According to John Bowlby, the propensity to establish intimate connections to particular individuals is a basic component of human nature; it is present before birth and continues through adult life into old age. The intimate connections that people establish are an important source of meaning in their lives, and the level and quality of intimacy in these connections is directly related to their physical and psychological well-being.
What Is Intimacy?
Intimacy has been defined in many ways. Yet, there is no single definition on which all agree. There are, however, a number of characteristics on which there is consensus. First, intimacy is interpersonal. It takes place between two or more persons. Second, intimacy is reciprocal—generated not by unilateral desire but by mutual consent. Third, intimacy has cognitive, affective, and behavioral components. Intimates are willing to reveal themselves to one another, care deeply about one another, and are comfortable in close proximity.
Self-disclosure, the sharing of private thoughts, dreams, beliefs, and emotionally meaningful experiences, is often viewed as synonymous with intimacy. Yet, recent formulations emphasize that self-disclosure is only half of the process; the other half is partner responsiveness. According to Harry Reis and his colleagues, for a relationship to be intimate, self-disclosure must occur in a context of appreciation, affection, understanding, and acceptance. Indeed, an intimate experience has not taken place until there is empathic feedback—until acceptance and acknowledgment are communicated verbally or nonverbally as an indication that trust is justified. Fourth, then, intimacy is validating.
In the absence of empathy, attempts at intimate support can miss the mark. Those making emotional disclosures usually want an emotional response. Those making pragmatic or factual disclosures often want a factual response. In the absence of empathy, emotional concerns may be met with a pragmatic or problem-solving response, or, conversely, pragmatism may be met with emotion. Studies suggest that emotional disclosures lead to greater intimacy than do factual disclosures. But regardless of kind, mismatched responses leave the discloser feeling misunderstood and devalued rather than affirmed and validated. Under these conditions, intimacy will suffer.
How Are Patterns Of Intimate Relating Established?
Considerable research suggests that the capacity to establish affectional bonds begins in infancy and is rooted in the kinds of attachment styles that infants develop with their early caretakers. When parents or caretakers are consistently responsive and warm, infants develop a secure attachment style characterized in adulthood by ease in trusting and getting close to others and a comfort with both intimacy and autonomy. When parents are inconsistent and insensitive, children develop attachments described as anxious-ambivalent or preoccupied. An anxious-ambivalent style of relating is characterized by over-dependency in adulthood. Such relationships are marked by a desperate desire to merge with a partner alternating with a fear of not being loved sufficiently. When parents are cold and rejecting, children develop an avoidant style. According to Kim Bartholomew, there are two types of avoidance— fearful and dismissive. Those who are fearfully avoidant desire intimacy but experience pervasive interpersonal distrust and fear of rejection. Those who are dimissively avoidant place much value on independence. They focus on work or hobbies and defensively assert that relationships are relatively unimportant.
What Are The Benefits Of Intimacy?
Availability and quality of intimacy are associated with well-being for men and women alike. Studies showed that men who reported they felt a lack of emotional support from their wives were far more likely to experience heart attacks. Several other studies showed that both men and women in relationships rated as high in intimacy were less likely to report symptoms of depression and anxiety than those in relationships rated as low in intimacy.
In sum, intimacy is interpersonal, reciprocal, and validating. Intimacy is a process that develops, fluctuates and changes over time and is never completed or fully accomplished. Yet intimacy is an important component of human existence that gives meaning to people’s lives and is directly related to their physical and psychological well-being.
- Bartholomew, K. (1990). Avoidance of intimacy: An attachment perspectiv Journal of Social and Personal Relationships,7, 140–178.
- Bowlby, (1988). A secure base. New York: Basic Books.
- Erickson, (1993). Reconceptualizing family work: The effects of emotion work on perceptions of marital quality. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 55, 888–900.
- Prager, J. (1995). The psychology of intimacy. New York: Guilford.
- Reis, H. T., & Patrick, B. C. (1996). Attachment and intimacy: Component In E. T. Higgins & A. W. Kruglanski(Eds.), Social psychology: Handbook of basic principles (pp. 523–563). New York: Guilford.
- Steil, M. (1997). Intimacy, emotion work and husbands’ and wives’ well-being. In J. M. Steil, Marital equality: Its relationship to the well-being of husbands and wives (pp. 73–89). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.