Intimacy is the ability to be real with a significant other, the ability to be known for who we really are. And being seen in this way requires that we are secure enough to take a risk and be vulnerable.
Sex addiction has been described as an “intimacy disability.” Addictive behaviors are ways to deal with stress and negative emotions; ways that do not depend on other people for soothing or emotional support. Addicts feel mistrustful about being open with their needs and have a deep rooted belief that no one who really knew them could love them.
In recovery, addicts learn to reconnect with themselves and with their inner feelings without running away. And they learn to reconnect with other people with more trust and less fear of rejection.
But addiction treatment does not automatically resolve all the addict’s fears about being known and about sharing all of themselves with a partner. Becoming intimacy-“abled” is a much longer process than that of simply kicking an addiction.
Building intimacy skills
It is all very well to tell people to stop judging, to set appropriate boundaries or to “speak your truth in the moment.” But these can seem pretty abstract and hard to put into practice.
Here are some specific kinds of behavior that the addict can focus on and some ideas about why they may help promote intimacy.
Nurturance involves giving someone what they need. But in a relationship with a partner it also implies that the nurturer gives something (reassurance, food, listening, back rubs etc.) willingly and without resentment. You don’t have to be a saint to nurture someone, and you can even do it because you are convinced that it is part of what you should do as a partner. But real nurturance does mean that you give some attention to what the other person is feeling and that you are sincerely motivated to be kind to them.
Why does being nurturing foster intimacy? Because it promotes empathy and an understanding of what your partner is like inside. If done in the right spirit, nurturing makes us more able to be caring. And taking care of someone is a way for them to feel our love and for our love to become deeper.
Also nurturing another person has the potential to bolster our own self esteem, even if that is not the original motivation. When we give freely in this way it means that we are “full,” that we are not always worrying about our own need for self enhancement.
How do you relate to a partner when dealing with something specific in your life together? It could be anything: an analysis of a movie you saw, a decision about buying furniture, or a discussion of one another’s plans and fears.
Addicts are all-or-nothing people: either we do it my way or we do it your way. Instead of engaging in a constructive back and forth the addict will simply try to convince you of their own point of view. If you are right they are wrong.
Approaching a question or topic as something to be decided together by a back and forth of ideas is new behavior for many recovering addicts. But even if it is hard to believe that your partner could be right about anything, you can still practice listening and responding to what the other person says.
This is not the same as arguing your point and trying to convince the other person. The point is to take a breath and allow the other person’s ideas to stimulate your thinking.
It is obvious how mutual process supports intimacy. The “we” is greater than each of you alone. In mutual processing you are building something together.
It has been said that “love is not gazing into each other’s eyes, but it is gazing together at something else.” When you can share and experience with someone you are automatically providing fertile ground for intimacy.
People who share intense experiences like being in combat in the armed services know that there is an automatic intimacy of a sort just from having gone through the same thing. When we share something we re-affirm our common humanity because, to a great extent we have the same reactions to things. This is especially true for powerful experiences like joy and triumph.
But sharing a joke or a sunset or a silly cat video can help feed intimacy. This does not require any particular skill; simply that you make sure that you include times when you share experiences in your daily life together.
Fake it ‘til you make it
Fake it ‘til you make it is an idea that is often heard in 12-step meetings. It means that you engage in healthy behavior even before you have fully embraced it. And the theory is that in time you will come to feel that it is part of who you are.
In relationships it is also important to engage in specific caring behaviors and ways of relating. Otherwise couples can end up endlessly talking, reading and “working on the relationship” without really getting anywhere.