Do you often find yourself wanting more connection and intimacy in your life, but struggling to create it amidst the complexities of modern life? Do you coach or counsel others on creating more intimacy? If so, you may find this article very useful.
The quest for deep and meaningful connection is a very common human struggle, especially as modern culture often overemphasizes the merits of independence and autonomy. The reality, of course, is that we are interdependent in myriad ways, and very few of us wish to live in isolation from others. Most of us want some combination of self-expression and deep connection with others.
Over the last few years, I’ve attended a number of workshops and trainings on concepts surrounding intimacy and connection. As I’ve done so, I’ve begun to consider ways in which interesting concepts might be blended. Here I outline a potential application of elements taken from three models:
I’ll briefly outline the pertinent components of each, and then suggest how we might blend them to enhance intimacy approaches in our own life, or in those of coaching clients.
Understanding the 12 Types of Intimacy
Limiting our definition of intimacy can hinder our efforts to create more of it. We often think largely about romantic and physical intimacy, and fail to recognize that there are many other types as well. This makes it difficult for us to fully appreciate the various ways in which we can use our natural love styles and preferred modes of giving to build intimacy. It also makes it more difficult to recognize, appreciate, and express gratitude for the myriad ways in which those closest to us already express intimacy.*
Additionally, we tend to limit the number and types of relationships from which we obtain intimacy. We often put all of our eggs in one basket, seeking the vast majority of both our emotional and physical intimacy from the same person. True, a secure and healthy attachment often results in us getting many of these needs met from one person, in a way that can me much more deeply satisfying and profound than our more superficial connections. Nonetheless, it’s unfair to expect a single human being to meet all of our deep intimacy needs. When we recognize how many types of intimacy there are, this becomes very clear.
The 12 types of intimacy proposed by Clinebell and Clinebell:
Conflict Intimacy: struggling with differences
Creative Intimacy: constructing or co-creating things together (and not attempting to reform each other)
Crisis Intimacy: bonding through coping with problems and challenges
Commitment Intimacy: mutual support of one another’s self interests
Communication Intimacy: affirmation, empathy, and mutual understanding
Emotional Intimacy: being on the same page with one another
Intellectual Intimacy: sharing thoughts and ideas
Recreational Intimacy: experiencing play and fun
Sexual Intimacy: sharing physical passion and connection (I would personally rename this one “Physical Intimacy” to cover the full range of physical and sensual touch. Sexual intimacy is one component that appears in some but obviously not all relationships that include physical intimacy.)
Spiritual Intimacy: sharing expression and connection with a higher sense of meaning; may or may not be formally religious
As you can see, we have many different ways of connecting with one another. And some types of interaction may span several types of intimacy–as just one example, sharing humor might span recreational, intellectual, and emotional intimacy, depending upon the content and context. As you think about different people in your life, you may realize that each person represents a unique blend of different types of intimacy. Your closest and most intimate connections likely provide you with warm energy across a number of intimacy types.
Furthermore, you’re probably often very good at connecting with people through certain types of intimacy, even if you often struggle to connect via other types. We’ll touch more upon this very important point shortly.
Recognizing How We Respond to Desire
I recently had the opportunity to participate in a Soul Sex workshop led by Jenny Ferry, in which she proposed several ways we may respond to primal energy when it arises. This includes sexual desire.
On one hand, we may show up in a fully present and engaged fashion, grounded, confident, deeply appreciative, and aware. On the other hand, we may do one or more of the following:
We may go wild, to the point where we may become impulsive, reckless, obsessive, jealous, or overly flirtatious. One way to manage this reaction successfully is to stay focused on what’s present for us and those around us in the current moment, so that we can focus the large amount of energy we have.
We may check out or disappear, hiding and making ourselves physically and/or emotionally unavailable. When we manage this reaction successfully, we honor and drop into what we’re feeling, acknowledging it while still choosing to interact with others.
We may shut down or lock down, becoming overly controlling, rigid, critical of self and others, and serious. A key here is to give ourselves a bit more permission to pursue what feels good, while still maintaining discernment.
While there may be other ways in which we may respond to primal energy and desire, these reactions likely cover a large proportion of the possibilities. Combinations are also possible, e.g., we may go wild with certain types of behaviors, while simultaneously checking out from some of our closest relationships.
Appreciating What We’re Already Good At
If you exclaim, “I always fail at developing intimacy,” chances are pretty good that this statement is a slight exaggeration. You probably don’t always fail–there are most likely a few exceptions, times where you have successfully developed intimacy. And those exceptions can provide answers as to how you might be successful once again. A therapist trained in Solution-Focused Brief Therapy, or a coach using techniques related to this model, might ask you for more details about how you created success in that instance. Then, you might brainstorm possibilities for adapting the same strengths, skills, and strategies to your current situation.
The trick here is to more fully realize how our strengths, skills, and strategies can often be generalized to other situations. This happens in career coaching, for example, where a stay-at-home mom or dad is guided to realize that they’ve enhanced certain supervisory and crisis management skills, patience, and other abilities that many employers would appreciate. Just as we may limit definitions of concepts such as supervisory skills and multitasking to certain settings and contexts, we often do the same with intimacy skills. For example, we don’t realize that some of the same energies we already use successfully to develop intellectual intimacy might also be applied to develop emotional or physical intimacy.
Suppose, for example, that John Smith hasn’t experienced the level of physical intimacy he desires in two years, and he wants to develop a more physical relationship with a woman. However, he does share relatively deep intellectual and emotional intimacy with two women. In those relationships, he exhibits a number of behaviors: he regularly contacts each of them to see how they’re doing, proactively schedules lunches and coffee together, often shares information with them, gives his full attention to listening to them when they talk, asks them what they need in terms of listening, confidently debates ideas with them, opens himself up to be vulnerable in conversation, sometimes flexes his schedule if the other person is in need of support, and openly shares his own emotions without reservation.
However, when John is physically attracted to someone, his behaviors reflect a much different reaction to his desire. On dates with potential lovers, he’s nervous about sharing physical contact beyond a handshake: not even a hug on the second or third date. This is very different from the unreserved way in which he shares intellectual ideas, emotional support, and even physical contact with his platonic friends. Rather than regularly following up, he checks out, becoming shy and playing hard to get. He also locks down somewhat, becoming more controlling and inflexible with his schedule, and also not allowing himself to be vulnerable. On dates, he focuses little attention on where the other person is at, putting most of his energies into talking about himself, fluffing his own peacock feathers.
What if John applied some of his successes with intellectual and emotional intimacy to physical intimacy? What if, for example, he simply asked a potential romantic partner if they would like a hug, just as he openly asks his other friends what type of emotional support they need? What if he complimented his dates on their hair or clothing as freely as he shares intellectual ideas? What if he allowed himself to be just a bit more vulnerable and less controlling, as he does in the realms of intellectual and emotional intimacy? What if he followed up more often to ask for additional dates, and spent more time learning about the other person versus primarily talking about himself? Perhaps he would begin to experience deeper physical intimacy alongside other types of intimacy.
Tying It All Together
Here’s one way to apply a combination of the above models, to assess and increase intimacy:
1) Expand your definition of intimacy by looking over the various types. Identify the top 1 or 2 types of intimacy that you’re already most successful at developing. Recognize and appreciate where you already have abundance.
2) Think about what behaviors, emotions, and attitudes enable you to successfully develop those types of intimacy with others. For example, when you connect with someone on an intellectual level, do you generally follow up with them via email or phone call, and engage with them relatively intensely? Do you tend to exude interest and confidence? How do you give and share your energy? How do you open yourself up to receiving what the other person may wish to offer?
Think about specific people with whom you share these types of intimacy most deeply, and specific situations and settings where this seems to happen most naturally.
3) Identify the top 1 or 2 types of intimacy that you wish to develop more. (You can always take on more types later, but it may be helpful to focus your efforts initially.) For each of these 1 or 2 types, identify how your approach fits into the “Ways We Respond to Desire” framework. For example, do you tend to go overly wild, shut down, or both?
4) Then look for exceptions to your “problem” intimacy types–e.g., times where you did develop those types of intimacy successfully. Ask yourself how you might adapt the strategies and mindsets from those times to your current situation. Additionally, ask yourself how the strategies and mindsets from #1 might be adapted to these types of intimacy as well. Think of specific people and situations where you can begin to practice.
5) Over time, continue to apply these approaches to other types of intimacy you wish to develop more. To further enhance this approach, get to know the ways in which you tend to express affection and give energy to others, and do your best to understand the loving and giving preferences of those closest to you.*
If you find this approach useful in your own life, or in the lives of clients you coach or counsel, please feel free to comment. Also, I’d love to hear any thoughts you have as to how it might be expanded or adjusted.
*See the popular 5 Love Languages and Why Good Things Happen to Good People, which I discuss in Naked Idealism, for examples of different loving and giving styles.
Dave Wheitner is a certified life, career, and transition coach who welcomes phone-based clients from around the world.