The Concept of Intimacy
Rick Garlikov

In chapter 31 of The Meaning of Love I explain that many people desire emotional intimacy and that it does not always accompany sexual intimacy and may, and in fact often does, occur in non-sexual circumstances.  Sexual (or physical) intimacy and emotional intimacy are not the same thing and do not necessarily occur at the same time (e.g., a medical exam may go beyond physical intimacy without being in any way emotionally intimate in so doing).  I want to try to give a fuller characterization here of what emotional intimacy is.  Before I do that, I want to emphasize I am not necessarily talking about sex, and that many intimate moments can occur in daily life if people were open to them.  Just as we can talk about intimate dinner parties or intimate social gatherings, any meeting between people offers the potential for intimacy of conversation or an intimate exchange of ideas or the sharing of a meaningful and intimate experience that has nothing to do with immodesty, with sex, or with matters of normal privacy, sensitivity, or potential embarrassment.  While revealing private details of one's life may be an intimate experience, it is only a special case of a far more general concept -- that of sharing, in a sense given below, ideas, feelings, or experiences that are personally important and deeply meaningful.  When sex is not particularly meaningful it is not emotionally intimate. And since many things besides sex can be deeply meaningful or personally important, there are many more opportunities for emotional intimacy than might be generally thought.  And those opportunities do not need to be preludes to attempts at sexual intimacy or a romantic relationship.  While loving relationships may include intimacy, intimacy does not need to include love or romance.  Intimacy can be, and I think in many cases should be, a part of simple ethical behavior toward others, whether inside or outside of a loving relationship.

Emotions and feelings can be divided in the following ways: those which have a logical component attached to them, and those which do not, in the following sense.  One might, for example, feel giddy and excited or happy, but for no apparent reason.  It is not necessary that something in particular is on his or her mind, for one to feel happy or for one to feel giddy, or sad.  "I just feel really good today; I don't know why; nothing particular has happened" is a perfectly common answer on occasion to the question why one seems so excited or happy or giddy.  Similarly, one might say, "I don't know why I feel sad today; nothing bad has happened that I know of.  I just feel kind of blue."  Those emotions do not require any particular state of affairs or other state of mind.  They can exist, in a sense, by themselves.  Similarly one might feel "edgy" or "anxious" or "on edge" without feeling anxious or on edge about anything in particular. 

But other feelings are different.  They require some companion idea or some companion circumstance to actually exist in the world.  For example, although one can feel edgy in general without thinking something is or might be wrong, one cannot feel "edgy about" some particular thing without thinking that there might be something wrong with that thing -- say, a friend's surgical outcome or test for a disease or an exam grade.  Or, as I have written in Guilt and Forgiveness, feeling guilty requires feeling one has done something actually wrong, not just feeling nervous about being disgraced or punished because others will think one has done wrong even though one thinks one's actions were justified and were not wrong.  One cannot feel guilty unless one believes one did something wrong, even though one might have feelings that are very much like guilt feelings if one is simply afraid of being caught for something one knows others might mistakenly disapprove. In order to feel guilty one does not have to have actually done something wrong, but one has to believe one has.

I believe that emotional intimacy is one of those types of feelings that has not only an emotional aspect or a feeling aspect, but that must have certain circumstances or companion ideas attached to it as well, or what one has is not intimacy but only a false sense of intimacy.  The feeling of a false sense of intimacy will be the same as the feeling of an actual intimate moment, but it will not be the same.  But it will turn out there are two somewhat different sorts of circumstances or companion ideas that might be involved with feelings of intimacy. These are related but different enough that in one usage or view, what counts as an intimate experience might not count as an intimate experience with the other usage.

To begin with a fairly clear cut case, suppose two people have had sex and one feels it was truly a wonderful, bonding experience, and just feels a great deal of love, closeness, and affection for the partner and believes that the partner feels the same way, and that this has been a truly emotionally, as well as sexually, intimate moment between them.  The partner, however, may have his/her mind on some business or other concern, or may be just trying to please his/her mate but is not really all that interested even in sex, but is willing to oblige.  Perhaps one of them is a writer and during the love-making gets an idea to work into a short-story or a novel or essay in progress.  While they are outwardly "there" for and with their partner, even in conversation, what is really going on in their mind is the development of this idea that has somehow popped into their consciousness.  If the partner is so involved with his/her own feelings of closeness at this moment that s/he doesn't notice the other person is actually distracted or thinking about something else, the first person will have considered the time to be a really intimate experience, but may not if they find out the other person did not share that feeling and was, in fact, rather distracted during the time.

There are two possible reactions by the partner who felt there was intimacy. If the person who described the experience as intimate found out that the partner really had his/her mind elsewhere, s/he might say something like "I thought we were having a moment of real intimacy, but it wasn't; it just seemed that way to me.  His/her mind really wasn't on it."  Or they might say something like "I thought we were having a moment of intimacy but it was just intimate for me, not for him/her. His/her mind was elsewhere."  I want to discuss the first case first because it is less complex and more straightforward.

Intimacy Requiring an Actual "Meeting of Minds"

Take the cases where one says or believes, or sees the reasonableness in statements such as "I thought we were having a moment of real intimacy, but it wasn't; it just seemed that way to me.  His/her mind really wasn't on it."  I would like to suggest the following as a way of explaining what it means for an experience to be emotionally intimate:
For an experience between two or more people to be intimate, each must be aware that the experience is being focused on and appreciated as important and significantly meaningful to the other(s) and to him/herself and each must be appreciative that this shared focus and shared appreciation or meaningfulness of the phenomenon or experience itself is occurring.
There are therefore at least six things that must occur: (1) each person must simultaneously focus on some phenomenon or experience, (2) the phenomenon or experience must be a good one and recognized as such by the participants, (3) the phenomenon or experience must be simultaneously meaningful for each person, (4) each person must appreciate (e.g., be thankful for or happy about) the meaningfulness of the experience or the phenomenon, (5) each person must be aware of his/her own and each others' (A) focus, (B) feeling of meaningfulness, and (C) appreciation of the experience, and (6) each person must feel appreciation for the sharing of that meaningfulness and for the mutual appreciation of the experience. 

If any of the individuals involved lacks any of these things, then the experience is not intimate either for them or with them for the others, in this sense of intimacy.  It is not only not an intimate experience for them, it is not an intimate experience with them.  That is why if they are distracted by something else and either do not have their mind on the same experience the other person or people do, or they do not know or appreciate the meaningfulness to the other person, or they do not experience any meaningfulness themselves, the experience is not really intimate -- either for them or with them.  In this sense, the experience is not intimate for them nor is it intimate for the other other person, though it may have seemed so to that other person at the time.

Notice that sex is just one kind of activity in which this sort of thing can occur -- as both people are focused on and appreciative of both their own and (generally) the other person's emotional and physical pleasure.  It is that successful attention and appreciation, rather than the mere physical pleasure itself (no matter how good that might be) that makes the experience an emotionally intimate, rather than just a physically pleasurable, one.

"One-sided" Intimacy

Now look at the case where someone says something like ""I thought we were having a moment of intimacy but it was just intimate for me, not for him/her. His/her mind was elsewhere."

There are, I think, two possible, different meanings or conditions for intimacy when someone says something of this sort or considers it to be a reasonable kind of statement: 

(1) It can mean either that an experience is, and remains, intimate to a person when it seems or appears, at the time it occurs, to meet the above conditions even though that person is mistaken about the other person's other people's focus or senses of appreciation and even if the other person finds out about the mistake later, or it can mean 

(2) that an experience is intimate to, and for, a person if and when she or he finds it personally meaningful, good, and is appreciative of it and is grateful s/he shared that experience with the other person(s) even though the other person(s) did not experience it in the same way with her or him.

No Need to Choose Between Mutual and One-sided Intimacy

Since in actual usage, people do talk about intimacy as either being one-sided or as needing to be mutual in order to occur at all, it is not that there is only one definition we must choose.  Both are correct because both occur in ordinary use.  The important thing is to understand what is meant and what has actually occurred.  It is not only important to understand what others mean when they talk about intimate experiences, but it is also, and perhaps more, important for oneself to understand that any perception of mutual intimacy may be mistaken and that this can have unconscious ramifications for how one feels about the experience later, depending on which sense of intimacy one harbors in some latent or undeveloped, unarticulated way.  If someone finds out that a wonderful experience they mistakenly thought was mutual actually was not mutual, as long as it is not a case involving deception, they should not abandon their wonder or appreciation for the experience just because they found out it was not intimate for both of them.  Mutually intimate experiences are better generally, but that does not mean one-sided intimate experiences are necessarily bad.  Again, as long as no intentional deception is involved.

The other important thing is to understand what sorts of behaviors and feelings are appropriate to intimacies of each kind.  For example, college students often become enamoured of a teacher because the teacher may address a topic or issue that is important to the student in a way that is enlightening and particularly meaningful to that student.  The student may take that as a sign of intellectual intimacy -- a kind of meeting of the minds.  This is often a case of one-sided feeling of intimacy, and the student needs to be aware of that before s/he does something embarrassing or compromising.  The teacher, being supposedly older and wiser, should also be aware of what may be the belief of the student and not take advantage of someone's mistaking one-sided intimacy or a feeling of (mutual) intimacy for actual mutual intimacy.  Moreover, each should know that a meeting of the minds does not then mean that a meeting of bodies is necessarily appropriate -- that intellectual intimacy is not the same as, and does not necessarily justify, other forms of intimacy .  Just because a meaningful meeting of the minds is today somewhat rare (in American society, for example), it does not need to be confused with love or infatuation.  It need not be an aphrodisiac just because it is desirable and exciting.

Opening and Recognizing Greater Possibilities for Intimacy

Since the crucial initial aspect for intimacy is sharing in what is good and personally important to another person and having it be important to you while you are together, intimacy can be facilitated or established by caring about another person and helping bring about what is important to them in a way that they particularly appreciate and that you are happy to provide.

There are often opportunities to do this if one simply takes the time to notice or think about what is important to others or to probe gently in order to find it out (without prying or being intrusive or ill-mannered).  Any time one is particularly helpful to another person, especially perhaps in meeting their normally unrecognized needs or needs they do not even know they have, or needs which they are initially hesitant to express, the seeds of intimacy have a chance to flourish.  Any time one can address in a genuine way something that is interesting and meaningful to another person, especially if it is a topic that normally people are initially hesitant to address, one has a chance to establish intimacy.  I met a woman in a wheel chair one time at a social event, and asked her why she was in it.  She said she had multiple sclerosis.  Since that affects your body more than your mind, and prevents you from doing what your mind would like to do and thinks it ought to be able to do, and is as much frustrating as it is debilitating, I said "That is a pain in the ass, isn't it?"  And she looked up at me with a moment of surprise and then broke into the biggest smile and said "That is exactly what it is!" 

In another instance, I visited my college roommate's fiancee in a hospital ward after she had an apendectomy.  While I was there, a sixteen year old girl was futilely calling for a nurse, and I went over to her bed and asked if I could help or if she needed some sort of medical assistance.  She said it was nothing. But an older woman called me over and told me the girl's bedpan needed emptying and that was why she was calling for a nurse. I went back to the girl and said I could empty the bedpan if someone would just point me the way to a bathroom.  The girl was totally embarrassed, but I just picked up the bed pan, emptied it, washed it out and returned it.  She was mortified.  I just smiled and said "Oh, I'm sure that you would have done the same for me."  She laughed, and we were okay after that.  Her mother soon returned from her lunch and took me aside and told me that her daughter had been an active person, a cheerleader at school, when one day suddenly she became paralyzed from the waist down and no one knew what was the cause.  The girl, being young, was sure that she would recover, but everyone else was terribly worried and all around her were treating her with kid gloves.  I sensed that had begun to wear thin with her and that it was even beginning to harm her confidence of a recovery.  We talked a while, and as I left she asked whether I would come back to see her again the next day.  I had already walked part way out of the ward and I turned and said "Of course; just don't go running off with anyone else in the meantime."  All the women in the ward gasped simultaneously at what they considered to be an accidental poor choice of words.  But I had chosen my words carefully, and the girl's smile at them lit up the room.  It was a delight to see.  She had been telling her mother that she was going to get well and leave the hospital on her own two legs, and she and I were the only ones who believed that, or talked as though we did. I saw no reason to discourage her at a time that doctors had no clue what either the diagnosis or prognosis was.  One may as well act on hope, and the energy it brings, when there is no good evidence hope cannot be fulfilled. I told her that before she left, I wanted the first dance. Two or three weeks later, I was able to escort her out the door on her own two feet -- after talking a nurse out of the required wheelchair exit at the threshold.  She had recovered.  Last I heard, in talking with her mother by phone, she had made a complete and total recovery, had grown up, married, and had children of her own and all was well. 

I do wedding photography, and weddings are situations that can be fraught with anxiety for brides, grooms, families, and there are two kinds of wedding photographers -- those who keep their distance and just take pictures of whatever is in front of their camera at the appropriate times, and those who, as one photographer one time put it, not only take pictures but "become for a few hours on her wedding day the best friend a bride has" -- the person who understands and appreciates her state of mind, her varying needs for guidance, focus, relaxation, distraction, perspective, and attentiveness to the interests of all her guests, not just those who happen to engage her attention at any one time.   This is true, though sometimes to a lesser extent for one's relationship with the groom, with the bride's mother and father, and even, in some cases with the parents of the groom, who often are not sure what their proper role or amount of visibility ought to be.  If you can help everyone have a good time meeting each others' needs and interests and those of their guests, they will be most appreciative and one will get heartfelt expressions of gratitude before the film is developed and the pictures seen.  It is not uncommon to hear helpful photographers praised as "great photographers" at the wedding reception itself even though there will be no visible evidence of their photography skills for at least a couple of days.  Even in the studio, many people would prefer to have a root canal than to get their picture taken.  To understand that and to overcome that feeling by showing you understand it and by being able to make them feel comfortable in front of the camera is, I think, an opportunity for intimacy, however short-lived it might be. 

Similarly, teaching school even in a large lecture hall, or conducting a business meeting, affords opportunities for teachers to foster intimacy with their students and bosses with their staff.  Good actors and entertainers can establish intimacy with their patrons in certain theaters.  A theater that seats 300 to 500 people may be quite intimate, when the production is really good and somehow tuned to satisfying the audiences needs, and people will come from the performance exclaiming what an intimate theater or intimate performance or intimate experience it was.

Many doctors, nurses, and medical assistants can be intimate on one level while remaining properly professionally detached on another.  I had to have a barium enema and set of X-rays one time, and it was not the most comfortable of circumstances in which to be, between the potential humiliation and the concern for the outcome.  The med tech made it much easier for me from the very outset when she put on her rubber gloves and said to me, with a twinkle in her eyes as she looked into mine, while I sat on the X-ray table in my hospital gown, "For the next half hour I am going to become your new best friend."  Of course, a statement like that might not be helpful at all for a male tech to say to a female patient, but when she said it, she was saying in essence, with a good touch of humor, that she knows this is scary, embarrassing, and uncomfortable but she is going to do her best not to let it be that way, and she is giving confidence that she will be successful in that endeavor.  She was doing the difficult job of essentially establishing an emotional intimacy that overrode and put into a minor perspective the physical intimacy that was the nature of her professional task that morning.  The fact that an hour later she would have another patient and would have totally forgotten about me, did not matter to me.  It was her attention and concern for me at the time and the effort she made to succeed with me at the time that mattered, and that personalized the experience in a good way.

It may be thought that people who can do that well under trying circumstances have a gift, but the first part of having such a gift is recognizing the need for it, and being willing to take the risk of making oneself vulnerable to an unkind or cold response, in order to try to help a sensitive fellow human being through a difficult time.  It requires the same gift to help people in what may start out seeming to be normal circumstances. But it is a gift that can be cultivated. Every contact affords the potential opportunity to bond with another in a personal and intimate way, without necessarily jeopardizing professional distance, integrity, and competency.  But for many people it is difficult to initiate intimacy because they try to hide their own vulnerability and isolation and their most private thoughts they mistakenly believe are theirs alone and too unique or strange to express. Often they are afraid of meeting a rebuff to any overture to meaningful conversation.  And some people are indeed resistant to comments that try to get "through to them".  Unfortunately they also sometimes, or temporarily, ruin opportunities not only for themselves but for the next person as they make the initiator feel they are doing something wrong and hesitant to try with the next person. 

The trick is to realize that for the most part, if you have thought up something or are troubled by something, others will have entertained the same ideas or be receptive to it, but you have to bring it up.  For example, at weddings, while everyone else is saying affectedly polite, saccharine things about the couple's getting married, if you say instead that you think weddings are appropriate for young people because they are too naive to know better, you will be surprised at how much smiling agreement you get and what a torrent of confirming comments will follow.  At a grocery store one time, two women were standing for a long time in front of the canned tuna shelf and I walked up and said "What, are you guys standing here so long because you are trying to find a dented can to serve to your husbands?"  And they both looked at me and said with a laugh "You know, there have been times I've thought about that."  The odds were good.

One time I thought I had really overstepped my bounds and I said something I immediately had regretted until it turned out later to have been for the best. Like the med tech mentioned above, it seems to me generally best to address with humor what is likely bothering people than to try to pretend there is nothing wrong and let people just suffer in silence and maintain either a distant or strained atmosphere.  I was photographing a wedding in which the father of the groom, who had been teasing me earlier, was noticeably tense while I was trying to take the group and family pictures.  I tried all the usual ploys to get him to relax and smile, and nothing was working.  He was older, and his children, all standing there in the family photo, were adults.  The father had been divorced once or twice before, as had the bride's father, and all the mothers and stepmothers were in attendance.  I thought maybe that was bothering him or somehow making him very uncomfortable, so I wanted to address it in a humorous way.  But the minute I said what I did, I felt I had gone too far.  While he was standing in the group, not responding to my most recent normal attempt to get him to smile, I stopped and said for all to hear, "I just don't understand it; I would have thought that being here in the same room at the same time with all the women you have ever been married to would have made you really happy."  His children roared with laughter, and when they stopped laughing he smiled at me and said "Where is your car parked?"  And I said "If you only hurt my car, I will consider myself lucky."  After that he was great in the pictures, and later at the reception he came up to me and put his arm on my shoulder and thanked me for helping him loosen up and enjoy the wedding.  He said he really appreciated it.

It does not always require humor.  In photographing people who are nervous, it often makes them feel more comfortable if you say that you or they need to move a bit because you don't have a flattering angle, or that they need to change position or clothes because in two dimensions the angle or that outfit will make them look fat even though it is not that way in real life.  By being honest with them about what doesn't look good and why, people seem to have more confidence that you know what you are doing and they get really pleased when you do say "that looks great now" because they know you sincerely think so.  If you only say good things from the beginning, no matter what they do, most people are suspicious and become even more self-conscious.

In teaching philosophy at a black college, I often challenged my students' ideas, even about racism (though I am white and have always lived in suburbs, and they were primarily from an inner city).  Whenever I disagreed with students about anything, I asked them to justify their position and I argued with them when I thought they were making reasoning errors.  And I would almost never let any disagreement drop until we had resolved it.  There were a few things we couldn't resolve, but I had made clear to them, and they knew I meant it, that their grades did not depend on their agreeing with me, so they were free to maintain their position unless I could honestly convince them otherwise.  Usually I could; sometimes I couldn't.  What was interesting to me was that they really appreciated that I tried.  One class said this was the first time for them in school that any teacher ever cared what they thought and cared enough to disagree with them.  Another time, we were talking about racism in America, near the end of the term, and in the midst of the arguments and explanations, one of the girls said "But you don't understand.  Whenever black and white people are together in this country, it is in a white area of town and the blacks are outnumbered, which is intimidating.  You never see white people in a black area of town where they are the minority."  The other students all concurred. For a minute I thought she had a point, and then I remembered I was a white person sitting there in a black college in a classroom in the midst of only black students.  I held up the backs of my hands to her and said, "What about this? All of you are black and I'm still white, aren't I? And I am here."  The other students looked surprised, but the girl who had made the comment looked the most surprised, as her mouth just dropped open and her eyes widened.  Then she said what was one of the most touching things I had ever heard: "But you aren't white; you are just Rick!"  The others nodded in agreement.  And I said it was precisely my point about them -- that they too were persons first and should see themselves that way and expect other people to see them that way too, and that most white people by and large then often would.  There was far more to the discussion and this was not meant to by a synopsis, but just one point.  But I think this particular conversation in class occurred because I work very hard to make my classes, no matter how large, become intimate and intellectually safe and comfortable.  One of the emotionally hardest parts of teaching is having a term end after you have been able to achieve that atmosphere, and then having to start all over again to try to achieve it with a new group.

Some instances mix humor with poignancy.  I was talking one time with a young lady I was photographing, who was in my studio with her mother.  Somehow the conversation turned to a point where I mentioned that in Homewood (an adjacent suburb) there had been a long time, highly effective, and revered mayor who was one of the nicest guys in the world, and who adored his wife and his twin daughters.  But often in social situations when he was introduced to someone new whom he found out was not married, he would ask with mock sincerity "Then what do you do for aggravation?"  It was an "ice-breaker" for him, and it always worked because he was obviously such a loving person and a proud, doting husband and father.  When I finished my story about him and mentioned his name, the girl said "He was my grandfather."  And the mother said she was one of the twins.  I hadn't known that.  It was a nice moment.

Being open and genuine with others about normally considered private thoughts will not always be welcome, even if you are not trying to be humorous but are more straightforwardly obviously trying to be kind, but I think it will be welcome far more often than not. And when it is, it can lead to cherished moments and memories for the other person or for both of you -- moments that help make life on this planet more intimate, and thus by the very nature of intimacy, not so isolated and alone.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

I explain what it is for an experience to be meaningful in chapter 24 of The Meaning of Love, but for my purpose here it is sufficient to say that it involves something recognized by someone as important to them on a personal level, which may or may not have anything to do with any practical importance to them as well. In other words if some financial transaction is occurring which gratifies both people, and they both are appreciative of the transaction at a pragmatic level, that will not necessarily be an intimate experience.  On the other hand if, say (as in one of the Saturn automobile commercials) a car salesman and his client appreciate the importance to her of her buying her first car and all that it entails for its significance in her life (fiscal ability and responsibility, maturity, independence, right of passage into adulthood, etc.) and they both realize all this, that transaction, though practical and financial, also takes on a kind of intimacy though it may be transient and perhaps even shortly forgotten. (Return to text.)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

There is an ambiguity in this sense of "with" that I do not know how to make precise other than by an example.  Suppose there are five people involved in a conversation that is intimate in the sense under discussion for four of them but not for the fifth person.  The conversation is still intimate for the four people even though they are "with" the fifth person, but the intimacy does not include him though the conversation does.  They are with him and intimate (with each other), but they are not intimate with him. This kind of verbal anomaly only occurs when two or more people are intimate in the sense above and in the company of one or more other people who do not meet the conditions.  If there are only two people involved, and at least one of them does not meet the conditions, then in this kind of understanding of intimacy under discussion, the experience is not intimate for either.  (Return to text.)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

One way of politely probing is simply to make a comment that is not rude, prying, indiscrete, or embarrassing and which gives the other person a great opportunity to respond in a frank and personal way if they wish or to ignore, wave off, or make light of your comment if they do not.  (Return to text.)