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Intimacy: An article by Amy Bloom (from Oprah Magazine, October, 2001)

It’s safety. It’s the hug. The shield. But to reach that harbour, we run a major risk. Letting someone get to know the real us. No on said it was easy…but is it worth it? Amy Bloom insists nothing else in life comes close.

Sometimes it’s easier to say ‘I love you’ when we’re 3,000 miles apart. Sometimes it’s easier to have sex with someone you’ll never see again (and certainly not before coffee, or with a bad cold). Sometimes after we have knocked again and again on someone’s closed heart, it opens – and we’re suddenly sorry rather than glad, because now we have to open ours, too.

Intimacy is sold to us – through cheesy self-help books, through ten-simple-steps articles, through every glossy photo of beautiful young, couples and every softly lit icture of handsome old ones – as bliss.

It ain’t bliss.

Intimacy is the strangest, hardest, most exhausting trip any couple can take, and it is to pretty pictures as the Sahara is to Cape Cod.

Almost everyone says that they want to be intimate (and the ones who say they don’t , we mistrust – or pursue, depending on our mental health). I think what most people mean by intimate is safe. I want to be held in your warm, mothering embrace. I want to be shielded from harm and the unexpected. I want to know that when I die, someone I love will hold my hand and speak gently.

I want to be accepted unconditionally, appreciated fully, and treated with tenderness. I have seen women insist the only unhappiness in their lives is an emotionally distant husband. But when the husbands cry and murmur painfully of their own disappointments and fears, the women look put out, even angry. Oh, I think then, you didn’t mean his intimacy – you just wanted yours, your own emotional, pampering spa experience, not the actual, bumpy, unpredictable terrain of intimacy between people. And although people make much of the Mars/Venus thing, I think there are plenty of men who strive for and are capable of intimacy and plenty of women who aren’t.

A lot of us avoid intimacy in the obvious ways. We are too busy with work, too busy with the children (not necessarily being intimate even with them, just chauffeuring and supervising and managing them), withdrawing from sex, and trying not to listen to anything painful, awkward, or distressing that our spouses have to say. Some people are, if not more creative, at least sneakier. These people look so intimate, you can hardly tell where one ends and the other begins. They not only finish each other’s sentences, they finish each other’s thoughts. They have never taken a separate vacation, gone to the movies solo, or even quarreled over which restaurant to go to. In extreme cases, they dress alike and in very extreme cases, they get a dog and dress him that way, too. Symbiosis isn’t intimacy. This kind of failed closeness – the attempt to eliminate all distance and friction – precludes intimacy. The insistent mirroring is a charade, although a heartfelt and committed charade – to prove that there is no loneliness, no separation, and no difference.

Intimacy is being seen and known as the person you truly are. Anger is part of intimacy and so is disappointment.

Intimacy is difficult precisely because it requires vulnerability, even when we don’t feel safe. It requires attention to another person’s emotional well-being, even when we feel that our own is at risk. This does not mean all of your attention to your partner’s well-being, it means enough for you, (and some for the other person). Intimacy requires the acknowledgment of difference even when we wish there were none (you can easily take turns about restaurants, and movies, there’s really not much compromise on the political beliefs, family favourites or sexual preferences, and tolerating those real differences requires a genuine sense of self and a genuine respect for the other person).

For all the working toward intimacy that we’re all sure we’re doing – yearning, adjusting, demanding, and cajoling – we rarely see ourselves running away from it. Women pick distant men and mourn their fate. If you picked a cat, would you spend the rest of your life complaining that he doesn’t come when you call? If you order Champagne, are you surprised by the bubbles? We often pick partners who don’t put a high premium on intimacy because they may offer other valuable qualities that we want more (even though we hate to admit it). Ambition, strength, loyalty, earning capacity come to mind. And in fact, we pick these people precisely because they aren’t much for intimacy. We get to ask for it, insist on it, claim that we desperately need it, and yet manage not to have it. The same pattern occurs in other intimate relationships. The mother wants to be more intimate with her adult child; the child tells a difficult truth: I drink too much/ I’m unhappy in my marriage/ I’m very angry with you – and the mother changes the subject. That’s a woman who wants the roses of intimacy but not the thorns, and although she may go to her grave insisting on her wish for intimacy, her children know the truth.

A few years ago a new friend complained toward the end of a phone call that I wasn’t being intimate enough with her. I thought she might be right. I had listened to her troubles about getting pregnant and about her demanding career and I had not offered much back in the way of vulnerability. So I told her about some difficulties I’d had lately and some personal struggles I had been conscious of. After a long pause she said “I don’t mean that kind of intimacy, I mean the fun kind. The kind where we go shopping and drink Cosmos after”. It was that honesty that first attracted me to her and it was her aversion to intimacy that kept the friendship superficial. I think she told me the truth and I think most people hedge. Intimate friends are almost as rare as intimate lovers.

All intimacy is rare – that’s what makes it precious. And it involves the revelation of one’s self and the loving gaze upon another’s true self (no makeup, no fancy car, no defensive charm, no seduction) – that’s what makes it so damned hard. Intimacy requires honesty and kindness in almost equal measure (a little more kindness, I think) trust and trustworthiness, forgiveness, and the capacity to be forgiven (sometimes that’s harder), the perseverance of Marie Curie and the tenacity of ivy. It’s more than worth it – just don’t let them tell you it’s bliss.