Simply answered; it’s when we have allowed ourselves to become vulnerable to the person we are having the relationship with. This also includes our enemies. But, I’ll explain that later. Let’s first look at what it means to be intimate and vulnerable.
The word intimate dates way back to the 1630s and simply means closely acquainted and very familiar. It wasn’t until the 1640s that the meaning was set to include a euphemism for sexual intercourse. Contemporarily, if you were to say that you are intimate with someone their most likely assumption would be that you are having sex. But that wasn’t always what was assumed. Most people in this day and age, especially those younger, have no understanding of the depth involved in intimacy other than having sex. This will take a little explaining relative to its evolution over the last forty years. Let’s start with the definition and its connection to our vulnerability.
Being intimate or having intimate knowledge about someone is not volatile in itself. It’s what we are able to do with what we know about them that makes another person susceptible to injury by our influence. If we know something about a person’s history or fears and use that to change another's perspective about the person we are intimate with, the knowledge we have about them makes them vulnerable to injury by us and the person we are telling.
Other than our physical body, the places that we are unsure about in ourselves, feel our disabilities and pending decisions are the places that we are the most vulnerable to injury. When we are with someone we deeply care about we slowly divulge our wishes, fears and uncertainties, first, as we begin to trust them and second, in the hopes that they will be able to assist us in resolving and stabilizing them within us. It’s this vulnerability that I see as the qualifying dynamic giving meaning to being truly intimate with someone.
Now that we have a clearer understanding about intimacy and its symbiotic relationship with vulnerability, let’s take a look at the last forty years to see how and why its definition has evolved.
The number one factor in developing an understanding of intimacy has been the family and its slow disappearance. For those of us who are a little older, this will be a little easier to comprehend since we’ve been through both “time zones.”
Imagine, if you will, that you’re twelve years old and living at home with your family. The house is fairly large. Living together are your parents, brother and sister, a pair of grandparents and an aunt and uncle. The house has four bedrooms and two bathrooms. Your parent live in one room, you and your siblings share the second, your uncle and grandfather the third and your grandmother and aunt in the fourth. In one house this will be close quarters, especially with nine people sharing two bathrooms. In the 1940s and 50s and before, this was not uncommon.
With so many people living together, especially scattered through three generations, everyone would be privy to many more varied aspects of each other's lives than we now are on our contemporary settings with everyone living in separate homes. If we were to “throw back” to living in that type of environment, most of us would have a big problem with privacy. And, there’s a reason for this. Privacy and our luxury of having it involuntarily regulates our potential for intimacy. Living apart, there are aspects of our lives that are not exposed to other members of our family. This is precisely the point that enabled intimacy to change and how it is that we perceive it today.
The fact that living as an extended family together in one house does expose all its members to each other's private business is the catalyst that enables the necessity and our opportunity to learn, grow and become intimate with each other. If we are in close quarters with other members of our family, we are going to see and learn things about them that we wouldn’t if we had lived apart. This “enforced proximity” makes it necessary to develop behaviors and understandings so everyone can comfortably live together without the threat of what we now know and fear as exposure. Learning intimacy in this way develops not only depth but a comfortability in dealing with close personal matters that families who live apart might never have the necessity or opportunity to experience. The fear of exposure that I speak of is not only the fear of having someone know intimate details about us and to use them to manipulate us, much like being blackmailed, but a fear that has much deeper roots leaving us to feel out of control with our intimacy issues because we haven’t learned to handle them. Had we lived in close proximity with our family when we were growing up we would have learned to deal with them almost to the point where handling them became second nature due to our early familiarity and training. The younger generations don’t know how to deal with the embarrassment that comes with feeling exposed or out of control. The development of humility is a quality that comes with being trained to deal with embarrassment and with the loss of intimacy has all but disappeared from our contemporary and socially learned rapport. Machismo and posturing have taken their place as a defense mechanism and as a distraction from the exposure of our perceived inadequacy. Most all measures of humility, compassion and appreciation have been replaced with feelings of entitlement, outrage, persecution and belittlement simply because we’ve never learned the intimacy that allows for their development. Most of the younger generations are now afraid of intimacy since their inability to handle it now signals such a threat for embarrassment through the exposure of their perceived inadequacy when their learning to handle it could have led toward learning to trust themselves and their intuition in relationships.
So, what can we do to increase our ability to become more intimate in our personal relationships without feeling threatened? We can find ways to disarm feelings of inadequacy that we might feel such a strong urge to defend, hide and compensate for. When we have accomplished this we will be able to trust ourselves more and in doing so a natural offshoot will be toward allowing others to have their opinions of us even if they disagree with what we believe about ourselves. In becoming stronger in trusting ourselves the urge to defend ourselves will diminish and depending on how well we do, the urge will, most likely, altogether just fall away.
Learning that it is not a weakness to have or show humility, compassion or appreciation is the first step in learning to become more intimate with others. We must slowly work our way back. Learning to trust ourselves is the first step. We must learn to become strong enough in our assessment of ourselves so we can share these qualities without fear of feeling used or diminished. It is then that our intimacy with others will naturally deepen and become the enriching encouragement that, once again, allows for the expression of our love.