Lesson 4 of 7 - optimize your relationships

Improve Intimacy Without
Losing Your Boundaries

by Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Experts Council

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The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/relate/mates/intimacy.htm

Updated  12-15-2014

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      This is one of a subseries of articles in self-improvement Lesson 4 - optimize your relationships. The subseries focuses on improving primary relationships. It adds to articles proposing how to make three wise courtship decisions with and without kids from prior unions.

      This article provides...

  • an example of a couple's "intimacy conflict";

  • a status check to help define your level of intimacy with a partner;

  • definitions of relationship intimacy and personal vulnerability;

  • perspective on how psychological wounds, communication skills, and your gender can affect interpersonal intimacy;

  • perspective on intimacy and personal privacy; and...

  • 13 options for improving your intimacy with a partner

      The article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 4

  • premises about analyzing and resolving relationship problems

  • perspective on empathy, interpersonal trust, and honesty

  • a brief media reprint on combating "emotional distancing."

      This brief YouTube video on "approach-avoid" relationships provides perspective on what you'll read here.

       My therapy client was a well dressed, soft spoken man in his late 40's that I’ll call Jerry. He leaned forward anxiously, and said. "My wife complains that she doesn't know who I am. I don't know what to do with that. I am who I am."

I asked "What do you think she wants from you?" He looked away, and then said "Sharon says she never knows what I think or feel."

"I notice that you're here by yourself..." Jerry seemed sad. "She says this is my problem, not hers."

"Mm. So you're here to 'get fixed' to please her?" He avoided the uncomfortable question and my eyes: "Well, I want to get to know myself better."

      Jerry’s surface problem seemed to have two parts: (a) satisfying his wife’s need for emotional intimacy, and (b) increasing his intimacy with himself. My sense as a therapist was that he - like many men and some women - wasn’t yet aware of these unfilled needs.

      Premise - mates can intentionally increase shared intimacy over time. This article defines intimacy, explores factors that affect it, and offers specific suggestions for improving intimacies with yourselves and each other. A related article explores options for improving your sexual intimacy.

      Because marital intimacy is a blend of emotional, spiritual, and physical communion, using logic to understand and discuss it is challenging. The ideas below aim to raise your awareness about intimacy, not to propose a cookbook solution.

# Status check: start by learning something about yourself. T = True; F = false, and ? = "I'm not sure," or "It depends... (on what?)"

My partner and I each have a clear, compatible  definition of “marital intimacy” now   (T  F ?)

We've had a meaningful discussion on our intimacy needs and satisfactions in the last six months. (T  F ?)

On a scale of 1 (very dissatisfied) to 10 (totally satisfied), I’d say my partner’s recent satisfaction in our shared intimacy is about a ___.

On the same scale, I’d rate my own recent intimacy satisfaction as a ___.

Neither my mate nor I have a significant “intimacy problem" now. (T  F ?)

If we do have a problem, I see it as our problem, not yours or mine. (T  F ?)

My mate and I have compatible definitions of interpersonal vulnerability now. (T  F ?)

My partner and I can talk about our intimacy needs and boundaries comfortably and clearly now. (T  F ?)

There is nothing about myself or our lives that I fear discussing honestly with my mate now. (T  F ?)

I am not repressing or denying anything significant to myself now. (T  F ?)

I believe my partner feels s/he can discuss any personal need, feeling, or other subject with me safely now. (T  F ?)

I feel a mix of calm, centered, energized, light, focused, resilient, up, grounded, relaxed, alert, aware, serene, purposeful, and clear, so my true Self is leading my other subselves (personality) now. (T  F ?) If not, your answers above may be skewed.

      Pause for a moment, and listen in on your "self-talk" - your emotions, body sensations, and thought streams…

colorbutton.gif What is Intimacy?

      How would you describe intimacy to a high-school senior? Do you need it? How do you know when you have enough of it? What if you don't have enough, like Sharon (above)? Can couples like you intentionally increase their intimacy satisfactions?

      Average men first consider questions like these in sexual terms. Typical females focus more on feelings, empathy, companionship and closeness. One of marriage's challenges is to meet in the middle of the gender-gap often and well enough for both of you.

      To add to the challenge, individual men and women differ in their (a) intimacy needs, (b) awarenesses of their needs, and (c) abilities to assert their needs effectively. These variables can combine to cause discomfort or satisfaction in any primary relationship - like yours.

      The Latin root intimare meant "to make familiar with." Jerry and Sharon were struggling to fill at least three core needs:

  • to "know" (be familiar with) themselves and their mate and...

  • “be known” by them “enough,” while...

  • respecting their individual needs for personal boundaries (privacy).

The degree of intimacy-tension between you mates varies with how intense these three needs are in each of you, and how well your needs mesh. Another variable is how distracted (unfocused, unaware each of you are most of the time and with each other.

      Let's define “marital intimacy” as the dynamic process of each mate trusting the safety of honestly disclosing their current feelings, needs, fantasies, dreams, fears, hopes, “failings” and limitations, “general thoughts,” and honest relationship feedback to themselves and their partner.

      From this, vulnerability is willingness to disclose and ask for these personal things despite the risk of painful scorn, rejection, misunderstanding, and/or indifference. The protective reflexes of denial, repression, and harmful compulsions like addiction exist because many of us aren’t willing to risk searing self-scorn (shame), guilts, and anxieties by being intimate (honest) with ourselves.

      A simpler definition is “marital intimacy is each partner risking honest disclosure of...

  • who they really are (values, dreams, fears, limitations, guilts, etc)

  • who they see their mate to really be, and...

  • how satisfied they are now with their relationship.”

Perhaps our infantile need for mirroring from our caretakers never really fades. Mirroring involves exchanging non-verbal behaviors that say “I see you, and me and us - right now and over time.” Your personal identity is based on your earliest experiences of those signals.

      The degree of intimacy you exchange with your mate is directly proportional to how intimate you each are with yourselves. When Jerry said “I want to get to know myself better,” that may have meant “I want to be more intimate with myself.”

       From this, I propose that marital intimacy-dis/satisfaction hinges on (a) whether either of you carries significant psychological wounds from a low-nurturance childhood, and (b) how effectively you think and communicate. Let's explore each of these...

colorbutton.gif 1) Intimacy and Psychological Wounds

      Premise: all normal personalities are composed of semi-independent subselves, like talented players in an orchestra or sports team. They may be wisely-led in calm and stressful times by your expert true Self, or guided less effectively by several other well-meaning subselves - a false self. If you're curious or skeptical about these ideas, read this letter, try this safe, interesting exercise, and scan this comparison. Then return here.

      People governed by a false self can be unaware of it and up to five related psychological wounds - excessive shame, guilts, and fears; and trust and reality distortions. For some, these combine to cause difficulty bonding with (emotionally attaching to, or caring about) some or all living things. If such Grown Wounded Children  (GWCs) "hit true (vs. pseudo) bottom," they can choose to reduce their wounds over time with qualified help. See Lesson 1 in this site for how to do this.

      The more of these wounds you and/or your mate have now, the harder it will be to achieve anxiety-free self intimacy. The lower your self-intimacies, the lower your mutual intimacy. To raise their intimacy satisfactions, Jerry and Sharon needed to want to assess for psychological wounds as teammates, and help each other proactively reduce any they found. Paradoxically, unawareness and their wounds will inhibit their doing this together without one or both of them hitting true bottom and seeking knowledgeable help.

Self Awareness

      For Jerry (and you?), “get to know myself better,” begins with awareness of factors like these:

Who's really running my life - my true Self, or some other subselves (a "false self")?

What am I thinking, feeling, needing, and doing right now, and over time?

What is my body saying to me now?

How serene is my spirit or soul?

What are my preferences, key beliefs, attitudes, and priorities?

How high is my self-respect as a person, wo/man, spouse, parent, friend, and citizen?

What stresses me, and why?

What are my significant limitations, and how do I usually cope with them?

What are my main talents, and how well am I using them recently?

What do these factors mean to me, individually and together?

What am I on Earth to do – what’s my life purpose?

      Can you identify other topics that would add to your self-intimacy? Do you know anyone who is learning to be aware of such personal things? Some people choose - often in mid-life - to journal, meditate, and/or join self-awareness groups to progress at this self-knowing.

Wounds Block Self-awareness

      Significant psychological wounds block self and mutual intimacies in several concurrent ways:

      False-self dominance promotes fuzzy thinking, distraction via “mind-racing,” and inner and outer reality distortions, specially in high-emotion situations. These inhibit awareness and clarity, which are essential for self and mutual intimacy. False-self dominance promotes these other wounds:

      Excessive shame, guilts, and fears promote emotional numbness, repression, and denials of the factors above. The Shamed Child  is certain “If I allow honest disclosure, I’ll have to face how disgusting, worthless, and unlovable I am.” The Scared Child's (and other subselves’) fear of emotional overwhelm (“losing control of myself or my center”) translates to fear or terror of experiencing intense emotions and some physical sensations.

      Excessive distrusts cast doubts on (a) personal perceptions and judgments ("self doubt"), and (b) the safety of honest disclosure of intimacy factors to _ myself, _ you, and _ my Higher Power. Subselves’ distrust that your true Self can prevent inner-family chaos when emotions and physical sensations are intense causes a low tolerance for emotional and physical intimacy.

      Difficulty bonding promotes pseudo (pretended), approach-avoid, and independent (low-need, low nurturance) relationships. Any of these can result from a low or frozen ability to need or tolerate intimacy.

      If you haven’t experienced and accepted the reality of your inner family of subselves yet, this will have little meaning for you. If you have validated your busy subselves, does the above make sense to you? For perspective, recall my observation from 36 years’ clinical experience with troubled couples: significantly-wounded people tend to pick each other repeatedly, until starting true (vs. pseudo) wound-recovery.

      That means that if you and/or your mate had a low-nurturance childhood, you both are probably significantly wounded. That means you probably have trouble with self and mutual intimacy (vs. sex) and other relationship stressors, unless you're effectively reducing your wounds and empowering your true Self.

      Even if you partners are not majorly wounded, another intimacy-inhibitor may need attention:

colorbutton.gif 2) Intimacy and Effective Communication

      Can you define effective communication? I propose that it occurs when (a) both people feel their current primary needs are satisfied enough, (b) in a way that both feel good enough about. This is most apt to happen when each person is steadily led by their true Self, and  both are fluent in the seven Lesson-2 communication skills.

      Your inner and mutual intimacy needs are far more likely to be and stay fulfilled if you know how to...

  • identify and assert your primary (vs. surface) needs clearly,

  • listen empathically, metatalk, and...

  • problem-solve - as mutually-respectful teammates vs. opponents.

Jerry and Sharon couldn’t do this with their intimacy-related conflicts. They were each very wounded, and didn’t (want to) know or acknowledge that. In early middle age, neither had hit true bottom yet.

      Can you mates name the seven communication skills and how to “do” each of them now? You two can learn these together at any time. From consulting with well over 600 typical (Midwestern US) couples since 1981, my experience is that less than 5% of typical troubled partners use these powerful skills.

      This is partly because U.S. caregivers and schools don't teach the seven skills and their many benefits. Also, in my professional experience, few human-service professionals are trained and motivated to encourage clients to learn and use the seven skills. If you work with a counselor or therapist, can s/he name the skills?

      You may also be hindered from improving your thinking and communicating skills by your (false selves’) normal reluctance to risk new things. Do you and/or your partner prefer familiar discomfort over the risks of new beliefs, experiences, and behaviors? A common psychological wound is excessive fear of the unknown. This is a symptom of distrust in your Self, other people, and your Higher Power. 


      Here are some of the ways these communication skills can raise your intimacy satisfactions, once your Selves are guiding your inner teams:

  • Awareness reveals what you each think, feel, need (superficially), and do, including (a) how you try to get your needs met, and (b) how well your strategy works;

  • Clear thinking (vs. logic) refines your awarenesses, and helps you stay focused on identifying and filling your and your partner's needs for intimacy and other things;

  • Digging down helps you discern the (a) primary needs underlying your surface (intimacy) needs and (b) who’s responsible for filling them;

  • Empathic listening and respectful "hearing checks" empower you to hear each other clearly with your hearts;

  • Assertion (vs. submission or aggression) empowers you each to describe your intimacy needs to each other in a way the other can really hear;

  • Metatalk allows you to discuss and improve your (a) internal and (b) mutual communication processes (thinking and discussing); and…

  • Problem-solving combines all six skills and a mutual-respect attitude to brainstorm (a) filling your respective primary needs (b) in ways that feel good enough to you each.

      Learning to communicate more effectively requires replacing some cherished old values, assumptions, beliefs, and habits with new ones. A key example: wounded partners’ false selves often believe "My current needs are less (or more) important than yours." To harvest the major benefits of the seven skills, you partners need to shift that to Your and my rights, needs, and integrities are usually of equal importance to me.

      Another toxic belief is "Conflict is scary, unsafe, and bad." No, it's natural, inevitable, and – when well managed by your true Selves – conflict resolution nurtures self esteems, confidences, trusts, and relationships! Have you each experienced that?

      A vital part of upgrading your communication effectiveness is helping each other discern between your communication topics, and your inner and shared process. Often part of couples’ real “intimacy problem” is the way they (you) each think and talk about intimacy needs and blocks. Learning to use the communication tools of awareness, metatalk, and mapping can help you reduce this.

      Here’s a brief example of how Jerry and Sharon could communicate more effectively about her intimacy need for him to disclose his thoughts and feelings more often:

    Sharon)It really frustrates me, Jer – I don’t really know who you are!” (surface problem)

    Jerry) You need something from me and you’re not getting it.” (empathic listening). Sharon nods. “What do you need that would help you know who I am?” (starting to dig down.)

    S)You know, what you think about things. What are you feeling? Where do you stand?” (Fuzzy thinking).

    J) “You’d feel better if I talked more about what’s going on inside of me.” (Empathic listening) Sharon nods again, feeling respected and heard. Jerry does not defend, question, explain, blame, whine, generalize, change the subject, etc.) He adds “I want to do that, and (not ’but’) I need something from you.”

    S)What’s that?

    J)Fairly often, when I tell you what I feel, you respond judgmentally – critically – and I feel blamed and put down. I’ve come to feel unsafe with you. I need you to stop doing that. (metatalk and respectful assertion of a boundary)

    S)Oh, so you’re saying this is my fault?” (her ruling subselves feel blamed and defensive)

    Jerry’s Self)No, I’m describing what I need, so I can give you what you need.” (awareness, metatalk, and assertion).

    S)I think you’re trying to weasel out of admitting your pretty numbed out, most of the time. (Inner Critic defending her Shamed Girl).

    J, calmly)I feel blamed and attacked right now, Sharon (vs. 'You're attacking me!'). I need you to problem-solve with me so we can both get our needs met.” (respectful awareness, clear thinking, metatalk, and assertion).

    If Sharon let her shame-based false self stay in charge, this would probably evolve into a lose-lose sequence that would frustrate them both and weaken their relationship. If these mates were each led by their true Selves, she might say…

    S)It’s hard for me to hear that. So you’re saying if you do tell me who you are at times, you feel criticized by me rather than heard and accepted.” (genuine empathic listening – a “hearing check.”)

    J)Yeah, exactly. Are you willing to dig down so we can see what’s causing the criticism?” (assertive invitation to start identifying and solving an internal and communication problem that blocks both their needs).

      Note that what starts as an “intimacy” problem is starting to shift toward the real problems: (a) Sharon’s unseen psychological wounds, (b) related ineffective communication reflexes, and (c) her subselves’ need to avoid discomfort by denying both of these. If this couple knows about Lesson 1 and Lesson 2 and elects to work on them together, they can use this surface problem to heal and grow their relationship in many ways!

      Before continuing, pause, breathe, and reflect - what are your subselves saying and feeling? Can you recall why you started reading this article? How do the ideas you've read so far relate to your needs? Do you need a break before reading more?

      Beside psychological wounds and ineffective communications, another factor to consider is...

colorbutton.gif 3) Intimacy and Your Gender

      Even if Jerry and Sharon’s true Selves were solidly in charge and they were fluent in the seven communication skills, this typical couple might have a priority (values)  conflict: Sharon might have a higher need for intimacy than Jerry. If they...

  • acknowledge that without blame or guilt, and...

  • genuinely respected each other as equally-worthy persons,

the couple could agree to disagree on their priority-clash, for the sake of overall marital and family harmony.

      Part of our "battle of the sexes" is the different rankings typical males and females inherently give to intimacy and other things. With exceptions, typical male brains seem to need more physical intimacy (intercourse) more often, while standard female brains rank intercourse lower than sharing emotional and spiritual bonding, caressing, closeness, empathy, caring, and companionship.

      Anne Moir and David Jessel's well-researched book "Brain Sex - the Real Difference Between Men and Women" offers a clear explanation for why our gender differences exist and persist. It clearly answer's Henry Higgins' musical plaint "Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man?" Our brain structures, glands, and hormones (often) implacably prevent it, seasoned well by ancestral and social imprinting.

      This wired-in gender-difference in priorities guarantees conflict, making your relationships endlessly "interesting." Possibility: for whatever reasons, Sharon’s subselves were urging Jerry to "Be More Like a Woman" - i.e. to want to shift his natural priority from physical intimacy toward the emotional/spiritual intimacy her subselves desired.

      Not likely.... You can't change primal male-female preferences, but you can understand, accept, and adapt to them as partners!

colorbutton.gif Intimacy vs. Personal Privacy

      Your relationship is a ceaselessly-evolving mosaic of harmonious and conflicts (differences). Every day, you mates and others are semi-consciously balancing your needs for enough vulnerability, trust, honesty, and disclosure (intimacy) with your need to be an individual with clear boundaries (privacies), integrity, and a unique identity.

      Sharon’s subselves declared “If you’re a healthy, devoted husband, you won’t need to keep anything from me. That's a classic manipulative double message which inadvertently promoted the gulf growing between these committed partners. Jerry was understandably uncomfortable with her "challenge," and his subselves didn't know how to respond to it.

      Every couple negotiates their own balance between tolerating some personal privacies that aren’t shared, and risking honest disclosures of thoughts, feelings, fears, fantasies, needs, and the like. Few of the hundreds of client couples I’ve met were aware of this balancing, or had the motivation, vocabulary, and skills to find and keep their balances well enough.

      Do you mates agree that it’s normal and healthy for spouses to not disclose everything to each other? Reflect on what your parents modeled about this. If you have marital heroes or mentors, what do you observe about their balance of intimacy (disclosure) vs. personal privacy?

      Imagine saying something like this to your mate: “I hope you’ll trust me with your most personal thoughts, feelings, needs, fears, and dreams, but I won’t demand or expect you to want to disclose everything. I need the same attitude and flexibility from you.” Are you partners clear enough on your mutual stance on this?

      Meditate on this: If I told you (your partner) everything about my past and present self without any reservation, what would I risk or lose? Typical risks are experiencing shame, guilt, rejection, scorn, and regret. Typical losses are personal identity (enmeshment and codependence), self respect, trust, and personal security (“I can withhold certain things from my mate if I need to, without excessive shame, guilt, anxiety, or loss.”)

      Your options here range between...

  • denying or ignoring this intimacy/privacy balance to...

  • discussing it honestly as partners to...

  • obsessing and fighting about it, like Sharon and Jerry were.

If you two can’t agree on whether non-disclosures are OK or not, I suspect (a) false selves are in charge, and (b) you can profit by helping each other upgrade your thinking and communication skills via teamwork on Lesson 2..

      By the way, notice the distinction between the principle of personal boundaries and privacy, and an acceptable range of topics you can tolerate your mate not disclosing. It may be OK to not talk about your earliest sexual explorations, but not OK to withhold current sexual fantasies and feelings for another person. Three keys to your find your balance here are (a) put your true Selves in charge, (b) meditation and intentional awareness, and (c) communication-skill fluencies.

    We’ve just explored...

  • each of you partners increasing self-intimacy by empowering your respective true Selves; and...

  • improving inner and mutual communication effectiveness by learning seven skills together; and...

  • learning and accepting your gender-differences about needing and tolerating intimacy, and…

  • evolving compatible balances between vulnerability and personal privacy.

      Here are 13 ways you can use these factors to improve your personal and shared intimacies...

colorbutton.gif Intimacy-building Options

      1)  Commit to doing Lesson 1 together. See the online study and/or the related guidebook “Who's Really Running Your Life?" for concepts, options, and resources. The goals are to get to know your amazing subselves better. integrate (harmonize) them, and to free your true Self to guide them (you),

      2)  Periodically clarify your personal priorities, as judged by your actions. It’s hard to satisfy intimacy needs if you don’t want to make (vs. find) undistracted couple-time and share honest self-disclosures.

      3)  Commit to doing Lesson 2 together over several months. Put special effort into practicing empathic listening. More than any of the other skills, this one – if based on mutual respect and com-passion - makes self and mutual disclosures safe. That helps to build trusts. Practicing the seven skills with your subselves improves your inner-family relationships, too!

      4)  Read, discuss, and apply these options for improving your marital honesty (trust).

      5)  Read, discuss, and adapt these premises about analyzing and solving relationship problems to fit your personalities and situation.

      6)  Evolve (a) a shared definition of “marital intimacy” and (b) a related vocabulary so you can discuss it clearly together. Distinguish between emotional/spiritual intimacy and sensual and sexual intimacy. Then use your definition to...

      7)  Periodically do an “intimacy check” with each other. Ask yourself and your mate “Are my and your needs for intimacy filled well enough?” Do that when your Selves are clearly in charge, to avoid protective reality distortions. Option: use this marital inventory together to help answer that question.

      8)  Use your dig-down and other communication skills to discern whether significant intimacy "problems" are a surface need or a primary need. Then decide who’s responsible for filling these needs: you, your mate, or both of you?

      9)  Compare your respective attitudes about keeping things “secret” from each other – i.e. honoring personal boundaries. If your attitudes differ significantly, study these options for resolving values conflicts.  Note that the word “secret” is often associated with lying, dishonesty, deception, distrust, and guilt. “Privacy” has a different flavor. Keeping “secrets” implies that the withholder doesn’t feel safe to disclose the truth.

      10)  Broaden your appreciation of normal gender differences by reading the books by Deborah Tannen ("You Just Don't Understand"), John Gray ("Men are from Mars..."), and Moir and Jessel ("Brain Sex"), and discuss them together. Option: read them out loud to each other. When you have, see if anything shifts in your needs for self and mutual intimacies. Note that typical subselves are male or female, which will shape your intimacy needs, priorities, and tolerances.

      11)  Read, discuss, and patiently apply the other marital articles here.

      12)  Read and reflect on these wise guidelines, Friendship,” and “A Credo for My Relationships.”

      13)  If you patiently try these options together and still have significant "intimacy (and other partnership) problems, use these worksheets to discover if either of you mates made unwise courtship choices. Whether you did or not, consider using qualified professional counseling to help identify and fill your respective primary needs.

      In case you're wondering - "Jerry and Sharon" worked hard at their version of these options over many months, had a mutually-wanted child, and reaffirmed their commitments to each other despite stormy resistances from Jerry's daughter and her Mom (his ex)..

colorbutton.gif Recap

      This Lesson-4 article offers...

  • an example of a marital "intimacy conflict";

  • a status check to help define your level of intimacy with a partner;

  • definitions of relationship intimacy and personal vulnerability;

  • perspective on how psychological wounds, communication skills, and your gender can affect interpersonal intimacy;

  • perspective on intimacy and perso0nal privacy; and...

  • 13 options for improving your intimacy with a partner

      Major blocks to enough self and mutual intimacy are false-self dominance + ineffective communication + ignoring or discounting gender differences on intimacy needs + values conflicts over personal privacies.

      Review the Status Check that opened this article, and reflect: did you get what you needed from this article? If not, what do you need? What have you learned from reading this? Who's answering these questions - your wise resident true Self, or ''someone else''?

  This article was very helpful  somewhat helpful  not helpful   

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