Humans are social creatures, no doubt. But we run the spectrum from the intensely introverted (like I am) all the way to the expressly extroverted (like the rest of my family). Isolation is often a necessity for introverts who need to recover from the energy-draining, crowded workdays.
But for extroverts, being immersed in their work and sitting at a desk all day, even if they are surrounded by people, requires them to seek out social time. All three of my adult children are like that. After a long day at work, they still want to go out to museums, clubs and parties. It exhausts me to think about it.
But what we all have in common isn’t just our social nature, varied as it is. Intimacy — a component of our social nature — is what we really seek.
Erik Erikson brought the term “intimacy” into our clinical vocabulary in the first half of the 20th century with his eight stages of psychosocial development. The sixth stage of his theory teaches us that we reach a critical juncture in our 20s: We either learn to be intimate or we find ourselves feeling isolated until we do. Some people, according to Erikson, remain stuck in this stage, doomed to live out their days feeling empty.
A shallow reading of his theory might lead one to suppose he only meant romantic relationships. I am sure that was a part of what he had in mind, but intimacy is so much more than that. Intimate relationships encompass both platonic and romantic relationships, and they are ones where individuals are free to bare their souls and to know that their secrets will be safe and understood.
The most satisfying marriages are intimate marriages, but intimacy isn’t just physical. In fact, any sex therapist could tell you that people often substitute sex for intimacy. But sex can be safer than intimacy because it doesn’t allow one to be as easily hurt or betrayed.
Robert Sternberg, an American psychologist, helps us understand the difference between intimacy and sex even better in his triangular theory of love. This theory teaches us that the most loving relationships are those that balance intimacy, passion and commitment. Intimacy is the sharing of self, whereas passion is the physical attraction of a relationship.
A relationship can have a passionate physical life yet be devoid of intimacy. Clients often say, “My spouse never talks to me.” When I want to test for intimacy, one of my quick go-to questions is, “What is your spouse most afraid of?” If the client can answer that question, they have at least some level of intimacy.
Think about the many ways we demonstrate our need for intimacy. We take pictures, not just to remember the moment but to share them with others. We are saying, “Look at what is important to me. Do you understand me?”
We touch. Holding hands, a pat on the arm or a high five are all ways of being intimate. We are allowing others into our space or moving into other peoples’ space for the sole purpose of letting them know, “I see and understand you.”
We tell stories and jokes. With this exchange, we are trying to illicit a response from the other person. We want them to notice what we enjoy or find funny.
If you don’t believe me, think about the last socially awkward moment you had where someone didn’t care about a picture you shared, didn’t appreciate your touch or didn’t laugh at your joke. I bet it left you feeling empty — just as Erikson said it would.
Navigating intimacy is a lifelong task. Our biggest fear is being rejected — having someone betray our risk of intimacy. Dysfunction occurs when we don’t know how to be appropriately intimate or we stop trying.
So many clients have passed through my door struggling to repair damaged relationships or contemplating divorce. “I’ll never marry again,” they often say, and I know in that moment, they believe it.
But I also know that feeling may pass because being completely isolated will not fulfill their need for intimacy. People don’t have to remarry or even date for that matter. But when one is hurt so deeply, it is easy to generalize pain and avoid intimacy with anyone. And that, my friends, is the antithesis of being human.
As counselors we often need to help our clients discover intimacy in healthy ways. Pornography addiction, affairs, substance use and careers can be substitutes for intimacy. People with calloused hearts who are afraid of being hurt may pretend they don’t need anyone else, but we know better. That kind of self-protection is understandable, but it robs one of their humanness.
Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years and the dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Point University. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.