If the infamous ‘man from Mars’ were to suddenly arrive on this earth, what would he think that people were all about? From scanning traditional media, not to mention social media, I would surmise that he would see a search for wealth, beauty, fame, power and influence – in short, worldly success.
And I guess a lot of people do want exactly these things. They want to be beautiful, rich or famous or, preferably, all three. They want to be powerful and/or influential people. And when they achieve any of these aims, they feel they have succeeded in life.
Not me. And not a lot of others like me. What we are constantly striving for is on a very different plane. We want to achieve various forms of intimacy.
This needs a little thinking about.
Intimacy entails a feeling of enormous closeness to another person, due to a willingness to be honest about one’s deepest thoughts. It means a lack of guile. Nothing hidden. Even things that might otherwise feel shameful.
We let the other person see us without the usual protective veil we put around ourselves, and we see him or her in the same naked light. It can be quite scary on both sides.
Very occasionally, it happens almost right away. We meet someone, and we know that there is something held between us, although we would find it difficult to explain what. Something about ‘knowing’ them even when we don’t.
But more often, it takes time to develop, building up over shared experiences, laughter and common interests. Plus, some other ingredient that is very difficult to specify, but we know it when we feel it.
When we talk of intimacy, the first word that comes to mind is sex. Quite reasonably. Sex is the purest form of intimacy, in the sense of physical – and, at its best, emotional – closeness to another person.
And perhaps I should have added sex to the list of things the man from Mars would see us searching for. But this is to confuse matters.
Yes, there is a very visible search for sex, but this is generally seen in its most physical form. We want it now. We want it to be exciting. We want sexual satisfaction.
But little of this is intimacy. Certainly not automatically.
Sex is not the only form of intimacy by any means. We can – and frequently do – feel intimate with other members of our family members or a few good friends.
Some people say that ‘of course’ they have a sense of intimacy with other family members. They feel very close to either one or both of their parents all their lives. Sometimes, a woman will say that her mother is her ‘best friend’, with all that implies.
Or one or more of their siblings. Brothers and sisters share many of the same memories – whether of a happy or an unhappy childhood – which brings its own form of closeness.
Looking down the generations, perhaps the ‘purest’ form of intimacy comes between parents and their small children.
No woman who has ever breast-fed her baby, whether for a few days or weeks or for much longer, will deny the enormous sense of intimacy generated by this simple act. Indeed, we know that we produce hormones which foster it.
And this continues to various degrees as our children grow. Adolescence is not the easiest time for intergenerational intimacy, but it can come back as this period becomes a thing of the past.
Going much further down the line, grandparents can have a special form of intimacy with their grandchildren, especially when they see them frequently.
But intimacy is not automatic with family members, especially once they are adults, so it should not be assumed to be the case. It depends on so many factors of circumstance and personality.
Intimacy, we all know, also develops between friends. Not all of them, of course, but one or two special ones. Not enough attention is paid to such bonds in our culture.
Close friendships are important. The friends who know everything about us. The ones we haven’t seen in years, but we pick up where we left off as soon as we meet or hear them on the end of a phone.
We know they are there for us in any hour of need. And vice versa.
Intimacy between friends develops for much the same reasons as do those between family members. We may have known them since childhood and gone through all life’s stages together – the marriages, the divorces, the grandchildren and so forth.
Or they may have developed because of some very intense joint experience. Working on a joint project that is very demanding. Sharing a moment of deep vulnerability.
I well remember sitting with my arm around a friend (at the time not especially close) when her husband had just died suddenly and her family had not yet arrived. It changed our relationship forever. It happened years ago, but the feeling of closeness is still there.
I have left spouses (or partners) for last not because they are least important, but because they are so essential to this discussion.
The intimacy we feel with our partner has many different stages.
There is the initial meeting and courtship, which is exciting because it feels like a major shift in our lives.
We become deeply involved in getting to know them and their ways and letting them see us – the very meaning of intimacy. My husband reminded me recently about the first time we kissed and what it meant to him.
Then, there is the period when we have passed the initial stages and are settling down to a more prosaic day-to-day life. Children are being born, careers are being advanced, and it is harder work to keep the relationship on a good path.
Some couples lose their sense of intimacy at this point for a whole host of reasons, but not all do. It feels like a major accomplishment to hold it all together. And some who lose it along the way manage to regain it.
But then, if we are very very lucky, there is the intimacy of old age. When we have been through all the early and middle stages, the children have left home and it is only ourselves. There are many pleasures here – and a very strong sense of intimacy.
I feel that I am one of the lucky ones and thank my stars for this almost every day.
Occasionally, I see a note from a reader that she is very lonely. Perhaps she used to have close family or a spouse or friends, but something has changed, and this is no longer the case.
I want to tell her – or anyone in the same situation – it is never too late. There are numerous ways to engage with the world and find potential sources of friendship and, eventually, intimacy.
Go for it.
Is intimacy important to you? Why? Do you have a sense of intimacy with family members or friends or a partner? How would you advise someone to develop intimacy with another person?