them, but making this a condition of your honest self-disclosure puts limits on the kinds of intimacy that will be available to you.
There’s another category of intimacy altogether, rooted in the personal integrity, emotional risk-taking, and self-validation required to confront and reveal yourself in front of your partner, regardless of their active participation. The idea that intimacy is always a two-way street, inherently dependent on partner reciprocity and validation actually keeps us cut off from some of the more profound experiences of intimacy that might otherwise be available.
This might be a difficult idea to accept. Don’t accept it, test it. Can you have your own experience of intimacy through courageous self-examination and self-disclosure in front of your partner, even if your partner does not validate you, make it “safe” for you, or share your feelings of intimacy?
Back to the question – “If it’s not safe, why would you even bother? Why would a person remain with someone who is untrustworthy?”
To answer this question we need to include other questions: What kind of safety are we talking about? What does it mean to be trustworthy in a relationship?
We should also probably ask: What is intimacy anyway?
And underneath these questions another more essential question is implied: What are relationships for?
Whew. That’s a lot. Now you can see why I didn’t want to get into this too deeply in the comments section on instagram! Let’s work from the bottom up and start with the essential question –
What are relationships for?
Relationships perhaps have as many purposes as there are hopes and fears in the world. They’re complex, evolving systems with multidimensional purposes and qualities. Books – long and dense – could, and have, been written on the subject.
Nonetheless, we might simplify the complexity of relationships by acknowledging two primary needs that relationships fulfill: the need for comfort and the need for growth.
Relationships are a place of refuge and soothing, and also a place where we are challenged, broken, and perhaps put back together in new ways.
Most people like the idea of being supported, validated, soothed, and generally loved unconditionally in a relationship. Few people actively seek the kind of heart-breaking conflict that inevitably comes with a relationship as it matures. And yet some people will eventually, perhaps begrudgingly, come to acknowledge and even embrace the role that relationship conflict has in their personal growth and development. It is these people who are most likely to come to appreciate and practice a kind of intimacy that is not dependent upon partner validation or reciprocity, or even upon safety and trust per se.
What is intimacy?
Intimacy is a deeply subjective feeling that is difficult to wholly define. In my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples, I offer this – ” Intimacy is the feeling that comes from revealing our inner self to be actively witnessed by another.”
Further into the chapter I go on to suggest –
Intimacy can feel extremely gratifying for some people, but can also be frightening or confusing. Revealing ourselves is always risky. There is no guarantee that our inner self will be embraced by the other.
If we are not embraced for what we reveal, we may feel rejected or misunderstood. This too can be valuable, opening doors to further inquiry and understanding, and also perhaps most importantly, helping us build capacity for disappointment, for tolerating the experience of not getting the validation we crave. Thus we learn to validate ourselves, represent ourselves, soothe ourselves, accept ourselves, no matter how we are received. From this perspective, risking intimacy becomes a win/win opportunity.
Two kinds of intimacy
David Schnarch, in his many books and decades of clinical practice as a sex and marriage therapist, has defined two kinds of intimacy: Other-validated and Self-validated.
Other-validated intimacy is the kind of intimacy that most people are familiar with, and defines most peoples’ experience and expectations of intimacy. As the name implies, it requires validation from the “other”. It also assumes reciprocity, safety, vulnerability, trust etc. The intimacy model understood and promoted by most therapists, coaches, and teachers is other-validated intimacy.
There is nothing wrong with other-validated intimacy. This kind of intimacy fits well with the idea that relationships are primarily places of refuge, support, safety, and comfort.
Self-validated intimacy, by contrast, rests on the principle that we can get “the feeling that comes from revealing our inner self to be actively witnessed by another” without our partner’s explicit reciprocity or validation, rather we are able to validate ourselves regardless of our partner. This is difficult, much more difficult than relying on guaranteed validation from our partner. It is precisely this difficulty that brings self-validated intimacy a unique intensity and meaning.
In other-validated intimacy, your experience must match your partner’s; all kinds of agreements – explicit and implicit – must be enforced in order for intimacy to be felt as real and legitimate.
In self-validated intimacy, your experience can remain distinct from your partner’s. The sense of intimacy comes not from merging, but from engaging in self-exploration, self-confrontation, and self-revelation, all in front of your partner. Your partner must be sufficiently willing to remain present, but little more is required of them.
In conventional thinking, conflict is the opposite of intimacy. In self-validated intimacy, even conflict and disagreement can potentially feel intimate, for one or both of you. Recalling the question “what are relationships for”, this kind of intimacy fits well with the idea that relationships are not just places of safety and refuge, but places where difficult and uncomfortable personal growth happens.
Intimacy and vulnerability
While we’re slaughtering the sacred cow, we might as well throw “vulnerability” into the mix. Vulnerability in relationships, due in no small part to the excellent work of Brené Brown, has been glorified in the extreme. I fully understand and appreciate the power of vulnerability in this context; to finally shed that armour and really let someone IN… that’s powerful stuff. But the flipside of vulnerability is not necessarily emotional armouring; it can also be confidence in one’s self, a sense of unshakeable truth and personal integrity.
How does this fit with intimacy?
In the conventional intimacy paradigm, we must make ourselves vulnerable in order to experience intimacy. We share something deep; we might get hurt (vulnerability means the possibility of being hurt).
But in the other kind of intimacy, we’re not so worried about being hurt. We recognize that we hurt ourselves when we betray our own truth and integrity much more than our partner can hurt us when they reject our truth and integrity. No matter how our partner responds, we know who we are, and we’re willing to face the consequences, come what may. Yes, these consequences might hurt us, but they’re not our central concern. We know we can handle pain, we find meaning in it, we accept the fact that it is necessary for our growth, and so we are not particularly “vulnerable” in the common sense of the word.
Confessions of an intimacy heretic
In today’s social-media-self-help culture, the idea that intimate experiences do not necessarily rest upon safety, trust, validation, and vulnerability is nothing less than heretical. It’s so far out of the recognizable intimacy paradigm that it actually makes some people angry.
Other people are skeptical, but curious. When I shared my original instagram piece on facebook, a few people offered their (welcome) input –
One person declared, “I’ve dabbled in this a handful of times. It doesn’t feel great.”
Another added, “Not sure I’d be able to do it again and again. If it does truly encourage positive experiences then how can I do more of it without it feeling wrong?”
A great point and a great question.
Intimacy of any sort doesn’t always feel good to everyone, though in the other-validated form of intimacy, the potential for good feelings is fairly obvious, ie – I’m going to reveal something that makes me feel vulnerable, and then you’re going to demonstrate your unconditional acceptance of me, and we’ll feel extremely close for a time.
Self-validated intimacy does not hinge upon feeling particularly close or “joined” with our partner. Instead, the good feeling comes from the sense of satisfaction at telling the truth about our experience in front of someone who means a great deal to us, full stop.
A brief story –
A couple in session were coming to terms with the different relationship paradigms that they each inhabited. It was personal work that they were doing in full view of each other. One of them was realizing (and revealing) that they believed relationships were primarily a place to soothe each other and make each feel safe. The other was realizing that they believed that relationships were primarily a place to challenge each other (and themselves) for the sake of personal development.
I watched this couple (listened, more precisely, as we were on the phone) confront this fundamental difference more directly than they ever had before. They were being unreservedly honest with each other, but more importantly they were being unreservedly (aka “brutally”) honest with themselves… in front of each other. The tension was palpable.
Both of these individuals were deeply invested in the relationship, and each cared deeply for the other. At the end of the session, no conclusion had been reached. Then one of them spontaneously remarked how good it felt to confront this difference with their partner, to “own” their own feelings, even though the future was as unknown, as unsafe, as ever. This person was getting a taste of self-validated intimacy. It was spontaneous and it felt surprising to the one experiencing it.
Fore-mentioned author and therapist David Schnarch calls intimacy “Awareness of the self in the context of another.” This was the experience my client was having. Notice the emphasis on the primacy of one’s own “awareness of the self” rather than on any experience of safety, trust, validation, or even connection provided by the other.
The good feelings potentially associated with self-validated intimacy take some getting used to. Other-validated intimacy is more familiar, easier to comprehend, and easier to enjoy. Self-validated intimacy tends to be more of an acquired taste, and many will never do the work it takes to acquire it.
People who are easily triggered, who identify strongly with their woundedness or trauma, or who insist on being handled very carefully will have a more difficult time appreciating the idea or enjoying the feeling of self-validated intimacy. This is not to say it can’t be achievable for anyone who wants it and works at it. I’ve seen people who have been in therapy for years previously and who consider themselves deeply traumatized individuals begin to develop a capacity and enjoyment of self-validated intimacy in just a few months of couples therapy.
Developing an understanding, tolerance, and appreciation of self-validated intimacy can potentially be healing and productive for people who suffer from trauma-related symptoms, especially when they have experienced relational trauma or abuse.
Other-validated intimacy is easy to comprehend because we’re born wired for it (it is the familiar intimacy between mother and child), while comprehending self-validated intimacy requires a level of personal development in the area of emotional differentiation and individuation of self.
In the hierarchy of emotional development in individuals, other-validated intimacy is more primary, it comes first; self-validated intimacy follows, but only if we do the personal work required.
The beauty of togetherness, of unity, the sense of merging is celebrated loudly and often. But there is an equally poignant beauty in recognizing separateness, in all its ache and desire, in lovers feeling the distance between them, their own autonomy and their partner’s, the unbridgeable gap… feeling all this right there in front of each other… This beauty is less often celebrated, probably because it is more confusing, more paradoxical, and frankly, more advanced; recognizing it requires a kind of psychological maturity or sophistication.
Intimacy after affairs and near-breakups
Conventional wisdom would assume that intimacy after the revelation of an affair would be at an all-time low. After all, the feeling of safety in a relationship at this time is pretty much nil, and the trust is gone too.
And yet, it isn’t uncommon for people who come to therapy after an affair to report feeling a kind of extraordinary intimacy with their partner. They have a difficult time explaining it. They don’t understand it. They’re often disturbed by it. They’re pretty sure they shouldn’t be feeling intimate with their partner in this situation! Sometimes they even feel guilty or ashamed at admitting what they feel.
If safety and trust are not foundational to the intimacy that arises in these situations, what is? What can we attribute it to? How shall we make sense of it?
Upon extensive inquiry I’ve discovered that this intimacy that can arise after affairs matches very closely Schnarch’s definition: “Awareness of the self in the context of another.” In this case, the “other” has become symbolic of betrayal and pain – basically the opposite of safety and trust – and yet… intimacy. Apparently intimacy does not necessarily require safety and trust. In fact, sometimes it seems to require the opposite: couples have reported to me that they have not felt so intimate in their marriage EVER, as they have when confronting an affair.
What is the “awareness of the self” that happens in these cases? I think it has something to do with an awareness of one’s ultimate separateness; call it existential separateness if you like. In the face of betrayal, we remember our separateness profoundly. Some kinds of intimacy, it turns out, depend upon this awareness of our separateness – an awareness felt most strongly “in the context of another” – rather than depending upon feelings of closeness, trust, safety, reciprocity, and validation.
A similar phenomenon can also occur when a marriage or significant relationship ends, or hovers on the brink of demise. At these times too my clients sometimes report intense feelings of intimacy.
What is happening in these cases? How to make sense of this?
One of the things that is happening is truth-telling. Feelings that have been hidden, covered up, denied, sometimes for decades, are revealed.
Not everyone has to cheat on their spouse or leave the relationship before they experience the self-validated intimacy that comes with truth-telling and confronting one’s own existential separateness. In fact, I recommend otherwise if at all possible.
What’s wrong with safety and trust in relationships?
If you’ve gotten the idea that I am arguing against the value of safety and trust in relationships, please let me clarify. I think it’s obvious that a certain sense of safety and trust must be present for most people to thrive in a relationship. What I’m suggesting is that another category of intimacy exists that is available only when we relax our grip on the idea of the centrality of other-validated safety and trust in relationship. It’s not that safety and trust don’t matter or don’t exist, it’s that we come to see them differently.
The same goes for vulnerability. It’s wonderful, and probably necessary, to make space for vulnerability in a relationship, to feel our openness and willingness to be hurt, to offer our throat to our beloved from time to time. But contrary to common belief, an intimacy beyond the vulnerability of putting our heart in our partner’s hands also exists.
Similarly, being soothed by our partner is one of life’s loveliest treasures (a treasure I personally cherish), but it’s most valuable when asked for openly or given as a gift rather than being an implicit or explicit condition of self-disclosure. The intimacy experience that arises regardless of partner soothing is of a different calibre from the intimacy that demands it. Unlike other-validated intimacy, self-validated intimacy requires us to soothe ourselves. This self-soothing is an antidote to co-dependency (emotional fusion), and a prerequisite for inter-dependency (emotional differentiation).
Returning to that question from a reader on instagram –
“If it’s not safe, why would you even bother? Why would a person remain with someone who is untrustworthy?”
Such a great question, two questions actually. Let’s examine both.
Why would you bother trying for intimacy with a person who does not always make you feel safe? Why would you be open to the idea of intimacy when you are not feeling entirely safe?
Maybe because you value the challenges that are being presented; especially the challenge to represent yourself honestly despite the absence of any guarantee. Maybe because growth and safety are not always compatible, and you’re committed to growth. Maybe because you recognize that your demands for safety come from the ancient, reptilian part of your brain, and you want to practice engaging the cognitive, human fore-brain. Maybe because you’re beginning to suspect that your safety doesn’t actually depend on what your partner thinks or how they react. (Of course I am talking about perceived emotional safety here, not actual threats to physical safety.)
In the simplest of terms, growth and the self-confrontation that growth requires rarely feel safe. If feeling “safe” with a partner means they protect you from the pain that their true feelings might cause, then your safety is very precarious indeed. Consider, the difference between the pain of woundedness and the pain of growth can be difficult to discern; sometimes the difference is all in the meaning we make of the experience.
Also, if feeling safe with a partner means they spare you the pain of facing existential separateness and existential loneliness, this safety becomes a hurdle, an Achilles heal in your own self-development. Being open to feelings of intimacy with a person who does not make you feel safe is not necessarily an act of self-betrayal or foolishness; sometimes it is an act of maturity.
Why would a person remain with someone who is untrustworthy?
It depends what one means by trust and trustworthiness. Are we talking about trusting our partner to tell us the lies we half-want and expect to hear? Trusting our partner to listen to anything we have to say without having a contradictory view or experience? Trusting our partner to keep the peace despite the war they might feel inside? Trust in our partner to prop up our self-esteem because we’re unable to do that for our self?
Or do we want to be able to trust our partner with tolerating difficult truths, both the telling and the receiving? Can we trust our partner to represent themselves honestly, even if it hurts us, or them? How about trusting our partner to allow us to face our own existential pain without trying to rescue us from it because it it makes them uncomfortable? Most importantly, do we possess the self-respect that allows us to trust our own response-ability in the ever changing landscape of our relationship? Can we trust our own judgement, our own perception? If so, our partner’s perceived trustworthiness becomes far less important.
Ideas of trust and safety are complex and multidimensional; neither should be assumed to be wholly virtuous, without shadowy aspects.
The most profound truths are difficult truths, and difficult truths rarely feel “safe.” They feel like the opposite of safe; they feel dangerous. If “trusting” our partner means that they must respond to our difficult truths with validation and make us feel “safe” in our self-disclosures, then cycles of inauthenticity (ie- lying and pretending) are established within the relationship and will certainly contaminate our experiences of intimacy.
I have observed that the safety and trust that is most salient in relationship tends to be hard-won, a product of difficulty and growth rather than of agreements, demands, compromise, or negotiations. There’s a trustworthiness and safety in knowing that your partner will stand their ground even in the face of your discomfort, but this is a truth that not everyone comes to recognize.
In closing, none of this is meant to be absolute or prescriptive. We all have to wrestle with the personal and subjective meanings of safety, trust, validation, and related themes in our relationships.
My intent here is to add some flesh to the bones of an idea I shared recently in brief; the idea that there is a kind of intimacy that is different from the conventional version. These ideas can never be expressed fully enough; an experience like intimacy is so deep, so unique, and so subjectively personal that it is, in a way, futile to try to define it or map it or even talk about it. And yet there’s some beauty even in the futility.
In some way, writing this has been an intimate experience for me. I reveal myself, presenting an idea that may be unpopular. It’s not entirely safe. I don’t trust that you will agree with me. I don’t need or expect you to validate what I have said. And I’m open to hearing your thoughts and feelings, whatever they are, because I’ve confronted my own, right here in front of you.
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