Intimacy. The holy grail of relationships. At least it seems that way for those of us who have searched long and hard for the “right person.” I wonder how many of us really have gotten a clear picture of what we’re looking for. Where would we have gotten such a picture? From the cinema, from literature, from our parents? When I’ve asked people what they mean by the word “intimacy”, the common reply is usually something about making one’s self vulnerable. Usually there’s no further explanation, as if the word “vulnerability” explains all. But does it really?

This is something to which I’ve recently given much thought. I’ve had to think about it because I found myself growing somewhat confused – confused about my growing comfort in relationships and my diminishing vulnerability. If intimacy is vulnerability, then I was definitely growing less intimate over the years. Either I was getting pretty lazy in my own personal development or I wasn’t fully comprehending something. The first possibility didn’t excite me much. But in addition to threatening my pride, it didn’t make much sense. Over the years, I’ve found myself gradually sharing more and more personal experience as I’ve become more self-accepting. In latter years, I’ve also received more affirmation from others that I’m intimate with them. So what gives? Why am I not quaking with terrible vulnerability?

It’s time to try out another definition. My personal belief is that intimacy is closely associated with vulnerability, but it isn’t exactly the same thing. Intimacy is sharing the truth about your experiential being – generally your desires and your feelings: the things that really define the core of who you are. When you do that, you tend to be pretty vulnerable if the other person runs you down. Most of us are much more hurt when our feelings are derogated than when our behaviors are criticized. This is especially true about our hidden desires for someone to nurture us. In an intimate relationship, this is the experiential truth that is most risky to show. When we reveal our dependence on the other person, criticism can feel devastating.

So when is intimacy not vulnerable? Perhaps there’s no way that intimacy can occur without some vulnerability. Maybe a five star psychopath would be able to reveal all of his desires without fear. That’s not possible for the rest of us. My own belief is that intimacy can be much less vulnerable, depending upon several factors. The first factor is that a person is able to use their own frame of reference. This means that the person is able to choose to rely upon his own authority for deciding that his desires and feelings are valid and important. If the person is derogated by another, it’s important that the person can quickly shift back to his own frame of reference for support.

The second factor is that his own frame of reference needs to be affirming and not derogatory. This usually has to be taught by good parenting or else later by good mentorship or therapy.

The third factor is more subtle. It has to do with emotionally letting go of the other person’s frame of reference. If we’ve been derogated and we shift back to our own frame of reference, then we’ve lost something. We’ve lost a sense of connection with that other person, and our desire for dependence has been frustrated. We’ve lost some hope that we can immediately experience that tender connection. When this happens, we can’t let go of the pain unless we have the capacity to mourn. When we have to pull back and rely on ourselves alone, it’s important to feel sad. Many of us do not do this well because we have a sense of shame about sadness. And because we’re blocked from feeling sad, we’re often blocked from pulling back into our own frame of reference. Healthy sadness is an essential tool for deepening intimacy. It allows us to lessen our risks because it allows us to separate emotionally when we need to.

So let me invite you to rethink your definition of intimacy. If intimacy is shared truth and not mere vulnerability, then we can be more hopeful. We can hope to grow in ways that give us more choices and fewer risks. We can grow in ways that reassure us that someone is truly there for us, even when the other person isn’t. We can hope to experience tender togetherness and be comfortable at the same time. Wouldn’t that be nice?