Defining Healthy Intimacy

How do you define “healthy intimacy”? Would you know healthy intimacy if you saw it?

In a recent article in the New York Times, Laura Pritchett shared her experience with the challenge of coming to terms with what healthy intimacy is all about. Her problem? Before their divorce she and her ex-husband never fought. They never raised their voices. They never grappled with intractable disagreement or expressed hurt feeling or disappointed expectations.

Shakespeare had it right: “My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, or else my heart, concealing it, will break.” I never spoke of the anger in my heart, the mounting resentments and hurts, and neither did he. I never demanded attention or care, and neither did he. And that’s why we broke.

What hurts most is not the loss of the marriage. What hurts most is that our relationship had never, evidently, been the kind worth raising one’s voice about.

Many are surprised when they learn that healthy intimacy is not about the absence of conflict. It is the engagement of conflict in a healthy way.

“An intimate relationship,” Prager writes, “is one in which the partners share regular intimate interactions, feel affection for one another, trust one another, and have cohesiveness.”

Karen Prager’s definition is good as far as it goes. But it is incomplete if one reads it and assumes it neglects the role conflict plays in intimacy.  “Regular intimate interaction” includes disagreement, negotiating priorities, exploring diverging values, and, frankly, coming to terms with the very real otherness of one’s intimacy partner.

You do not normally argue with polite strangers, distant relatives, or friendly acquaintances at work. You save arguments for the people you care about the most. This, for the simple reason that conflict is a very personal and intimate act.

When you think of how to nurture your relationship with your partner it may be helpful to begin with how you process conflict together. Try this:

Imagine having to address a very difficult topic with your partner. Put yourself together in the same room, sitting across from one another, looking at each other eye to eye.

How do you feel? Do you feel anxious and somewhat fearful? Do you sense yourself already withdrawing from what you know is going to be a very painful experience?

Or you may feel something altogether different. You may feel energized, ready to go to war. You may already have the points you have to make outlined in your head. You see very clearly and in no uncertain terms where your partner got it wrong and how it is your job to put your partner in his or her place.

When you learn how to engage your intimacy partner with honesty, respect, appreciation, and hope in the midst of your most intractable disagreement, you have begun to learn the skills you need to enjoy healthy intimacy for a lifetime.

Fight yes. But fight well. Fight in a way that leaves you, your partner, and your relationship in a better place than it was before.

Image by Carlos Scheidegger

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