By Shelley Sommerfeldt, Psy.d.
Why is it that the one thing we desire and seek most- intimacy, is also something we greatly fear? As human beings, we are innately attracted and driven to be with others, but we also keep people at a distance without allowing them to see our vulnerability and be fully exposed to them. Is it something that we are taught from our families, our parents, society? Is this intimacy that we are seeking, or is it connection?
It seems that connection and intimacy tend to be used synonymously with little attention to what these two words really mean and how they apply to our own relationship. Being connected in a committed relationship is very different than being intimate. This commitment does not automatically provide intimacy, but it does allow for the foundation to build and discover intimacy. Commitment is based on the attraction and feelings we have for another, but intimacy is a place we can be with our partner that is something and somewhere very different. It is a place of openness, vulnerability, defenselessness, and most importantly, a place of self-awareness.
The idea of self-awareness is that we can maintain our own individual identity while also maintaining the identity of the relationship. It is the ability to look within ourselves for how we contribute to problems in a relationship and to see what role we play. Taking responsibility for our own actions and contributions to the problem can be quite difficult. Our initial reaction tends to be blame on our partner and focus on what he or she is doing wrong. We could sit down and write a list of things we dislike about our partner, but could we write a list of our own? Being self-aware and having the ability to focus on ourselves, including our faults, is challenging, and reaching this higher level of awareness is difficult. First, we must be able to explore and admit our own contributions to a problem and then set goals for our own personal change. This is defenselessness, the ability to search within ourselves and not blame our partner, to set our defenses to the side while we make a choice to change ourselves, and to put our own words into action.
Self-awareness allows for us to be separate and individual, which are key components to intimacy. These components describe our ability to be our own person while in a committed relationship with someone else. It is our ability to survive when we are alone and to be willing to risk what feels safe, yet be emotionally available and loyal to another person. When we are able to separate and be our own individual, we actually value the time we spend with someone else and have a different identity when we are a part of a “couple”. We are each unique individuals and have separate interests and passions. This state of being separate and individual gives us the confidence and self-esteem to be able to strongly stand next to a partner and commit to a healthy intimate relationship. We are more willing to show our vulnerability and be open about the person deep inside only few know.
The journey to building intimacy in your relationship is life changing and thus evokes fears, doubts, and uncertainties. Change can create uneasiness; however, when couples find themselves in a state of commitment without intimacy, lacking passion, or stuck with repeated arguments, then the fear of change seems worth the risk.
Dr. Sommerfeldt is a clinical psychologist practicing in Hermosa Beach, CA. She specializes in individual & couples psychotherapy & treats a variety of issues: depression, anxiety, grief & loss, body image, parenting, relationship difficulties & overall personal growth. She received Bachelor’s in Counseling Psych from Texas A&M, Master’s in Family Psych from Hardin Simmons & Doctorate in Clinical Psych from Alliant International University.