Last week I talked about love, and I want to follow up by cashing out the ideas of trust and intimacy and how they relate to it, and finish up on Wednesday by demonstrating how this all fits together into a useful model. I don’t talk a lot about feelings here, preferring to talk about beliefs and expectations, but feelings certainly play no small part. The way someone makes us feel can be a justification for expressing love or trust for them, or desiring deeper intimacy, but I don’t think feelings tell the whole story. We feel things for reasons after all, and those reasons can often be understood and addressed. I can’t really address feelings for other people, because we’re all going to feel things in different ways. My goal is to provide a method of mapping out those feelings and perceptions in such a way that they’re easier to communicate to others.
I sort intimacy separately from love because it seems like you can be intimate with someone without loving them, and love someone without being very intimate with them. For example, I could be emotionally intimate with a therapist, but wouldn’t love them; and I can love a child I sponsor in a developing country without being very intimate with them. Intimacy is important though, because it’s what shapes our relationships. We can sort just about every relationship we have with people based on the kinds and depth of intimacy we have with them. With our parents we might have a great deal of emotional and intellectual intimacy, but not a lot of physical, whereas with a lover, we might have a greater depth of physical intimacy as well. I categorize intimacy into three different types.
- Intellectual: Intellectual intimacy centres on sharing ideas and arguments. People who are intellectually intimate trust that they’ll respect each other as interlocutors, and listen to what the other has to say, making arguments without being concerned about offending. An example of a relationship with high intellectual intimacy but very little emotional or physical would be that of a student and a teacher.
- Emotional: Emotional intimacy focuses on sharing feelings and being willing to be emotionally vulnerable with the other person. The deeper the emotional intimacy is, the more important the feelings which can be comfortably shared are, and the more emotional risks a person might be willing to take. An example of a relationship with high emotional intimacy but very little intellectual or physical would be that of a therapist and a patient.
- Physical: While the deepest parts of physical intimacy could be concerned with sex, physical intimacy covers being willing to be physically vulnerable with another person in any way. An example of a relationship with a great deal of physical intimacy but little emotional or intellectual would be that of teammates on a cheerleading squad, who have to trust each other with their physical safety on the field.
These categories cover a large range of human interaction, and every relationship can map onto them differently. One might be middlingly emotionally and physically intimate with a personal trainer, trusting their guidance about fitness and sharing feelings and concerns about change with them. One could be greatly intellectually and emotionally intimate with a close friend, with whom one shares their deepest thoughts and feelings.
Trust operates beside intimacy, but isn’t a kind of intimacy. It’s possible to trust someone without being intimate with them, but not possible to be intimate with a person without trusting them (intimacy is defined as willing vulnerability, remember. Unwilling vulnerability isn’t necessarily intimacy). It’s important to talk about trust because it’s a marker for how ready someone is to increase intimacy. For instance, a person might define a certain threshold of trust or comfort before being willing to open up and become more emotionally intimate. Therapists recognize this, and often begin with small steps and assessments, rather than attempting to dive headfirst into a person’s psyche. Similarly, coaches for sports teams, as well as drill sergeants in the army, use trust building exercises to encourage the people for whom they’re responsible to become more physically intimate by trusting each other with their safety.
Intimacy and trust relate to love in that they’re factors of human relationships, especially romantic ones, but they’re all separate continuums. Trust and intimacy can exist without love, and love can exist without trust. One might not trust their newborn child (it’s unclear to me in what sense you would trust a newborn child, who has little power to affect your interests directly), but one could certainly love the child with no issues.
So intimacy tells us the kinds of things a person is willing to share with another, love tells us the kinds of things they’re willing to give up for another, and trust tells us about how they could be ready to share more, as well as why they’re ready to share as much as they do. On Wednesday, we’ll see how this all fits together, and I’ll try and show how we can map not just our current assessments of a relationship, but our goals for that relationship, in a way that’s intellectually intelligible to everyone involved, and can serve as an opportunity for discussion. Tell me, what do you think about intimacy? Is that what’s really important, or are there pieces to this puzzle that I haven’t taken into account?