What is intimacy?
By definition intimacy simply means to be close and/or familiar. But over time we have come to believe that intimacy only occurs in sexual relationships. And yes, that is one way, but not the only way.
Intimacy can be expressed and experienced in many ways.
With friends, family, and strangers. Lovers, husbands, and wives. Through words or without. Eye contact. Fingers interlaced. Exchanging of breath. Caressing of cheeks. Exploring of bodies. Shoulders touching in passing. Words mouthed without sound. By letter, email, or text. Truth telling and receiving. Tongues touching. Ears listening. Hearts beating. Silence. Music. Poetry.
Intimacy is a chameleon. It shifts and changes based on situation and circumstance. The intensity is dependent on the willingness of the people involved. But regardless of the conditions, intimacy is always possible, but not always elected.
We struggle with intimacy because we struggle with vulnerability. Or tenderness, as I prefer to call it.
We are afraid to be tender because tenderness makes us feel naked and unprotected. It renders us helpless against any and all threats. It makes us susceptible to being hurt. So we resist it.
But we are not born tender resistant. We develop the fear of tenderness over time. We learn it from our parents. It’s taught in school. It is reinforced in the workplace. Tenderness resistance is cultivated on and offline. It is modeled in private and demonstrated in public.
Because we fear being tender we fight against it. We are in opposition of any and everything that could lead to the possibility of tenderness; therefore, making intimacy an impossibility.
This is the model that shapes our relationship with ourselves and others. If we cannot be tender with ourselves, it is difficult to be tender with someone else. And if we are not willing to remove our shields to see, witness, and experience the person in the mirror, there is no hope of connecting with others on a deeper level.
Love can only be present when the heart is open. But in the absence of tenderness the heart is all but welded shut.
What triggers the closing of the heart?
Early in our childhood we experience wounding that creates a tear in the connective tissue of our metaphorical heart. This wounding is most often created by our perception of collective experiences with one or both of our parents.
This wounding can occur in the presence or absence of a parent. It can materialize in the form of word, deed, or action. It often seems intentional, but even in the worst cases I assure you it is not.
Parents wound, not because they want to hurt us, but because they have untended wounds of their own. They wound out of pain, not intention. Wounds are often passed down from generation to generation. Their wounds are often inherited, just like yours. And cycles perpetuate until they are broken.
As children, tenderness is our default setting. But the moment that tenderness is received by anger or bitterness, shame or blame, we feel betrayed by ourselves. And so we stuff our tenderness down, because it feels safe. Hiding our tenderness away feels like an act of self-preservation, but it is often the beginning of self-destruction.
When I was about 8 years old, I got into a fight with my older sister. We were wrestling and pulling one another’s hair, like girls do. And if I’m honest, my sister was getting the best of me, as she often did. But we were both in it to win it, fighting to the death. Or exhaustion, whichever came first.
“If you guys don’t stop it I’m going to come in there!” my mom yelled through pursed lips that held stick pins. My mom is a seamstress, and she seems to favor her mouth over a pincushion, for some reason.
It seems that she heard the scuffle through the walls with her supersonic mom hearing, although my sister and I tried to fight quietly for this exact reason.
Of course her threat to break it up didn’t stop us for long. Within a few moments we were back at it again.
My sister had a mean hold on my ponytail when my mother entered the room. When we saw that she had removed the pins from her mouth, we knew we were in big trouble.
She spanked our hands (that wasn’t frowned upon at the time). And yelled for what seemed like forever.
My sister cried. While I remained stoic, which pissed my mother off even more.
“Now clean up this room. And don’t make me come back in here,” she said before storming out.
We did as we were told. Straightening our bed linens which had become tussled in the scuffle. Picking up our toys and such. All the while sneering and giving each other the stank eye.
This went on for quite a while. And I don’t quite remember who caved first, but one of us apologized, and the other started to cry.
We embraced one another and sobbed, each feeling genuine remorse for the entire debacle. We hugged one another like our lives depended on it. Until…
My mother walked back in the room and chastised us. Her face was contorted into a gruesome scowl.
My sister and I were bewildered. Neither of us knowing what we had done wrong, this time. I mean, we were burying the hatchet in the most eloquent of ways. How could this be wrong?
My mother did not explain. She merely shouted her discontentment and exited.
It is very possible that she had no idea that we were making up. She may have misunderstood what she saw in that brief moment. Either way, the exchange sent a message that it wasn’t okay to embrace.
That it wasn’t okay to make-up.
That it wasn’t okay to be tender.
And that it wasn’t okay to be naked.