Intimacy is one of those feel-good words, like “community,” whose meaning we tend to take for granted. It’s a nuanced concept, though, and merits a closer look. So let’s do some unpacking …
Intimacy has two components: authentic sharing, and empathetic reception.
You can and often do have one without the other. Let’s say two partners have just had a painful argument, they’re in a dark and distant place, and Partner A tells Partner B, in a spirit of disconsolate but not angry sharing, how lonely she is in the relationship. Is that an “intimate” moment?
Yes and no. Yes because Partner A is authentically sharing a deep feeling, no because Partner B is so preoccupied with her own misery that her heart is closed in that moment.
In our intimate relationships, we travel a path that takes us to and away from intimacy. Broadly stated, there are three stations on this highway:
- Estrangement. Partner A’s behavior is baffling, foreign, unfathomable. She could be from another tribe or planet. When one partner meets the other with estrangement, these are painful moments. Who wants their partner to have two heads and green antennae? Or to be seen that way?
- Understanding. The conduct makes sense, but the understanding is all in the head. It’s “from the outside”—there’s no walking in the other’s moccasins. Understanding is a whole lot better than estrangement but not what we yearn for.
- Empathy. This is understanding “from the inside,” with an open heart. And damn, it feels good to be on the receiving end! (And on the giving side, too.)
One of the main reasons we enter into intimate relationships is because we long to end the separation from others that is our natural (or, depending on how you look at it, un-natural) state. Lovemaking can achieve this: it dissolves boundaries through ecstasy. But this merging can also be achieved without physical intimacy, through empathetic understanding.
Focusing on empathetic understanding is also a great way to resolve conflict. The next time you have an argument with your partner, try the following exercise:
- Partner A: note what’s making you annoyed or angry. Is it because you’re being met with estrangement? Or is it because your partner is “only” showing understanding?
- If it’s the former, invite your partner to travel along the continuum from estrangement to empathy, starting with understanding. Have your partner mirror your emotions back to you until you feel they get it intellectually. Next, invite them to migrate that understanding down into their heart. Repeat until you feel they really get it emotionally.
- If the starting point is understanding, there’s no need for the first step. Invite your partner to move their comprehension from outside to inside, from head to heart. Do it until you feel empathetically understood.
- Switch roles and repeat.
Here’s my personal guarantee: once both parties feel empathetically understood, the bad feelings will evaporate. Once compassion fills a space, there’s no room left for judgment. There’s another reason, too. When you’re experiencing another person’s reality, you’re less caught up in your feelings and the storm of your own upset fades.
In our intimate relationships, there’s a continuum of the heart we all travel.
Estrangement is relationship hell. Understanding is its Middle Earth. And empathy? It’s our Promised Land. The station without a cross.