Counselling Articles

The trouble with intimacy – How can it hurt so bad and feel so good?

intimacyIntimacy – What is it actually?

Intimacy is one of those tender topics that comes up every day in my counselling work with couples. There’s a lot of confusion about what intimacy actually is. Intimacy often gets confused with sex, and while they are related experiences, they are also distinct.

The following is an excerpt from my book The Re-connection Handbook for Couples (click here to read more) –

Intimacy is the feeling that comes from revealing our inner self to be actively witnessed by another. 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.

Nonetheless, individual appetites and tolerances for intimacy vary. Intimacy doesn’t feel good for everyone. A mismatch between lovers in this regard can be a source of frustration, anger and disconnection. The person craving more intimacy may judge their partner to be cold or withdrawn. The person with less appetite or tolerance for intimacy may experience their partner as intrusive or overbearing.

Intimacy needs can differ between people in a relationship

It’s common to assume that our personal intimacy needs are “normal” and should be automatically met by our partner. It’s tempting to pathologize or condemn them when they fail to meet these needs. It’s also common in counselling for the counsellor to collude, consciously or unconsciously, with the person who wants more intimacy. Often (not always) it is a woman who wants more intimacy, and a man who doesn’t see a problem. Hence, perhaps, the cliche of the man who resists couples counselling. In my work I’m careful to take a value neutral approach to intimacy, honoring all personal preferences and capacities. Regardless of one’s personal tolerance or desire for intimacy, exploring the topic with curiosity is helpful and illuminating. (Intimacy is also discussed at length in my book Conscious Kink for Couples – click here to read a sample.)

Liz and Colin appeared to have extremely different emotional experiences and needs. In their own words, Colin was rock solid; Liz was a rollercoaster. By the time they came to me for help Liz was ready to pull the plug on the relationship. She carried a lot of anxiety, and we talked openly about the impact it had on the relationship.

Liz also was very clear that she wanted a deeper level of emotional engagement with a partner, and she wasn’t sure Colin could provide it. Colin repeatedly stated his willingness to “do anything” to help Liz get her needs met.

This “can-do” attitude seemed consistent with his overall character and his way of moving through the world in general. Colin was good at holding a vision and making sacrifices as he worked for future goals. An interesting implication of this was that there was a sense of him always existing somewhere off in the future… somewhere else. But Liz wanted to feel him in the present, here and now. She would get so frustrated that she would question his love for her. This would launch him into an incredulous defense about how everything he does is for the relationship, which was probably true.

By his own admission, Colin did not understand what Liz was really asking of him. In session, I saw an opportunity to potentially help him get a taste of what she was looking for –

Me: “Colin, I’m noticing that even as Liz talks about leaving the relationship, a relationship you obviously care about, you don’t seem emotionally phased. What’s going on inside right now?”

Colin: “I’m thinking about what I’ll need to do to take care of myself. New apartment, that kind of thing.”

Me: “You automatically start thinking about how to deal effectively with whatever change might be on the horizon. You’re good at recovering from setbacks and at strategizing. It’s one of your gifts.”

Colin: “Correct.”

Me: “I’m going to ask you to back up a step, and check out what it feels like to hear that Liz is considering ending the relationship. Start with your body. What kind of sensations do you feel in your body when you hear Liz’s words?

Colin: (Pause) “I feel an emptiness in my belly.”

Me: “That makes sense. Stay with that sensation of emptiness in your belly. In this moment there’s nothing to do about it. Just let yourself feel it fully. (Pause) What’s the emotion that comes with that emptiness?”

Colin: “Fearfulness. I’m afraid of having no one to lean on.”

Me: “Ah. Yes. It’s scary to be alone. Again, I don’t want you to strategize your way out of this feeling quite yet. Are you willing to stay with the feeling of fear a little longer?”

Colin: “Yes.”

Liz had been desperate to connect emotionally with Colin, but she didn’t know how to get through to him. Colin had tried everything he knew to care for the relationship, but he genuinely did not understand what she wanted. In those few minutes of our session together, Colin stayed with his uncomfortable feelings without automatically moving into problem solving mode. Importantly, he was also revealing this inner experience to Liz. This was intimacy, feeling Colin expose his tender feelings. This is what Liz was starving for. This is what made her feel connected.

Feelings… Strength or weakness?

It was unfamiliar and counter-intuitive territory for Colin. He considered his ability to bypass his feelings and get a job done to be a great strength of his, and he’s right, to a point. It IS valuable to be able to feel lousy and still get stuff done, but not always. In this case Colin was tasked with something different, a new addition to his repertoire. No matter how vigorously he used the old tools he knew so well, they would never be satisfying for Liz unless some occasional insight into his feeling self was also included.

I made it clear to Colin that he was under no obligation to change his way of doing things. This was all optional. It’s not our “job” to meet our partner’s needs, it’s a gift we give to each other, and a way of answering the calling of the relationship itself. Sometimes, in an unexpected moment of clarity or insight, we might feel like it’s a gift we give ourselves too. For Colin, this encouragement, this permission to have his emotional experience, and to share it with his partner, to have it be welcome, this was something strange and new. It turned out that he found some pleasure in it, enough to spark his curiosity and create willingness to experiment further.

Toward the end of our session, Colin confided that he had never really felt okay with sharing his emotional experience. He felt pressure as a man to minimize his emotions in order to perform in the world. I found this to be quite insightful, and to match my own observations about gender expectations and social conditioning.

Colin felt vulnerable revealing his emotionality, and he simultaneously felt some satisfaction in it. Vulnerability is a necessary part of revealing our inner self to our partner. When we reveal our inner experience, there is no guarantee that it will be received favorably. We risk rejection, judgement, ridicule. We might be tempted to mitigate this risk by securing carte blanche acceptance, unconditional love, or validation from our partner in advance, “You have to promise you won’t get mad…”, but this undermines real intimacy, which requires us to risk being ourselves no matter the consequences. Only when we risk revealing who we are inside, and accept the possible consequences, can we experience intimacy. Meeting our spouse in this vulnerable place of risk and uncertainty connects us to some alive part of ourselves. We feel bonded and strangely powerful even as we also feel uncertain and fragile. Paradox abounds.

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Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email to request a client info package.

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