Intimate love — 23 June 2006
The dance of intimacy

Being close, loving, bonded and intimate with a partner is a common human goal and dream. Yet, it is also a state that many people fear and thus sabotage. Why would we obstruct achieving the emotional nirvana that we so desperately crave?

True intimacy occurs when both partners act in an authentic loving way, safe to express their deepest feelings and expose their imperfections. This pleasurable experience is thrilling, yet fraught with deep fears. The main concern is that emotional and physical openness needed for intimacy also calls for relaxing the self-protective behaviors people use to safeguard their security. The trusting mates risk the potentially devastating reactions of rejection, criticism, disapproval or conditional acceptance, while wishing for their partner’s acceptance and love.

Survival needs dictate that people stay vigilant about their safety. It requires the ongoing monitoring of their security. Being close and loving with abandon transfers the self-protective function to the entrusted partner. This vulnerable state is risky. As pleasurable as it may be to lose oneself in love, it is counterintuitive for survival.

If the mate slightly veers from providing reverent acceptance and regard, it can be very devastating to the loved one. This is why the desire to reach blissful union is peppered with fear and caution. People often develop the equal pull to connect with the need to distance themselves to avoid potential hurt and pain.

Most couples create an emotional and physical distance that usually corresponds to their intuitive agreement about what is comfortable for both. When either partner tries to modify this distance, he or she will quickly learn how unproductive this becomes as the partner moves to restore the previous space between them. This is the dance of intimacy: sufficient distance for safety and appropriate closeness for love.

Some people are hesitant to get close due to another fear involving the power of the mate to withhold the desired tenderness. Being dependent upon another person for one’s need fulfillment is uncomfortable and disempowering. The dread of being deprived of a blissful connection by another’s unilateral decision causes many individuals to withhold initiating a close connection.

Personality differences may also create a discrepancy in the desire for intimacy. Some people are very physically tactile and enjoy touching, while others are less physically demonstrative. When mates judge each other’s style as better or worse, too touchy or withdrawn they sabotage the necessary safety of being accepted as they are.

Since true intimacy requires mutuality and the desire to please each other, many disappointments may interfere with their goodwill. Some pairs use their availability for sex as a form of reward or punishment of each other. When this occurs, true intimacy is no longer heart felt and becomes another manipulation in the couple’s power struggle.

To reduce the fears and stay open to true intimacy couples need to consider:
• The mixed emotions, fears and concerns you may feel about being intimate are normal and self-protective and usually not a sign of couple difficulty.
• Being accepting, affirming and positive about your mate’s physical and emotional being increases your partner’s ease, trust and safety.
• Physical intimacy is more likely to be mutually pleasing if it starts with verbal appreciations, affectionate gestures, shared experiences, friendship and playfulness. All these reduce personal fears about one’s desirability and increase trust.
• Respect your partner’s need for greater distance or closeness as expressions of his/her need for comfort rather than a reflection of your appeal.
• Express your wish to please your partner and do so in accordance with his/her requests.
• Do not use affection, sex, and loving behaviors as rewards for other conduct. These acts should come from the heart, not the head.
• Distancing yourself due to a fear that your mate may withhold intimacy from you may only promote what you wish to reduce.
• You are blessed with the power of pleasing your partner and enriching his/her life with your acceptance and love. Use this gift tenderly.
• Think of yourself as an innocent infant: trusting, loving, responsive, delighted in connection and in awe of the other. These traits enable true intimacy to flourish.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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