- Jed Murphree, LPC
There is an "I" in intimacy.
Along with attachment, intimacy is another aspect of relationship that deserves attention and some explanation.
Intimacy can be defined as a close personal attraction, a familiarity, or bond that can also infer a sexual relationship between partners. Psychologically, intimacy is built around the awareness of a strong emotional connection, which in turn assists in providing meaning and a purpose for the relationship.
Culturally, we put a whole lot of pressure on ourselves about this often overly-romanticized, frequently changing, and sometimes confusing emotional state. The reality is that feelings for and about our partners change over time, and the concept of romance has to adapt to different conditions throughout the lifespan of any relationship. That, or it will eventually fade and die.
Although they confound and confuse us, despite the frustrations they can create, we greatly need, and will continue to seek out relationships. Humans are a social species. At our cores, we seek companionship because we need companionship: for comfort and connection, for validation and for fun.
One aspect of significant importance to having and keeping a companion is intimacy. Which is another word for love, of at least, one aspect of it.
Intimacy is one of the three vital components of Sternberg's Theory of Love. The other two, as described back in 1986 when his theory was first published, are passion and commitment. Here, I see passion representing the sexual/physical aspects of the relationship; while commitment expresses the willing steadfastness and trust that is needed for a long-term, functioning bond. These systems: intimacy, passion, and commitment all overlap neurologically and influence each other.
However, if one component outweighs the other two for too long, or another component goes un-fed, the system risks becoming unstable, and may result in the dissolution of the pair-bond, i.e. the break-up of the relationship.
Intimacy itself is a complex topic. So, to better understand it, briefly consider its four components as described by Cassidy in 2001:
1. The ability to seek care and comfort
2. The ability to give care and comfort
3. Autonomy - one's sense of self
4. The ability to negotiate - to compromise and set boundaries
Intimacy is expressed in how well a person asks for what they need; along with how well they themselves give and provide for the needs of another. It's a balance of opposites - how much to give and how much to take. In between that balance is the skill to negotiate and to bargain.
The other dimension of intimacy is how well each partner finds or creates a space for themselves and at the same time is able to maintain the emotional closeness for their partner/mate.
This where the "I" in intimacy comes in. A portion of the relationship has to be about the self, just as much as it need be about the partner. Just as there is the need to attend to the emotional bonds that are the relationship (love), so too does each partner have a responsibility to take care of themselves separately and independently.
How much time spent for oneself is different for everyone. Regardless, we all need and deserve space and time that is devoted to ourselves. Space is healthy. This way, we individually meet some of our own needs, and in turn can then better attend to the needs of our significant other.
Conversely, with too much autonomy, the relationship's emotional connection suffers and the bonds weaken. That can begin to look a lot like rejection, which can lead to thoughts about being replaced or replacement. Too much emotional closeness on the other hand, and the relationship becomes smothered. That can start to look a like control and emotional manipulation.
So be prepared to get out of balance from time to time. Relationships are dynamic; they change. Feelings and emotions adjust and alter. Imbalances will occur, and it will be okay. Be ready to compromise, admit when you're wrong, learn when to ask for what you need, and be willing to stand up for yourself at times.
However, if you find that you have been unable to find a balance between you and your partner and feel the distance only growing over a period of time, consider seeking some help from a professional, if even for a short time. Relationships heal, just like people.
Just remember, mental health matters.