As a scholar of intimacy, I continuously attempt to refine my own understanding of this abstract concept and how it shows up through the multiple layers of our relationships. I witness couples avoid it, dance around it, dip their toe into it, beg for it, misunderstand it, desire it, need it, want it, demand for it, fear it and block it, sometimes all within one therapy session.
Some partners seek it out but ensure they never receive it. They partner with someone who maintains a safe emotional distance. Others desperately crave intimacy and develop enmeshed relationships. Here, they lose their own identity. They cannot distinguish where they end and their partner begins.
But what is true intimacy anyway? In a research article assessing marital satisfaction, written in The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families by Sobral, Teixeira and Costa, the authors define intimacy as the capacity to exchange thoughts and feelings of personal significance with another individual who is highly valued and to depend on them while also experiencing healthy autonomy.
The words “exchange” and “depend” stand out to me. According to these authors, these are the action words, the behaviors, required for partners to experience intimacy. The authors highlight that traditional definitions of intimacy exclude the concept of dependence.
So what might get in the way of achieving intimacy? These researchers have defined two key areas:
FLS – Fear of losing the self (dependence)
FLO – Fear of losing the other (exchange)
Both of these require a withholding behavior. It looks like this:
(FLS) If I share all of me, I might lose my autonomy, my independence.
(FLO) If I share all of me, you might disapprove of me and then reject me.
Therefore, I keep parts of myself hidden away from you but as a result, I feel lonely.
I think FLO is easier to identify than FLS because the feelings associated with FLO are more tangible. These include feelings such as exposure and rejection. Behaviors like direct eye contact can feel intolerable and create a kneejerk response to hide. Conflict avoidance is another form of FLO. If I just keep the peace, you won’t leave me. But what does FLS look like?
Thoughts that might accompany FLS include not wanting to justify one’s actions to a partner, “I don’t have to explain myself to you”, “I don’t’ have to tell you where I spend my money” and/or operating from an “I” instead of “we” mentality. With FLS, dependence not only feels uncomfortable but can also threatening.
I am currently working with a couple that prides them selves on not “needing” each other, almost as if their autonomy is a badge of honor. However, their fear of dependency has contributed to a sexless marriage of several years and a recent affair.
Therapists Brian and Marcia Gleason offer one of my favorite descriptions of dependency within a relationship. In their book Going All The Way, they conceptualize healthy need as one’s ability to recognize one’s own autonomy while simultaneously aware that with their partner, they are capable of so much more.
In Attachment and Human Development, psychologist Jude Cassidy wrote in her article Truth, Lies and Intimacy: An Attachment Perspective, “Autonomy is important for intimacy because to permit oneself to become truly close to another person, one must have confidence in the autonomy of both the self and the partner so that one is free from fear of engulfment”.
True intimacy requires both the prioritization of connection over distance as well as transparency over suppression. When you permit yourself to need your partner, to reveal yourself and to fully connect, you live from a courageous heart. You allow love to conquer fear.
As I continue to help couples experience greater levels of intimacy, consider how FLO and FLS might keep you from experiencing a fuller, richer, more satisfying relationship with the one you love.