Intimacy. When I talk about this concept with clients, the common assumption is that I’m talking about sex. While sex, ideally, will involve intimacy, many of the people I work with have rarely experienced intimacy and sex together. In fact, many people come to realize they haven’t experienced intimacy anywhere in their lives. For the purposes of this very condensed piece on intimacy, let’s define it as a genuine connection between or among people. A connection that might include vulnerability, honesty, closeness, warmth, understanding, safety, and satisfaction. It’s important to note, these connections don’t just occur in the type of intimacy or love that involves romance, sex, and partnership. Expanding our understanding that we can have meaningful experiences of love in other types of relationships will help us to improve the most important one . . . the relationship with ourselves.
We’re taking a page from Aristotle when we talk about The Four Loves (Greek forms of love). Let’s first talk about Eros, the most highly coveted and sought after of all the loves. Movies, stories, songs all suggest that once we get that one special Eros love, we will be all good. Basically, our job is over. We might have the idea that once we find the right romantic partner, we will finally be happy in our lives because this person will fulfill all of our emotional needs, intellectual curiosities, interests, passions, and desire for fun. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out this way. People get stuck in a cycle of finding “love” when it is really romance they are seeking. Then after the newness wears off, they are left disappointed, dissatisfied, bored, or on the other end of it, feeling rejected. I suppose this could be because some people are “just a bad match” or that “It just wasn’t meant to be.” On the other hand, it may be because some of us weren’t able to show up with intimacy skills. We weren’t able (or willing) to be vulnerable with emotion, tolerate closeness, receive/provide warmth, or be honest about who we are and express it. Consequently, the relationship couldn’t take the next deeper step where romance fades off a bit so that a deeper, more expansive committed love can emerge. So what do we do when we’re caught in a cycle of so desperately wanting love, but continue to either find ourselves in a string of failed relationships, or so fearful of being rejected that we don’t put ourselves out there. Some therapists will say, “Start with the lowest hanging fruit.” Fortunately, Aristotle gave us three additional fruits or loves to explore and they are all within our reach.
To begin, we have Agape — which is mission based or charitable love. Consider, in life, what makes your heart break or motivates you to give your time or resources to a cause without strings attached. Think about how you desire to help people in a genuine way and when you accomplish this are left with a feeling of serenity. Simply put, Agape love helps you develop a positive sense of self-worth and closeness in the world.
Storge — This love speaks to belonging in the family. Immediately, this concept may lose some of us if we feel disconnected from our family, come from a family wrought with issues, or believe family is the reason we struggle with love in the first place. The good news is that the expression of this form of intimacy isn’t limited to the family we are related to. We can find and develop this love in a group or community where we feel a sense of belonging. These groups are defined by shared interests, common goals or values and can involve a little or a lot of investment. Exploration of Storge can be had in many areas including art/creativity, music, academics, sports, hobbies, gaming, crafts, service projects, and recreation. One of the reasons Greek organizations exist in universities/colleges is to offer a transitional family with common academic or cultural characteristics; sororities and fraternities, especially when they include an Agape foundation, provide a sense of belonging, safety, and community for young adults leaving the nest. Notably, in Storge love, the level of talent or role in the group is not what makes this love deeper or more meaningful, it is the person’s genuine participation in the shared interest. If you happen to be a person who has a supportive and loving family, the nudge is still there to intentionally foster Storge. If you overlook this love because “It’s always been there,” you risk losing intimacy in life by becoming too dependent on one or two people. Also, if you have written off family or certain members, you may be selling short your own ability to love with a humble Agape spirit, achieve some healing, and experience more Storge than you once believed was possible.
Philia — This is the reciprocal love of close friends. Intimate friendship involves a commitment to generously invest in one another’s lives with the intent of helping each other to mature in honesty, humility, and discretion. Deep friendship offers comfort through tough times and an expectation that each will challenge the other if one drifts from professed goals and values. Intimate friends don’t criticize character flaws but instead work together to explore healthy alternatives. They stay informed on important issues in each other’s relationships and investments. Simply put, they challenge and encourage each other to be the best they can be. Certainly, this love is not actualized in quantity, but in quality.
Ideally, if it is a personal goal, the aforementioned loves can prepare you for Eros or romantic/sexual love.
Of course, what makes the cultivation of any of the four loves challenging is if we lack love of self. The good news is that we don’t have to acquire one before the other; we actually need to develop them simultaneously. Also, we can’t forget that without knowing and loving self we will continue to repeat intimacy-blocking patterns in all forms of love. Reason being, if we have not defined who we are, we have little chance of becoming ourselves in the world, regardless of the type of love we desire. While all four of these loves challenge and foster personal growth, healthy investment in self-love, and continual maturing of identity, it is Eros that often challenges us most. It is the loving partnership that most clearly strives for a sense of oneness. As such, it requires a clear sense of self along with the intimacy skills of humility, assertiveness, transparency, clear boundary-setting, empathy and compassion. It is not self-sacrificing but rather requires integrating self with another. This cannot be achieved while hiding, disowning or failing to communicate a clear sense of self. If a person invests in Eros love, they must continue to define “me” or risk losing their identity.
Factors such as lifestyle and life stage can negatively impact the growth of oneness if individual goals and cultivating shared goals within the partnership are taken for granted. Therefore, it is really up to each partner to invest in who they are (personal values, interests, strengths, vulnerabilities, passions, and missions) so they can offer more to the relationship and not become helpless or entitled. In Eros love, each partner promotes intimacy by really valuing how the other cares for their own physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and sexual well-being.
Lastly, self-love can be hard to come by if a person has a long history of self-destructive behaviors that have blocked intimacy in relationships. The good thing is, we all have equal potential in the present to value ourselves and to feel as good about what we have to offer the world. Theoretically, one’s true worth and ability to attract healthy connection with others depends upon who they are being now, not on their possessions, surface appearance, or past. Now, this does not mean we benefit from attempting to forget, minimize, or justify our past harmful actions. Quite the opposite, a greater sense of knowing and loving self can actually come from owning what we have carried out in real life to hurt real people. Accepting that we are more loveable when we are not perfect is a great goal! In this humble space, we can connect with others as our authentic selves and not as actors. We can believe that no person can truly be satisfied in relationships without intimacy.
So ask yourself: What relationships am I neglecting to strengthen or pursue? What is keeping me from experiencing real intimacy? How might I learn to be more authentic and vulnerable with others?
Article by Sam Hardwig, MA, LPC