We’ve heard it said that intimacy means “into-me-see.” This wordplay is not particularly clever, and the model for relating that’s implied is both overly intrusive and somewhat superficial. The definition is partially redeemed by the fact that it does not stress verbal communication, which many modern relationship experts have conflated with intimacy. True intimacy is often, and perhaps most often, something that exists outside the realm of verbal expression.
There is both less and more to being intimate than seeing into someone. For starters, there is no way you can truly see into another. Your view will inevitably be incomplete and shaded by your own perceptions and prejudices. Attempting to see and understand your partner’s inner world is valid and has its place (just as communicating verbally has its place), but the effort is better understood as an imaginative act. Trying to see into someone is a step toward building empathy, but it is not the only factor, or even the primary factor, when it comes to creating intimacy. It’s more productive to think about intimacy in a relationship as a process that involves some very careful balancing, something that evolves with time and cannot be forced. True intimacy is about having the skill to be at once separate and connected and being able to tolerate the sometimes paradoxical demands of striking this balance.
As Esther Perel observed in Mating In Captivity:
When the impulse to share becomes obligatory, when personal boundaries are no longer respected, when only the shared space of togetherness is acknowledged, and private space is denied, fusion replaces intimacy and possession co-opts love. It also becomes the kiss of death for sex. Deprived of enigma, intimacy becomes cruel when it excludes any possibility of discovery. When there is nothing left to hide, there is nothing left to seek.
Thus, some forms of intimacy can be stifling. Perel also wisely explains that notions of intimacy used to be founded on respect, and relationship success was understood as being contingent on a shared sense of purpose and project. She makes a strong case that the exalting of intimacy is a new development in human society, emerging in conjunction with the modern idea that romantic love should be the basis for marriage or any long-term relationship. But Perel’s most important point is that this modern form of intimacy, with its focus on verbal expression and its tendency to be intrusive, is likely to suck the erotic energy out of a relationship.
The truth is that most people find sexual encounters with new partners to be particularly exciting, though not always as gratifying as being with someone familiar. Either way, there’s a huge difference between having sex with someone you barely know and having sex with a partner you’ve been with for a decade. If they’re honest, most people will acknowledge some measure of craving novelty; part of novelty’s allure has to do with the mysterious nature of the new partner and the excitement associated with exploring that person’s unfamiliar physical and mental territory. Seduction involves both mystery and the promise of at least partial disclosure. Although every “other”—even someone with whom you’ve spent many years—remains fundamentally opaque and mysterious, it’s easy to forget this when you know a great deal about another person and have spent a lot of time together.
And in the realm of sex, if you have easy access, there’s usually no need to put a lot of effort into seduction. While it is said that familiarity breeds contempt, and that’s true in some instances, we suspect that it more frequently breeds boredom and lack of interest, which are the real antitheses of love. Bear in mind that your partner will always remain a mystery, at least in some ways. This mysterious element is often negated by the intrusive demands of “into-me-see.” Instead of denying the mystery, we suggest that you celebrate it.
A first step in this process is recognizing that you don’t have to share everything with your partner and that retaining some measure of personal privacy, both physical and mental, is not wrong, is not a rejection, is not a refusal to connect. We all need our solitude and our private realms, even though we live in a society that demands ever-increasing self-disclosure, and in which privacy seems like a very quaint notion. In many societies that are less materially well off, there is little personal privacy, and as Perel observes, people in these societies often have no wish for more intimacy. In the pre-Internet era, individual privacy became very important in the Western world, but today many forms of privacy are mere memories. We are thus advocating a way of being that goes against much of the thrust of contemporary culture, but maintaining a realm of personal inner space is important for anyone who wants to lead a balanced life.
We like to distinguish between what’s private and what’s secret. Some measure of privacy is important no matter how intimate you are. Defining that realm of privacy is highly individual. There’s no formula for it, and it will undoubtedly change over time in any relationship. The distinction between privacy and secrecy (or the corrosive form of secrecy we’re describing) is not always obvious. Recognizing it, and being honest with yourself about which is which requires a high degree of self-awareness and some vigilance. When behaviors start to feel compulsive or you repeatedly find yourself quitting your web browser hurriedly when your partner enters the room, you’re probably no longer just keeping something private.
It may seem self-contradictory in the extreme for us to define love as profound interest, suggest that a collaborative attitude is a key to having a fulfilling relationship, advocate open and frank discussion of sex and fantasies, and at the same time suggest that there’s a need for a private realm and that too much intimacy can be stifling. The apparent conflict is a consequence of the way people have been trained to think, not of what we’re advocating. The essential point is that there’s a need to balance these aspects of a relationship for things to work well. It’s crucial to maintain a mutually respectful attitude, to develop a shared sense of adventure and exploration, to take pleasure in giving pleasure, and to find ways to connect, while being comfortable with the reality that we all need to turn inward at times. Indeed, we have to wonder whether some of the behavior that gets labeled sex or pornography addiction (and the secrecy that so often accompanies these activities) represents a rather desperate and counterproductive response to the excessive demands for intimacy and connection that our culture imposes on relationships.
Thus, one aspect of maintaining a sense of mystery involves recognizing and allowing for separateness, even in the closest of relationships. It’s up to you both to define what kind of separateness is optimal for each of you. It may involve keeping certain fantasies private, accepting that a partner can masturbate without telling you about it, or watching porn alone. For some, it can mean opening the relationship. We don’t have any moral judgments about this, and it is up to you to arrive at a mutual understanding.
The demand for total disclosure is the source of a great deal of unnecessary suffering. If it is not OK to have fantasies and desires other than ones that involve your long-term mate, yet you experience those fantasies and desires, the only option is to stifle your urges and your sexuality. This will affect your relationship. Allowing these feelings and, indeed, acknowledging the reality that it is at least theoretically possible to act on them can keep things vital. Perel calls this “the shadow of the third” and suggests that in a healthy relationship, it must be acknowledged, at a minimum.
Beyond acknowledging (or welcoming) the shadow of the third into your bedroom, there are practical ways to keep the sense of mystery alive in your relationship. You can begin by looking for the unexpected and allowing yourself to be surprised by your partner. Sex may seem routine, but that’s an intellectual judgment.
The reality is that even if you have been with the same person thousands of times, you never know exactly what is going to happen, and there’s always the option of trying something different: having sex in another room, in a new position, or at a different time of day. You may even discover that your partner enjoys something you never dreamed she would.
Whatever the variation, the important thing is to refrain from having a goal other than observing. Avoid becoming attached to a specific outcome. In this context, we’re suggesting that the experiment involve something that’s reasonably close to things you’ve already done together; this isn’t about exploring deeply held fantasies or pushing boundaries. Instead, this is an opportunity to notice new things in the context of a slight departure from the routine and especially to be surprised by something in your partner’s response. It can be very small and subtle, but the point is to recognize and celebrate it, so that you will remember that your partner is and always will be at least somewhat mysterious. And even if you don’t observe anything new, if each of you can create the mere expectation that surprises are possible, you may start to see each other somewhat differently.
Tip: Small Adjustments Can Change Your Experience
It is often harder to change your routine than it is to recognize that you have one. Here are some suggestions that should get you started.
Candlelight—there’s nothing like a warm glow to help you see your lover differently.
Change of clothing—this doesn’t have to be expensive lingerie and can be something as simple as a silk shirt.
Play music—you can have fun with this by trying anything from Barry White to “Ride of the Valkyries.”
Change your position—there’s no need for acrobatics; this can involve minor adjustments from changing the angle of your hips, to standing, or challenging yourselves with the ancient college rule that “one foot must remain on the floor.”
Try a different lube—this can be subtle, but you’ll discover that using different types of lube produces different sensations. Avoid brands that claim to be warming; they can irritate the skin.
Change your location—even if you need to remain in your bedroom, you can still create small changes in your environment. Bring in a bench, massage table, or footstool.
Once you start playing around with these small changes, you may realize that there’s no need to make love the same way twice.