We interact with each other in so many ways, often times without remembering what was said or the facial expressions that were shared. Yet when your spouse reaches over and grabs your hand while you’re watching TV or when your sister wraps her arms around you on your birthday, it’s a moment that resonates. That’s the powerful effect we know as intimacy. We asked Canyon Ranch, Tucson’s Director of Life Management Ann Pardo, M.A., L.P.C., B.C.C. to further explain.
Q: What does “intimacy” mean?
A: Intimacy is sharing important, tender pieces of yourself with people who will treat those pieces of you kindly—moments between you and another being that allow you to be vulnerable and open up. It’s also about having the confidence to be your authentic self and truly share how you feel.
There’s a misconception about what an intimate moment really is. For many people, they immediately think of sex. While that’s one way to be intimate, it’s only a small part of defining something that’s in the fabric of the many relationships we keep. You can share an intimate moment through a kiss, an embrace, a letter, a conversation, eye contact, even a gift exchange. Simply sitting close to your dog can be a moment of intimacy, one that lets him know exactly what you want him to know—that you want to be near him, that you want his company. We can even experience intimacy when we’re reading or watching a movie by connecting with the characters that our brain perceives to be real and feeling something as we move through the story with them.
It’s really about your intention and your willingness to be in an intimate place, and creating that place with this other being. You might quickly grab your child’s hand to cross the street without them really noticing. But holding your best friend’s hand when she’s upset, and her accepting and engaging in that connection, has a different purpose—one of shared emotion and tenderness.
Q: Why is intimacy so important?
A: We all need to feel like we’re part of a web—one that allows us to give and receive on a personal level. We all need to know we belong—from being included in an activity, to knowing that we are treasured and cherished. We also feel complete when our sensual/sexual expression has an outlet. All of those things affect us mentally and physically. The sense of connectedness that intimacy provides helps keep feelings of loneliness, which can up our production of the stress hormone cortisol (a risk factor for increased blood pressure and other health issues), at bay. Being in intimate relationships with others also strengthens your immune system. And, of course, sharing with others in this way helps us feel supported, which is an important part of our overall happiness.
Q: Can we lose the ability to be intimate?
A: We always have the ability to be close with others, but we can lose moments of intimacy when we get too busy, when we stop considering the preciousness of our relationships, and when we don’t prioritize the intimate moments that keep those relationships what they are. Technology, for example, is definitely an inhibitor of intimacy. Though you may be able to exchange an intimate moment through an email, sitting on the couch with your loved one and ignoring each other because you’re both engaging with your devices takes away from what could be an intimate time. When we stop interacting with each other—at the dinner table, in the car, when we get into bed—those moments, and the sharing that comes with them, are lost.
In some cases, we defend ourselves against intimacy because we’ve been hurt in the past. We may shy away from intimate moments because those we had with a lover, friend or family member didn’t continue. We have to make an effort to begin inviting intimacy back into our lives. It takes time, but we should be open to experiencing several kinds of intimacies. Start with smaller moments that might feel less overwhelming.
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Q: How do you build (or re-build) and continue to nurture an intimate relationship?
A: Timing is a big part of it. You have to be aware of when you’re really willing to be open with the other person—and when they’re willing to receive whatever it is you want to share. It’s also about understanding how much to share. Sometimes, we move too fast when the relationship might benefit more from a slower progression of intimacy. This can mean having several conversations about how pleasurable having sex would be rather than doing the deed right away. Or it could mean confiding in a friend about one thing rather than unleashing everything on your mind.
Building and nurturing intimate relationships can only happen if the person you’re in the relationship with is on the same page. You both have to know that these moments are personal, that what you’re sharing is important. If your friend is holding her breath or tensing her muscles while you embrace her, that’s not true intimacy. Both parties have to be invested in these moments. While intimacy might come naturally with certain people in your life, it’s still a practice that requires effort, attention and the desire to deeply connect with others.