Knowing how to improve intimacy in relationships is crucial for authentic relating. Intimacy implies openness, closeness, and connection, without which authentic and healthy relationships are impossible. While there is a different level of intimacy depending on the type of relationship involved, there is a common theme to all intimate relationships of transcending surface appearances and ego-defences and revealing and sharing our true self. Intimacy is not restricted to sexual relationships. A certain amount of intimacy is necessary in all authentic relationships—personal, social, business, and political—because it enables the authentic self of both people to be engaged. Intimacy is necessary for authentic community.
Barriers to Intimacy
Being truly intimate requires that we have sufficient self-worth, self-acceptance, and inner security—as well as clarity of presence—to reveal our authentic self to another. Often we may not reveal our deeper self and will adopt a socially or culturally acceptable persona in order to conform to social expectations and not provoke rejection by others. Often, at the start of a relationship, we may hold back our true selves and limit true intimacy to avoid rejection, but in doing so we risk the relationship being built on an inauthentic and self-abandoning foundation. In business we may project an emotionless exterior to keep things “professional” and meet the approval of others in business and conform to the prevailing business culture. But then, by banishing our intimate feelings and our deeper compassionate values, we risk our business decisions being socially or ecologically destructive.
When we decide to honour our authenticity, we will derive our own self-value from our inner authority and inner truth, rather than from the approval of others or mainstream society. By removing the impulse to conform and please others, we no longer have a reason to hide our true selves, and so improve the potential for intimacy.
Ego-defences that interfere with intimacy can be based on the fear of experiencing emotional pain when we make ourselves vulnerable by opening up. These defences are usually set up in early childhood following the experience of rejection or emotional deprivation with our parents or significant others. While they serve to protect us from further pain and anxiety as a vulnerable and dependent child, when carried into adult life they become a block to healthy, intimate living.
Being highly reactive, the unconscious fears behind these ego defences become triggered by the prospect of emotional vulnerability and the associated risk of being hurt. As a result, we find it difficult to be intimate in our relationships, and often create unhealthy and neurotic ways of relating in which we lack trust, find it difficult to give and receive, are emotionally distant or withholding, or are controlling. We may even sabotage a promising relationship in order to avoid opening up and being vulnerable in our intimacy.
Taking the Risk to be Intimate
Transcending our persona and ego-defences so that we can relate with true intimacy requires us to tread the path of self-development, and to take the risk of opening up and being vulnerable. As a prerequisite for this to occur more easily, it is important to first set healthy boundaries in our relationships that we then safeguard. These healthy boundaries create the safety and trust to open up and be vulnerable and to express our true selves in an intimate relationship. For more on healthy boundaries, see my post How to Build Healthy Boundaries in Your Relationships.
The next requirement for taking the risk to be vulnerable is to identify and process the limiting beliefs and emotional reactivity that may hold us back from opening up. The fear or anxiety of opening up and being vulnerable in an intimate relationship can be identified and reappraised with mindfulness in self-inquiry from the viewpoint of our authentic self, and then released using the techniques of self-empowerment that I wrote about in my post How to Release Negative Patterns Effectively.
There may well be a distortion of thought relating to the fear of intimacy, such as:
- If I let somebody get close they will end up hurting me.
- If I open my heart it will just get broken.
- Nobody can be trusted.
- If I show my real self I will be rejected.
In mindful self-inquiry, these distortions of thought can be identified and replaced with an updated view of relationships that is based on more complete information, from the perspective of our authentic self. For example, we can realise that letting somebody get close to us can be healing for us, and help our needs to be better met.
As we release our distortions of thought and transform our perception of intimacy, we will understand that although there is a chance of being hurt when we are intimate, there is also a chance that as a result of our intimacy we will grow and be rewarded with love, support, and emotional healing.
What If I Still Get Hurt When Being Intimate?
Should we take the risk of being intimate, and then get hurt, being mindful will ensure that we learn positively from the experience, and identify areas for our inner growth, which will often be to do with weaknesses in the area of our self-worth, boundaries, communication, and perception. For example, if we have not sufficiently developed our self-worth, our boundaries may not be as strong as they should be, and this in turn can cause us to get hurt until we develop our self-worth further.
It is important to realise that, when we do get hurt in an intimate relationship, it is not because we are inherently unworthy or unlovable, but because we are still learning how to relate healthily, with healthy boundaries. It is also important to develop an undistorted perspective in which we realise that we are equally able to have experiences of not being hurt in relationships as we are to have experiences of being hurt.
In my post The Skill of Mindful Relating, I wrote how in, authentic relationships, the primary connection is always one of being, and requires that we be clear and present, rather than trapped in the mind’s reactivity. This is achieved with mindfulness, the practice of consciously directing our attention on our inner and outer experience in the present moment, without reactivity or distraction.
Mindful relating is about taking down the screen of our mind—the endless thoughts and emotions that we are caught up in—that act as relationship barriers and that mask our authentic self. Mindful relating is about being present to others from the centre of our authentic self. This is intimacy. Sometimes all that is needed for us to transcend a limiting cultural norm is the mindfulness to take down the screen of our mind, so that we can be present to the sacredness of life, and honour it through our actions.
Improving Intimacy in Our Relationships
When we open ourselves up to each other, we can deepen our relationship. Physically we do this by spending more time with each other, sharing our personal and inner space, being in close proximity, and connecting more with touch. Psychologically we do this by deepening our communication and exposing our deepest thoughts and feelings, including our feelings of love, and our fear, anger, and pain. Socially we do this by spending less time behind closed doors or immersed in television, computers, and smart phones, and more time with our friends and local community. Spiritually we do this by experiencing a connection of shared being with the other person, where we connect with the authentic self behind each other’s personality.
For full-spectrum intimacy to occur, It is very important that we do not get caught up in the trend of dissociation whereby we shut ourselves away and choose the virtual relationships of social media over physical relationships. It is important that relationships are conducted as much as possible in physical rather than electronic space—though online relationships do have their place.
Physical closeness builds relationships with the opportunity it presents for full sensory communication and the sharing of our physical, psychological, and spiritual space. By helping us to gain knowledge and experience of each other while reducing the distance and barriers between us, it builds trust, familiarity, and the potential for greater connection. When we are physically present together, the electromagnetic fields of our bodies can interact. Research at the Institute of HeartMath has shown how the electromagnetic fields of people holding hands can move into synchrony.
Eye contact helps us to communicate effectively, to increase trust, and to show interest. It is an excellent way to be present to another. Our eyes not only take in what we see, but also reveal our inner selves: they are the windows to our soul. When we spend time looking into each other’s eyes, allowing our love and presence to shine through them, and allowing the sight of the other person to fill us with love, joy, compassion, and gratitude, we can significantly enhance a close relationship, and break past many barriers of estrangement in other relationships. Looking into each other’s eyes is a powerful way of connecting with shared being. If we feel nervous about doing so, we can discover in self-inquiry what the fears of intimacy are, and release these.
Conscious touch, expressed with warmth, sensitivity, and full presence, is the closest that we can get physically, and is great for increasing intimacy. The more regularly that we share respectful touch in our relationships, the stronger and closer those relationships become—whether our touch is expressed as a handshake, a hug, a holding of hands, a kiss, a caress, a massage, or a joining of bodies in sexual union. Touch is necessary for healthy physical and psychological development, and can be deeply healing where it has been absent. The fact that touch releases chemical messengers that reduce stress and promote wellbeing and bonding shows that we have a natural bodily instinct to be connected in this way.
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