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— Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., author of Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples
"A wonderful book about an important subject — readable and full of wise and practical suggestions."
— Hal Urban, author of Life's Greatest Lessons and Positive Words, Positive Results
Chapter One: Sex Is Not Intimacy
The Sex Myth
Sex is not intimacy. It can be a part of intimacy, no question. But sex doesn't equal intimacy. It doesn't come with a guarantee of intimacy. Sex isn't absolutely necessary for intimacy. And yet, almost every reference to intimacy in modern popular culture is a reference to sex. If we are ever to truly experience intimacy, we must first move beyond the pubescent notion that sex and intimacy are synonymous.
Intimacy is the one thing that a person cannot live happily without. Think about it. Who are the happiest people you know, the people who are truly thriving? Do they just have sex, or do they have intimacy? They have intimacy, don't they? They might have sex, too, but the foundation of their lives is an authentic experience of intimacy. They have people they can share their lives with. They have a genuine interest in the people around them. They have great relationships.
We can live happily without new cars and designer clothes; we can live and thrive without our dream homes; we can live without vacationing in all the right places -- but we cannot live happily without intimacy. Intimacy is one of our legitimate needs and a prerequisite for happiness. You can survive without intimacy, but you cannot thrive without it.
Human beings yearn above all else for intimacy. We desire happiness, and sometimes we confuse this desire for happiness with a desire for pleasure and possessions. But once we have experienced the pleasure or attained the possessions, we are still left wanting. Wanting what? Intimacy. Our desire for happiness is ultimately a desire for intimacy. If we have intimacy we can go without an awful lot and still be happy. Without intimacy, all the riches of the world cannot satisfy our hungry hearts. Until we experience intimacy, our hearts remain restless, irritable, and discontented.
What Is Intimacy?
Life is a self-revelation. It's about revealing yourself. Every day, in a thousand ways, we reveal ourselves to the people around us and to the world. Everything we say and do reveals something about who we are. Even the things we don't say and the things we don't do tell others something about us. Life is about sharing ourselves with humanity at this moment in history.
Relationships are also a process of self-revelation. But far too often we spend our time and energy hiding our true selves from each other in relationships. This is where we encounter the great paradox that surrounds our struggle for intimacy. The entire human experience is a quest for harmony amid opposing forces, and our quest for intimacy is no different.
We yearn for intimacy, but we avoid it. We want it badly, but we run from it. At some deep level, we sense that we have a profound need for intimacy, but we are also afraid to go there. Why? We avoid intimacy because having intimacy means exposing our secrets. Being intimate means sharing the secrets of our hearts, minds, and souls with another fragile and imperfect human being. Intimacy requires that we allow another person to discover what moves us, what inspires us, what drives us, what eats at us, what we are running toward, what we are running from, what silent self-destructive enemies lie within us, and what wild and wonderful dreams we hold in our hearts.
To be truly intimate with another person is to share every aspect of your self with that person. We have to be willing to take off our masks and let down our guard, to set aside our pretenses and to share what is shaping us and directing our lives. This is the greatest gift we can give to another human being: to allow him or her to simply see us for who we are, with our strengths and weaknesses, faults, failings, flaws, defects, talents, abilities, achievements, and potential.
Intimacy requires that we allow another person into our heart, mind, body, and soul. In its purest form, it is a complete and unrestrained sharing of self. Not all relationships are worthy of such a complete intimacy, but our primary relationship should be.
What is intimacy? It is the process of mutual self-revelation that inspires us to give ourselves completely to another person in the mystery we call love.
What's Your Story?
You have a deep need to be known. Within each of us there is a story that wants to be told. Intimacy means sharing our story. Sharing our story helps us to remember who we are, where we have come from, and what matters most. Sharing our story keeps us sane.
Visit any mental institution and you will discover that most of the patients have forgotten their own story. They simply cannot put the yesterdays of their lives into any cohesive or structured memory. As a result they lose sight of the reference point that the past provides us in mapping our future. When we forget our story, we lose the thread of our lives, and we go mad. To varying degrees, we all forget our own stories, and to the extent that we do so we all go a little mad. Great relationships help us to remember our stories, who we are and where we have come from. And in some strange and mystical way, by remembering our stories we celebrate ourselves in a very healthy way. What's your story? What's your family's story? What is the story of your relationship?
It fascinates me that if you ask a couple at their rehearsal dinner to tell their story -- how and when they met, when and where the proposal took place, and so on -- there is a passion and enthusiasm in the telling of the story. But as the years pass, the reply to the question "How did you meet?" becomes a three-word answer, "In the library," "On a plane," "At a bar." This is a classic example of how, over time, we forget our story or become immune to its power.
Only by sharing our story with another will we ever feel uniquely known. Otherwise, and I assure you it happens every day, we can pass through this life and on to the next without anyone ever really knowing us. Imagine that. Imagine living your whole life and never being really known by anybody.
We also have a great need to share the story of our relationships. Just as a person who forgets his story goes insane, so does a couple who forget their story. They don't go asylum mad, but both participants in the relationship start to do crazy things that ultimately can lead to the breakdown of the relationship. Unless they can rediscover the thread of their relationship, unless they can remember and cherish their story together again, the breakdown of their relationship inevitably leads to a breakup, or a life of quiet desperation within a relationship that has gone mad.
Reality Versus Illusion
Relationships keep us honest. They provide the mirrors necessary to see and know ourselves. Isolated and alone, we can convince ourselves of all sorts of crazy things, but other people keep it real for us by drawing us out of our own imaginary worlds. They don't allow us to deceive ourselves. Other people keep us honest. Relationships help to move us out of our illusions and into reality.
I see this all the time with my seven brothers. Once a month they have something they call brothers' night. No girlfriends, no wives, no children, and no friends -- just the brothers. A restaurant is selected and e-mails fly around cyberspace confirming attendance. It is the one night each month I most miss being away from my hometown of Sydney, Australia. But when I am there, I always marvel at the dynamic: my seven brothers and I sit around a table, talking about the comings and goings of our lives -- situations at work, our relationships, family issues, and our dreams and plans.
In that forum, we offer one another the brutal honesty we all need from time to time. My brothers and I may not always get it right, but there is a sharing of ideas and opinions, and a general outspokenness that is both healthy and helpful. Now that kind of brutal honesty can become tiring on a day-to-day basis, but once a month it helps us to question ourselves in a way that is very constructive. It keeps us honest with ourselves, by casting our illusions or self-deceptions out into the light. It is that brutal honesty that draws us out of our imaginary worlds and shatters our false and sanitized visions of ourselves. And while it can be uncomfortable, it creates the dynamic environment that is necessary for growth.
It is in this way that intimacy is a mirror to the real self. Conversing and interacting with a variety of people in our everyday lives brings out into the light the illusions we often create and believe about ourselves. Alone and isolated, we have an incredible ability to deceive ourselves and create images of ourselves that are one-dimensional at best. Intimacy rescues us from our make-believe worlds. This is one of the reasons we avoid intimacy. Often we would rather live in our fantasies than in the real world. Other people force us out of our imaginary worlds and provide the mirrors necessary to know ourselves.
Next time you notice that someone is doing something that particularly annoys you, step back from the situation and look a little deeper. Chances are you see something of yourself in that person. Is what annoys you something that you yourself do from time to time? Do you wish you were doing what the other person is doing? Did you use to do it? Similarly, next time you really feel the warmth of admiration rise up within you, examine yourself. Is what you admire in that person a quality that you also possess, to some greater or lesser extent? Do you wish you could celebrate that quality within yourself more?
People introduce us to ourselves. Sharing ourselves with others helps us to understand ourselves; in the process we reveal ourselves to others, but we also help them to discover themselves. Most people tend to think of themselves as fiercely independent, as if to be dependent were some great weakness and reason for shame. The reality is that we are interdependent and much more connected than most of us realize. In the twentieth century, humanity seemed preoccupied with the quest for independence. The twenty-first century will be a century of interdependence or one of tremendous human suffering. The great truth that must come into focus is that we are all in this together. Both in our individual relationships and in relations between nations, this is the idea that can most advance humanity. We are all in this together.
It is too easy to convince ourselves that we can live our lives and fulfill our destinies without the cooperation of others. In many ways, our destinies are not in our own hands -- at least, not entirely. In many ways, we are not independent; we are interdependent. Independence is just one example of the illusions that prevent us from entering deeply into relationships.
Dynamic and vibrant relationships help us to surrender our illusions in favor of the often less perfect but always more fulfilling reality.
Why Are We Afraid?
The problem is, we are afraid. We are afraid to reveal ourselves, afraid to share ourselves, afraid to allow others into our hearts, minds, and souls. We are afraid to be ourselves. We are afraid that if people really knew us they wouldn't love us. That is the deepest of all human fears, lurking in the heart of every person. Consciously and subconsciously, we are always asking ourselves, "If they really knew me, would they still love me? Employ me? Want to hang out with me?" We desperately want to love and be loved. But we want to be loved for who we are, warts and all. And although we are afraid to reveal ourselves because of the possibility of rejection, it is only by revealing ourselves that we will ever open the possibility of truly being loved. With this fear begins the great deception. This fear gives birth to the unending pretense. We are all flawed and we all have faults. None of us is perfect. Yet all of us go about putting our best foot forward, hiding the brokenness, pretending that we have everything under control and that all is well.
Think about it. When you first meet someone, or are in the early stages of dating; at a job interview, or when you are being introduced to your partner's friends, you put your best foot forward and they put their best foot forward. Then we each wait for the real person to be revealed -- revealed by life, by experiences, by the process of intimacy.
We can't be loved for who we are if we won't reveal ourselves. Unrevealed, we never experience intimacy. Unwilling to reveal ourselves, we remain always alone.
You will experience intimacy only to the extent that you are prepared to reveal yourself. We want to be loved, but we hold back thinking that our faults will be judged and used as an excuse to oust us. But if we don't reveal ourselves, in the back of our minds will always be the thought: "If he really knew me..." or "What would she think if she knew..."
We hide because we think people will love us less if they truly know us, but the opposite is true in most cases. If we are willing to take the risk and reveal ourselves for who we are, we discover that most people are relieved to know that we are human. Why? Because they are human, too, and are filled with the same fear as you. In most cases, you will find that the things you thought would cause people to stop loving you actually lead them to love you more. There is something glorious about our humanity. Strong and weak, the human person is amazing. Our humanity is glorious and should be celebrated. When we reveal our struggles, we give others the courage to do the same.
The truth is, when we reveal our weaknesses people feel more at peace with us and are more likely to respond by expressing a desire to be there for us than by rejecting us. Everyone has a dark side, and yet everyone walks around pretending that they don't. This is the unending pretense. Intimacy requires that we be prepared to reveal our dark side, not in order to shock or hurt the other person, but so that he or she might help us battle with our inner demons.
My own experience suggests that willingness to share our weakness is a tremendous sign of faith, which encourages other people to let down their guard. When we share the ways we struggle with our weaknesses, we encourage people in their own struggles. And as long as we are sincerely striving to move beyond our weaknesses and become the-best-version-of-ourselves, we discover, much to our surprise, that we are more loved because of our weaknesses. We are most lovable not when we are pretending to have it all together, but in our raw and imperfect humanity.
Crazy, isn't it? We want to be loved, but we are so afraid of rejection that we would rather be loved for being someone we are not than be rejected for being who we are. Maturity comes once we learn to cherish the self. From that moment on, we would rather be rejected for who we truly are than loved for pretending to be someone we are not. That is self-esteem. It's not a feel-good thing. It's practical, it's real, and it cuts to the essence of the hardest choice we ever make: the choice to be ourselves. It is in this respect that Hugh Prather's powerful, profound, and yet disarmingly simple observation has always touched me: "Some people are going to like me and some people aren't, so I might as well be me. Then, at least, I will know that the people who like me, like me." That is what we all yearn for, to be loved for who we are. And that is why it is so important that we let go and allow ourselves to experience the self-revelation of intimacy.
Loneliness and Addiction
If we are unwilling to overcome this fear of rejection there will always be a sense of loneliness in our lives. Loneliness comes in many forms. Some people are lonely because they simply have no contact with other human beings. Others are lonely even in a crowded room. Some people are lonely because they are single. Others are married and lonely. Others yet are lonely because they have betrayed themselves and they yearn for and miss their lost self. Loneliness seems to be one of those things that is always lurking in the background, one of life's experiences that we never conquer, something that is never overcome once and for all.
The sensation that nobody really knows us can be one of the most debilitating forms of loneliness, and is fostered by our unwillingness to reveal ourselves. The paradox that we want to be known and loved for who we are, but refuse to reveal ourselves because we are afraid of rejection, creates a tremendous loneliness in our lives.
It is here that we come full circle. We yearn for intimacy, we run from intimacy, we tell ourselves that we need to be free from emotional ties, but we end up in slavery of one sort or another.
Unwilling to participate in the rigors of intimacy, we try to fill the void created by the lack of intimacy in our lives, and thus are born our addictions. The bottomless pit that is created by the absence of intimacy demands to be fed, and if we refuse to feed it in a healthy way, we will find ourselves feeding it in ways that are self-destructive. Some try to fill the void with alcohol, others with shopping, some with drugs; others will fill it with unending series of short-term relationships, and in a culture that equates intimacy with sex an ever increasing number of people try to fill the void with sexual experiences. The result is a growing emptiness. Each of these is just a different attempt to fill the void created in our lives by a lack of genuine intimacy. All addictions are the result of trying to fill that void in an unhealthy way.
Addictions are among the most powerful self-delusions we experience. Addictions are created by self-delusions and in turn create even more self-delusions. Addiction disconnects us from reality. So, why do we gravitate toward the objects of our addictions? The reason is profoundly simple: because they change the way we think about ourselves. Our addictions pull us further and further into our self-centered imaginary worlds, while intimacy draws us out of our self-absorption and into a real experience of others, the world, and ourselves. Our addictions keep our illusions alive, and the one illusion our addictions are most faithful to is the belief that we are the center of the universe.
Genuine intimacy comes to liberate us from our loneliness, but when we run from intimacy we often find ourselves enslaved by addiction.
Intimacy and the Four Aspects of a Person
Intimacy is not just physical, nor is it just emotional. Intimacy is multidimensional. It mysteriously combines all four aspects of the human person: the physical; the emotional; the intellectual; and the spiritual. It is therefore important to understand intimacy as it affects and is affected by each of the four aspects of the human person.
Physical intimacy is easy. It begins with a handshake, a smile, or a kiss on the cheek. But physical intimacy can also be easily manipulated. Good politicians know this as well as anyone; they spend their lives shaking hands and kissing babies, because they know that even the slightest of physical intimacies creates a feeling of closeness and belonging. I have noticed that those who are particularly good at engaging people during a brief encounter always use both hands in the greeting. They may shake your hand with one hand, but they will also touch you gently on the arm or the shoulder with the other. Doing so creates that extra sensation of closeness, even oneness. If such a small gesture can create a feeling of oneness, how extraordinary the oneness must be when two people engage in sexual intercourse.
This explains the bond created between a man and woman through the act of lovemaking. It also explains the pain people feel after separating from a person with whom they have been sexually active. The two have become one, and then have been torn apart. Even years later, people still experience the pain and disorientation of the separation. In a very real way through the sexual act, two become one, and uniting is significantly easier than separating. Many have the sensation of disorientation after a sexual relationship has come to an end, but they are oblivious to the cause of this disorientation. Multiple sexual partners can increase this disorientation. With each sexual encounter, we leave a piece of ourselves with the other person and this creates the sense of being pulled in different directions, torn in two pieces, which in turn produces disorientation.
So while I think it is important to stress that sex does not equal intimacy, it is also important to point out that the power of our sexuality is much more than physical. In fact, while the second half of the twentieth century would claim to have fully investigated our sexuality, I would propose that we have not even begun to understand the multidimensional impact that sex has on the human person. Our sexuality is a powerful instrument in our quest to become the-best-version-of-ourselves; we can use it, as we can so many things in this world, to further that cause or to hinder it. Life is choices.
It is also important to note that all of our relationships have a physical aspect. Even in a relationship that is completely confined to the telephone or to cyberspace, you are still experiencing the other person through your senses (speaking and listening or sitting, typing, and reading).
Some may claim that there is no physical dimension to their relationship with God, but again, while this relationship is predominantly spiritual, it has a physical aspect. Some people kneel to pray; others sit in a meditation position; some raise their hands; others walk while they perform their spiritual routines and rituals; and some prostrate themselves for prayer. Our physical bodies are the vehicles through which we experience everything in this life.
The second aspect of the human person is the emotional. Emotional intimacy is much harder to achieve than physical intimacy. It requires a humility and vulnerability that most of us are simply not comfortable with at first. The process of becoming intimate emotionally is therefore a slower one. Even in the best relationship, with the most genuine person, it takes time for us to be convinced that it is safe to let our guard down. And if we have been hurt or betrayed in the past, it may take longer. The labyrinth of our opinions, feelings, fears, and dreams is something we guard closely, as we should.
At the same time we shouldn't allow the fear of revealing ourselves to become our natural state. As we go through the seven levels of intimacy, we will see that even in the most secondary relationships there are ways that we can reveal ourselves without making the other person feel uncomfortable and without threatening our sense of personal self. Life is a self-revelation. Every time we encounter someone, we should reveal something about ourselves to that person. They might not even know your name, but if you smile at them and say "Thank you" or "Good morning" they will know something about you. By being polite, courteous, and friendly, you have revealed something about yourself.
Revealing ourselves in positive and healthy ways is at the core of intimacy. In the emotional realm, intimacy with self and others is driven by observation -- self-observation, in the first place, knowing how certain people, situations, circumstances, and opportunities make you feel; observation of others, in the second place, opening your eyes, ears, and heart to how people respond to you. What is their body language? Are people comfortable around you? If not, what makes them uncomfortable? Is there something you should change about the way you relate to people?
Emotional intimacy cannot be isolated from the other three aspects of the human person. In a thousand ways that we have not even begun to understand, the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual are interconnected.
The third aspect of the human person is the intellectual. Like emotional intimacy, it takes longer to establish than physical intimacy does. The creation of intellectual intimacy requires both a variety of experiences and a number of experiences. It is established through conversation, by experiencing different cultural and political events, and in any number of ways that draw out our own personal philosophy of life.
It is important to note that while people who have similar views may establish intellectual intimacy faster at the beginning of a relationship, you need not have identical points of view on all issues to sustain a vibrant relationship. Similar views on things such as what you believe to be the purpose of a relationship are of obvious importance, and can be pivotal in enabling a relationship to grow and thrive. But holding similar views can also be detrimental to a relationship. You may agree on an issue, but your view may be biased or even erroneous. But because you both hold the same view, your bias goes unchallenged, and the narrowmindedness that caused the bias to begin with is only confirmed by your relationship.
Intellectual intimacy blossoms in a nonjudgmental environment. Different people have different ideas. Your ideas are not always right, and their ideas are not always wrong. Keeping an open mind is an important part of intellectual intimacy.
If we are to really delve into the beauty and mystery of the way people think, we must condition ourselves to look beyond the ideas themselves. Beyond the ideas themselves we can discover more about the people we love than the ideas will ever tell us. Too often, we prejudge people because of an idea they express. The secret is to look beyond the idea itself and discover what has caused a person to believe that such an idea is good, true, noble, just, or beautiful. What is most fascinating is not what people think or believe, but why they think and believe what they do.
Intellectual intimacy is much more than simply knowing what a person thinks and believes about a variety of issues or topics. It is about knowing how a person thinks -- what drives, inspires, and motivates his or her ideas and opinions.
The fourth aspect of the human person is the spiritual. Spiritual intimacy is the rarest and the most elusive form of intimacy. Some couples who have spiritual intimacy have virtually identical traditional religious beliefs, while other couples who enjoy this rare intimacy have tremendously different beliefs or ways of expressing their beliefs.
Spiritual intimacy begins with a respect for each other and blossoms in the idea that the lover will do everything within his or her power to help the beloved become the-best-version-of-himself or herself. It stands to reason, then, that the lover would never do anything to harm the beloved, or to cause him or her to become less than who he or she was created to be. This is the first principle of spiritual intimacy. Spiritual intimacy, while it does not demand consensus on all issues, does demand consensus on our essential purpose.
Our essential purpose is the foundation upon which we build a life filled with passion and purpose. You are here to become the-best-version-of-yourself. This essential purpose also provides the common purpose for every relationship. The first purpose of every relationship is to help each other become the-best-version-of-ourselves. It doesn't matter if the relationship is between husband and wife, parent and child, friend and neighbor, or business executive and customer. The first purpose, obligation, and responsibility of a relationship is to help each other achieve our essential purpose.
This common purpose is the foundation of spiritual intimacy. We may have investigated the physical aspect of the human person, we may have delved into the emotional and psychological aspect of the human person, and we may have a reasonable understanding of the intellectual faculties and capacities of the human person, but the make-up and potential of the spiritual aspect of the human person in many ways remains uncharted territory. The reason is that our spiritual potential is both difficult to explore and easy to neglect.
In the area of spiritual intimacy, there is one trap that we can easily fall into whether we consider ourselves spiritual people or not. In relationships, especially if we find ourselves in an extraordinary relationship, we can find ourselves exposed to a rare type of idolatry. By no means a thing of the past, idolatry occurs when we misplace our priorities. There is a natural order, to which most people are oriented: God, family, friends, work, recreation, and so on. If we find ourselves in a relationship with a person who is able to fulfill us in ways we have not previously known, the danger is to love the gift more than the giver of the gift.
Spiritual intimacy is best approached as an open-minded adventure in which we seek to discover the truth of every situation and to apply that truth as we strive to help each other become the-best-version-of-ourselves.
In a world of stereotypes and sound bites, when we speak of spirituality it is easy to conjure images of incense burning and light instrumental music playing in the background. This is to tragically overlook the real work of spirituality, which is to grow in virtue so as to achieve our essential purpose (become the-best-version-of-ourselves). The role of spirituality in relationships is to provide the tools necessary to help us grow in virtue.
Virtue makes all respectful relationships possible. Two patient people will have a better relationship than two impatient people. Two generous people will have a better relationship than two selfish people. Two forgiving people will have a better relationship than two people who choose to hold grudges and refuse to forgive. A considerate couple will have a better relationship than an inconsiderate couple. Two faithful people will always have a better relationship than two unfaithful people. Two disciplined people will always have a better relationship than two undisciplined people.
Virtue makes for great relationships.
Why? Virtue is the foundation of character. You can build your life on the foundation of virtues such as patience, kindness, humility, gentleness, forgiveness, and love. Or you can build your life on the foundation of whims, cravings, fancies, illegitimate wants, and selfish desires. The former will create a life of passion and purpose, while the later will create an irritable, restless, and discontented life.
Is virtue out of date? Only if we are no longer interested in having great relationships.
In our relationships, we have to make the same choice: to build upon a foundation of virtue, or upon a foundation of selfishness. If we choose to base our relationships upon the foundation of a common goal to become the-best-version-of-ourselves, and understand that the best way to pursue this goal is by growing in virtue, then our relationship will likely be marked with joyfulness and contentedness. On the other hand if we choose to build our relationships on our unsteady and ever shifting whims, cravings, and self-centered desires, our relationship will more than likely be marked by an irritable, restless, and discontented spirit.
Of course, if we have already started building a relationship on the shifting grounds of personal pleasure rather than the solid ground of common purpose, it may be necessary to demolish certain parts of the relationship in order to build a stronger foundation. This process is a painful one and requires an enormous discipline and commitment on the part of both people, because it is all too easy to return to our previous patterns.
Spiritual intimacy is the most rewarding form of intimacy and the hardest to achieve. Once you have tasted spiritual intimacy you will discover that physical, emotional, and intellectual intimacy, while breathtaking in their own right, do not belong in the same realm as spiritual intimacy. You will also discover that as you and your partner grow in spiritual intimacy, your experience of physical, emotional, and intellectual intimacy will also be heightened. At the core of the human person is the soul, and it yearns to be fed and nurtured.
In our quest for intimacy we must move beyond our preoccupation with the physical and understand what each of the four aspects has to contribute to our relationships. Physical intimacy is limited. But emotional, intellectual, and spiritual intimacies are limitless, and relatively unexplored. And, truth be told, if you truly wish to experience the upper reaches of physical intimacy you must first explore and develop the depths of emotional, intellectual, and spiritual intimacy.
We should pay careful attention, especially if we are just beginning a relationship, to see that we grow steadily in each of the four areas of intimacy. The danger is that we develop one type of intimacy very quickly and neglect the other forms. This imbalance creates a distortion in our relationship.
Allow me to draw this comparison as an example. Sometimes a young woman who is very beautiful learns quickly that people pay more attention to her than to others, are more willing to be of assistance, want to please her, and in many cases will give her whatever she wants -- simply because she is very beautiful. At the time, the young woman thinks this is wonderful; her friends, too, may crave the attention that is being showered upon her. But in time it begins to stunt her growth in other areas. She begins to overvalue her physical appearance, becomes preoccupied with it, and begins to view reality in relation to her physical beauty. As a result, she neglects other aspects of her personal development, which over time will create a distortion in her character. The same thing can, of course, happen to a young man. The point is that each of the four aspects of a person should be nurtured equally. It is the maturity of all four that creates harmony and fulfillment for the whole person.
Another very common abuse takes place among people who consider themselves religious or spiritual. They may pursue their spirituality with reckless abandon, but neglect their physical, emotional, and intellectual aspects. The result is, again, a distortion of character.
The same thing happens in relationships. When physical intimacy is established too quickly, we may think it is wonderful, but almost immediately it begins to stunt the growth of the relationship. We begin to overvalue physical intimacy, become preoccupied with it, and begin to judge and value our relationship on the basis of physical intimacy. As a result, we neglect the nurturing of the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual aspects of the relationship, and over time that neglect will create a distortion in its very character.
Intimacy is sharing the journey to become the-best-version-of-ourselves with another person. It is a mutual self-revelation that takes place gradually, cannot be rushed, and can only be realized by the commitment of time. Most of all, it is critical that we recognize that intimacy cannot be confined merely to the physical realm, or to any one other realm. So, as we journey through the seven levels of intimacy in part two of this book, it is important for us to pay attention to the way each level of intimacy affects the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual aspects of our relationships.
Getting Comfortable with Ourselves
Each year I visit more than a hundred cities in the United States as part of my regular speaking schedule, and in most of those cities I will visit a high school. One of my favorite topics in that setting is choices and how they affect our lives. After a short introduction, I usually ask the students what they think the biggest choices they will make in the next fifteen years will be. They always cite the same things: which college to go to, what career to pursue, and whom to marry.
I then ask them how they are going to choose a college, a career, and a spouse. When we discuss the criteria they will use to choose a spouse, the answers usually range from "a great body" to "a lot of money" and from "common interests" to "a good sense of humor." All in all, I am amazed at how peer-driven and insecure so many young people are today, in a world where they have more opportunities than any generation before them.
Some time ago, at an all-girls' high school in Louisville, Kentucky, our discussion turned to the importance of being comfortable with ourselves. Our culture sends both young men and young women many distorting messages about how to look and act and live. I believe our culture is particularly cruel in this way toward women; the messages that are constantly being conveyed in movies, in magazines, and on television can be tremendously damaging to a young woman's psyche and sense of self.
One of the young women asked, "So, how do you learn to be comfortable with yourself?"
"You have to learn to enjoy your own company," I replied. "Before you can learn to be with someone else, you need to learn to be alone. Until you are comfortable being with yourself, you will always be afraid of being alone.
"If you are not comfortable alone, if you are not comfortable in your own company, there is a great danger you will end up hanging out with the wrong friends because you are scared to be alone...and, worse than that, if you don't learn to enjoy your own company, there's a good chance you will end up dating the wrong guys and marrying the wrong man because you will act out of your fear of being alone."
Girls always laugh when I say, "Once you have learned to enjoy your own company and once you are comfortable with yourself, you very quickly realize that most dates are not worth having. It is then that you discover that a hot bath and a good book are better than most dates."
What is true for these young women in high school is true for you and me also, and it goes without saying that men need to learn to be comfortable with themselves just as much as women do. The point is that the first step toward intimacy with others is intimacy with self. Until you are comfortable with yourself at each of the seven levels of intimacy, you will never go there with another person.
Being comfortable with ourselves is the beginning of this intimacy with self. So many of the things that stop us from becoming the-best-version-of-ourselves we do because we are afraid to step out of the crowd. One of the pivotal moments in a person's development takes place when he or she steps away from the crowd in order to defend or celebrate the-best-version-of-himself or herself. This stepping away from our peers and into ourselves is particularly important when it comes to relationships. Too many people end up in the wrong relationship because they are not comfortable with themselves and are scared to be alone.
The question remains: How do we learn to be comfortable with ourselves?
The first step is to consciously acknowledge the essential truth of the human condition. While the human person is wonderful and capable of extraordinary things, we are all broken. We are imperfect. We all have faults, failings, and flaws. The defects we so often despise are actually a wonderful part of our humanity.
The great truth that arises from our acknowledgment of the limitations and brokenness of the human race is that while we are each remarkably unique, we are in a very real way the same. In essence, no man or woman is better than the next. While this truth may become blurred by disproportionate distribution of power and wealth, it remains one of the essential truths that govern human interactions.
If we will allow ourselves to reflect adequately on the truth that we all have faults and failings, we will grow more and more comfortable with ourselves, and more and more comfortable in the company of others, be they kings or crowds.
As long as men and women from every walk of life pretend to be so much more than they are, they will never be comfortable with themselves. We become comfortable with ourselves only when we acknowledge that we have strengths and weaknesses. Most people spend their lives trying to hide their weaknesses, and it costs them an awful lot of energy. When we humbly acknowledge our brokenness and our weaknesses, we are liberated from the great pretense. We no longer have to spend all that energy pretending that we are someone we are not, and with our weaknesses out in the open we are now free to work to overcome them or to learn to live with them.
While these words fall very easily to the page and, I hope, make sense, as with most things it is much more difficult to achieve this disposition than it is to write about it. Returning, then, to our question: How do we learn to be comfortable with ourselves? Only by spending time alone. One of the arenas that all men and woman of great achievement have learned to master is the garden of solitude. In the past I have written extensively about the classroom of silence, but in my recent reflections I have come to realize that I have been remiss in neglecting to mention the enormous value of solitude.
It is in solitude and silence that we learn most about ourselves. In those precious moments, undisturbed by the comings and goings of the world, we are able to develop a sense of our legitimate needs, our deepest desires, and our talents and abilities. We have much to learn from silence and solitude. We have a tremendous need to step into the great classrooms of silence and solitude each day for a few moments to get reconnected with ourselves.
It may seem a little paradoxical, but the first step in achieving intimacy with others is getting comfortable with yourself.
Most people are not comfortable with themselves. I know there are many circumstances when I am not comfortable with myself, or with others. For example, I am horribly shy among strangers. I know, it sounds absurd, because I am in those settings every single day, yet they make me very uncomfortable. Once I know somebody or have been introduced I am fine, but I don't think I have introduced myself to a stranger in ten years.
Most people can't see that about me. They find the idea preposterous and tend to say things like "But you speak in front of thousands and thousands of people!" It doesn't matter. That's different. Only the people close to me become aware, over time, of this strange shyness.
As I write, it occurs to me that I will have to force myself to introduce myself to some strangers in the days and weeks ahead. Doing so will help me grow. It will help me become more comfortable with myself.
In one way or another most people are not comfortable with themselves and their discomfort can limit the way they experience intimacy.
If we are going to experience intimacy -- that is, to reveal ourselves -- to some extent we have to know ourselves and be comfortable with ourselves. I say "to some extent" because nobody knows himself completely and nobody is completely comfortable with herself. The effort to truly know yourself is a lifelong effort, much like our quest to become the-best-version-of-ourselves!
The first step toward experiencing true intimacy is getting comfortable with yourself and learning to enjoy your own company.
Beyond the Myth
The seven levels of intimacy will help you move beyond the myths and illusions that our modern culture sustains regarding relationships. Free from these myths and illusions, you will be able to move into a genuine understanding and experience of intimacy in your own life. If we can move beyond our one-dimensional physical view of intimacy, and learn to explore the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual aspects of ourselves and each other, we will find reason to spend a whole lifetime together.
The one-dimensional view of intimacy as sex simply does not have what it takes to sustain a relationship. And while our primary goal in a relationship is not simply to sustain it, intimacy can only truly be experienced in a relationship that spans many years.
Intimacy is mutual self-revelation. It is two people constantly discovering and rediscovering each other. It is an endless process because our personalities have an endless number of layers. Conversation, shared experiences, and simply spending time together peel back these layers and reveal new and different aspects of our personalities. Intimacy is also a constant rediscovering because our preferences change, our hopes and dreams change, and as a result so does the way we want to spend our days and weeks. Intimacy takes time.
If we can move beyond the myth that intimacy equals sex and learn to enjoy discovering another person in all the wonderful ways in which that is possible, then relationships have the power to bring a level of fulfillment and satisfaction that no other human activity can produce.
There is a song entitled "Faithfully" by the band Journey that speaks about life on the road as a musician, the endless hours on the bus traveling under the "midnight sun," and the separation from family and friends that such a life creates. One line has always struck me powerfully. In contrast to the challenges being on the road creates in his relationship, the performer sings, "I get the joy / Of rediscovering you." Too often, we make the monumental mistake of thinking we know a person. This assumption can stop a relationship from growing and can smother the growth of a person. It is impossible to know a person completely. And because we are constantly changing as individuals, there are constantly new facets of our personalities for those who love us to discover.
The real tragedy is that once we fool ourselves into believing we know a person, we stop discovering that person. If they do something that doesn't fit our mold for them we say, "Why did you do that? That's not like you!" The process of discovering another person in a relationship is endless. The discovering and rediscovering of each other is intimacy. It is not a task to be finished so you can move on to the next task. It is a process to be enjoyed.
You may think you know just about everything there is to know about your partner, but you will be amazed at what you are missing out on if you open yourself up to taking another look. So, from time to time, it may help to approach each other as if for the first time. In this way you will experience the joy of rediscovery.
Intimacy is not always about seeing new things. Sometimes it is about seeing what has always been before you, but in a different light or from a new perspective.
Copyright (c) 2005 by Beacon Publishing/Matthew Kelly
Excerpted from The Seven Levels of Intimacy by Matthew Kelly Copyright © 2005 by Matthew Kelly. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted November 11, 2009
I re-read this book every time I get into a new relationship, and it reminds me that mutual happiness is not a passive journey. I also gift it to my mate, and can usually tell the future potential by gauging their reaction to its tenets.
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Posted February 1, 2007
Over the years I've read many books on relationships. This one is perhaps the best. Kelly lays out his principles in plain English with much compassion. Don't let it fool you - this is not easy stuff! Still, he gets to the core of relationship. Not only does it take work but it starts with a choice - deciding, insisting even, on having a truly intimate, supportive relationship and nothing less. I can't wait to put his principles into action!
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Posted May 10, 2012
One of my favorite books. I have read it 3 times and each time feels like my first. I believe everyone should read this book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 2, 2009
I earnestly tried to read this book...... I really did. But after 100+ pages, I had to admit that I just could not connect with the author's style. Maybe at some other time, I might have had more success.<BR/><BR/>I can't say it's not a good book, since I couldn't finish it. As an analytical thinker and a "get to the point" learner, I can be an impatient reader. This book simply did not engage me. The subject matter seemed to be quite simple, but the author's treatment of it seemed rather verbose and over-the-top.<BR/><BR/>But hey.... maybe it will work for you.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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