Redefining Intimacy


The natural desire for intimacy, whether platonic, familial, or romantic is a powerful driving force. However, a poor understanding of genuine intimacy can lead us to dependency and dissatisfaction. This blog is a brief introduction to the role of intimacy at the various levels of human experience; healthy vs. unhealthy intimacy; impediments to healthy intimacy, and how to develop it. We may begin with a working definition of intimacy as simply consensually-shared closeness. Thus, at the heart of intimacy is one's capacity for unselfishness / selflessness. Sharing implies both giving and receiving freely. A giver needs a taker. The intended recipient's self-centerdness or self-absorption inhibits the personal connection required for the transaction of sharing to be completed. Thus, having entered into relationship, it becomes our obligation to adopt the roles of both giver and receiver.

In understanding the role of intimacy, we must first recognize the different domains of human experience:

  • material
  • physical-sensual
  • emotional
  • intellectual-moral
  • spiritual

It is important to note that in relationships we rarely experience intimacy in only one of these domains. However, for the purposes of understanding, we may consider them separately.

Material Intimacy

Material closeness consists in the co-mingling of material assets; the sharing of wealth into a common pool, towards a common goal. For example, business partners funding an investment project; housemates sharing common living costs; spouses creating community property.

While the sharing of material wealth can be a symbolic expression of a deeper commitment and partnership, the material level of experience per se is the grossest, and thus has minimum capacity to satisfy our need for connection. Material intimacy can also be adopted as a pure business transaction, without feelings of closeness or connectedness to others at all.

Unhealthy material intimacy would be the indiscriminate dispensation of wealth to others. Indiscriminate giving is an attempt to satisfy one's own egocentric demands. For example, a partner lavishes material gifts on his beloved in order to 'buy' her love; parents present gifts to children as a substitute for the exchange of affection; charitable contributions are made to assuage one's own guilt or discomfort from seeing inequality. When the transaction is motivated by an attempt to gain something for oneself it cannot be called unselfish, and thus loses the name of intimacy. Any positive response elicited from the recipient is short-lived: being dependent upon the gift received, it thus has no intrinsic reality of its own.

Physical-Sensual Intimacy

Two aspects of physical experience can be considered. Firstly is mere physical proximity. For example, a house full of renters share the physical space in which each one's life is led. This demands greater ongoing personal accommodation and sacrifice than the mere co-mingling of wealth. This willingness to share a physical location, the mere fact of living in a shared space, can contribute towards satisfying the desire for a sense of community. Humans are social creatures, and even a person who has never met the neighbors in her apartment building may nonetheless feel the satisfaction & security of being part of a larger unit, part of a community. Physical isolation from others can be a punishing experience.

Unhealthy proximity is to impose our presence upon others, or to be unaware of its effect on them. While excessive isolation is harmful, solitude is a vital component of psychological health. Withdrawing our presence and allowing another to simply be alone with him or herself is a gift, and an essential aspect of healthy physical intimacy: we cannot come together if we are not occasionally apart.

The second aspect to consider is sensual contact. This can range from the simplicity of a child resting against a parent, to a platonic embrace, to lovers' sexual passion. The body has a natural desire for sensual contact. (Indeed, the importance of tactile stimulation in the growth and development of infants and animals is well-documented1). Sensual intimacy satisfies desires to touch and to be touched. Sharing therefore recognizes the physical autonomy that each one possesses by right of birth, and never seeks to impose physical closeness without consent, either tacit or explicit.

Unhealthy physical intimacy expresses as indiscriminate contact, leading to neutralisation. A common analogy can be used to explain this phenomenon. Imagine you have a strong liking for mangoes, which are unavailable for nine months of the year. The first mango of the season brings a maximal surge of pleasure. You finish the first mango, and shortly thereafter a friend appears and offers you another, which you consume. What is the joy content of the second compared to the first? From there you arrive at another environment, where your young nephew sweetly offers you yet another, which you duly eat to satisfy his innocent desire to share. What is the enjoyment of this third mango? The fourth, the fifth? The enjoyment is quickly lost, reducing down to zero after just a few repetitions.


Figure taken from The Fall of the Human Intellect (Ch. IX), by A. Parthasarathy (2008) 

This example shows only the first aspect of neutralisation. Indiscriminate contact also sets up a dependency upon the object. Thereafter, in the absence of the object there is displeasure. A common example is the addiction to cigarettes. Even the thought of being without cigarettes close at hand can create anxiety in a dependent smoker. Neutralisation thus presents the worst of both worlds: we derive no pleasure from the object, yet experience displeasure in its absence. It can occur for any object or any person to whom we are attached. When desire alone determines contact, the initial excitement or freshness wears off over time, and physical contact then takes on a perfunctory or mechanical character. Indiscrimination may also result in the shunning of physical contact entirely. While this is not a problem for the mangoes in our life, it can create significant problems for our loved ones and the health of our relationships.

Healthy physical intimacy is maintained when our natural need for sensual connection is satisfied, but balanced with the knowledge of its limitation. This allows us to moderate and regulate the contact that we enjoy (while avoiding suppression), so that we may do so over the lifetime of the relationship.

Emotional Intimacy

Emotional intimacy encompasses the ability to give and receive emotions. In understanding emotional intimacy, it is important to distinguish a feeling from its expression. Sharing emotion is not its indiscriminate expression, any more than sharing wealth is its indiscriminate dispensation. Mature expression of emotion is directed to the benefit of the other specifically, or the health of the relationship in general. Feeling an emotion does not justify expressing it. A common example is the desire for parents or caregivers to praise children. There is of course nothing wrong with feeling pride and joy at our children's achievements, but as Alfie Kohn points out, it does not always serve their best interests to express this as praise. Or consider the expression of 'I love you' between two people. A constant verbal expression of affection, though genuinely felt by one partner, reduces the value and power for the other, until it becomes devoid of impact and meaning. This is not to suggest that emotions should not be expressed, but rather that it be done judiciously, and that it encompass the intent to serve the other's well-being.

The greater the depth of an emotion, the greater the difficulty in expressing it. Whereas superficial emotions have a natural tendency to express themselves, jumping off the surface of the mind at any opportunity, a truly deep and powerful emotion leaves us lost for words. In India it is often said, We don't say 'Thank you,' we have gratitude. The sharing of an emotion can express itself in significantly more powerful ways than verbally. Parents' love for children expresses as a lifetime of service and sacrifice, which often goes unnoticed until the children themselves start their own family. The gratitude of spouses for the marriage's support and partnership similarly expresses as a multitude of actions and mutual compromises rendered in the service of the other.

The emotional aspect of the personality is subtler than the physical, which is subtler than the material. The subtler the aspect being satisfied, the greater the quality and longevity of joy experienced. Thus emotional intimacy is a powerful driver in human relationships. However, if the emotional joy derived from relationships is not properly managed, it devolves into the pathological form of attachment. This emotional dependency may appear as love to the one experiencing it, but at its heart lies self-centerdness. A. Parthasarathy, in his aptly-titled book The Holocaust of Attachment, succintly defines attachment:

Love + Selfishness = Attachment2

As genuine intimacy is predicated on selflessness & sharing, attachment is its death-knell. Our attachment to another places egocentric demands on them, whether we are are of it or not. Not only do we experience a host of negative emotions when those demands are not met, but our partner experiences a sense of restriction and judgement. It is thus responsible for the disharmony and separation in a relationship. The gradual growth of attachment explains why relationships that begin so beautifully may end in a quagmire of resentment and suffering.

Intellectual-Moral Intimacy

In the same way that we create a shared space to accomodate another's physical presence, intellectual intimacy can be considered as creating the space to accommodate and respect another's values. This does not necessarily mean agreeing with another's value system or moral position, nor condoning or permitting behaviors arising from them. Instead it refers to the ability to share the other's perspective, appreciating that his values are held with the same fondness and certainty with which we hold our own. A common example is the way in which we view young children. When a child misbehaves or acts in a harmful way, we recognize the immature perspective from which she views the world. There is no frustration or antagonism, even as we correct or censure her behavior.

At the same time as respecting other's values, we retain an openness and readiness to share our own, without expecting another to appreciate or agree with them. Just as we would never impose our physicality on another without consent, we would never seek to impose our own beliefs and values. While sharing our values is directed at enhancing the other's well-being, the fundamental principle of education is that knowledge is taken and never given. Thus, if a person is not receptive to our views, the ideas presented will fall on deaf ears. The best we can hope for is to be ignored. Often, the other will develop a rigid antipathy towards our apparent wisdom - even if it is logically sound and in their best interests. An example of this is the nagging and sermonizing of parents to teens. It will tend to result in either an intellectual & emotional shut-down, or an active rebellion against the overbearing parents and their values.

Our intellectual-moral values are subtler again than the emotions that we experience. A value has been defined as by Rokeach as:

A centrally held, enduring belief which guides actions and judgments across specific situations and beyond immediate goals to more ultimate end-states of existence.3

A relationship that is built on shared values thus provides a common purpose, stability, and longevity that is unsurpassed by any of the above aspects of the personality.

Spiritual Intimacy

There is no such thing as spiritual intimacy. Spirituality refers to the practices applied for the reduction of ego and egocentric desires & attachments. Intimacy pertains to the relationship between two or more people. However, spirituality is the path of discovering one's own Self. While others may provide invaluable material, emotional, or intellectual support to our spiritual practice, ultimately one treads this path in solitude. Nobody can occupy the subjective domain with us.

Spirituality traces the path of human development, and has two important markers. Firstly, one becomes more self-sufficient, less dependent upon the world for satisfaction or stability. We thus place fewer demands upon our loved ones, offering them the freedom to explore themselves without carrying the burden of our dependency. One secondly develops greater identification with and compassion for all other beings. This enhances our ability to share and to serve others' needs.

Understanding and implementing a consistent program of self-development thus becomes each one's primary obligation in life. The love and harmony that we experience with others is precious, and not impervious to the demands of ego. Knowledge and practice of life's higher truths empowers us with the living wisdom required to protect and preserve the love that we bear.

2 ^ A. Parthasarathy. (2014). The Holocaust of Attachment. A. Parthasarathy. Ch. III

3 ^ Rokeach, M. A. (1968). 'A Theory of Organization and Change within Value-Attitude Systems.' Journal of Social Issues. 24 (1), 13–33.