Intimacy is a topic of increasing significance in the modern world, but in spite of the growing interest around this term, it is still difficult to pinpoint it to an exact definition due to its very subjective nature.
With the occasion of being invited as speakers at an event organized by MindsHub under the HealthEdu initiative, which aims to discuss such issues and put the unspoken out for debate, we have come up with a model designed to help us better frame experiences of such sensible and personal nature into a more objectively relatable manner.
To do this, we recommend that the reader first gets acquainted with Ken Wilber’s 4 Quadrant model, which helps one to better understand the different perspectives from which one can view any aspect of the human experience.
Wilber (2017) explains that each quadrant represents a perspective (or a dimension), and that all phenomena possess these dimensions. One can look at any object, event or being both from the interior and from the exterior, and in both individual and collective forms. Each has very different, but equally real truths, different validity claims, and different approaches or methods through which they can be accessed.
One of the underlying issues in humanity’s approach to reality is the fact that these dimensions are rarely realized together, in spite of the fact that they constitute the bases of all human disciplines, beliefs and experiences – issue which virtually guarantees a partial, fragmented, limited, prejudiced and biased view upon oneself and reality.
To better understand this, let’s think about how the field of medicine could be viewed from a 4-quadrant perspective. Below, this concept is briefly illustrated, and can, of course, be expanded:
Putting different concepts, topics, experiences, relationships and so on through the 4-quadrant perspective allows us to better understand the approached topic from a less biased perspective, since it makes it easier to acknowledge the influences our culture, background and individual experience has printed upon us and helps us to spot our blind spots.
Let us now ask what intimacy refers to. Although we acknowledge that it is a complex topic and shouldn’t be limited to a mere definition, we propose the following for the sake of clarity:
Intimacy refers to the capacity of being honest with both oneself and with others while discussing topics of a ‘difficult’ nature. (i.e., personal matters, sexual experiences, traumas, etc.)
Thus, we agreed upon intimacy being at a healthy level when the difference between who you think you are and who you present yourself as being is small.
With this in mind, I will further present a model which can be used to structure multi-faceted issues easier while keeping track of which perspective, cause or background we are referring to.
The 2-dimensional Cartesian model for relating perspectives to topics:
We agreed upon three main topics to discuss – society, death, and sex. Each topic can be approached from three different perspectives – 1) how our parents/family/teachers view the topic and the way they have or haven’t taught us to view it, 2) how our friends and social circles view and react to the topic, and 3) how our partner/s view and react to the topic and the ways their approach affects us (keep in mind that the model can be expanded – and topics can be viewed also from other perspectives, such as different cultures, communities, recently even online communities, social groups etc.) The way the people around us relate to different issues leaves a deep footprint on the way we shape our opinions and feelings regarding the world, and although it might be difficult to accept this at first, we have all been influenced and shaped by our environment. Most of the things we do and the ways we act can be traced back to something we learned from somewhere else, or to when we saw someone do something (to us or to another being or thing). There are relatively very few people who actually have created or invented something ‘by themselves’ – and even they acquired those skills and inspiration from teachers, books, loved ones, and society.
It is time to give more credit to our influencers – both in the positive and negative sense – and assume the consequences it has had on us. It is time to sit down and think about who we are and why we are the way we are, and take responsibility for it. A starting point would be asking why ‘taboo’ topics are rarely discussed in families and schools and analyze the consequences of such an approach. It is time to face our problems and backtrack them, find the possible underlying causes (which can be a person’s behavior, a situation, an experience, etc.) and look at the impact it has had on ourselves. This way, we will be able to start a healing process and move on, and be able to help others who experience similar problems fix them and so repair the society that we live in and avoid passing on the same problems to the future generations.
Now that the reason for doing this has been presented, I will return to the topics chosen. As one might have noticed, they are rather broad topics and difficult to pinpoint in a conversation. Let us do an exercise and expand them – I propose the following:
- Society -> politics, religion, social status, identity, discrimination, self-esteem
- Death -> illness, end-of-life care, fear, anguish, pain, finitude
- Sex -> love, abuse, shame, pain, consent, pleasure, openness, objectification, self-esteem
Now we can take each of these subtopics and analyze them from different perspectives. Due to the limitations of such an article, I will only approach some aspects and for the sake of exemplification, some might seem harsh or stereotypical, but they are presented in this way to encourage debate and questioning.
Let’s start with society.
- What have our parents or teachers told us about society? About politics? About religion? The answer might be rather scarce or at least ethnocentrically biased, since to think about society in an integral manner requires a certain level of self-inquiry skills and multi-disciplinary knowledge, and the generation of our parents and the political system they grew up in has not been very rich in such approaches. The same thing might have happened to our parents to a certain extent, since their parents did not talk about society and its problems, and so on. They might have told us that it is not good to discriminate, and they might believe it, but what if they are unaware that they do discriminate? Maybe they might say they aren’t sexist, for example, and that it’s not good to be sexist, but in fact the father respectfully shakes hands with all other men and barely greets the women when they meet with other people, or maybe when talking to a man and a woman, he barely looks her in the eye and continues the conversation with the other man. In a society in which these topics are avoided (maybe you are familiar with the “let’s not discuss politics or religion, it leads to fights” approach to social gatherings), it’s rather impossible not to suffer from biases and prejudices. How can parents raise their children not to discriminate, when they themselves have been discriminated against and continue to discriminate through their behavior?
- What do our friends/colleagues/social circles say about society? Most likely, especially while growing up, very little. Since parents and teachers don’t actively approach these subjects, and since the only effortless contact with these issues is through the news and direct observation, it’s rather rare to develop a socially active personality and become interested in society. Usually social circles are developed by circumstance and not by interest (such as high-school colleagues remaining friends for the fun they have together), and so rarely engage into personal development activities or become civically responsible people.
- What does our partner think about society? Hopefully, the couple has discussed these issues, although it is often that they haven’t and are engaged into a relationship driven just by desire and emotion, and haven’t actively defined its structure. Such an attitude will most likely lead to misunderstandings, unfulfillment, and fights.
To go even deeper and deconstruct our egos, let us think about death – the so dreaded concept no one likes to talk about, yet virtually the only thing we can be certain about that it’s going to happen to us. People are devastated when it hits, and regret not having said or done something sooner, and usually regret their dead. Yet when they were still alive, they prefer not to think about them dying and act as if they’re going to be here forever.
- What do our parents/teachers tell us about death? Most likely, since we live in a Christian country, we have been introduced to the customs of burying a dead person, and maybe we have been told that after we die we go to heaven or hell depending on our actions. Since science hasn’t yet figured out what’s going on after death, religion is the aspect of society which offers an explanation. Sadly, not many people who are born in a Christian family or nation (or any religion for that matter) are actually practicing and understanding their spiritual practice, and so religion has gotten to be just exoteric rituals intended to keep tradition alive. And if the esoteric aspect of a ritual is forgotten, it does not bring much happiness or fulfillment in one’s life – especially regarding death. Why else would people avoid talking about death?
- With friends and social circles, death is a less taboo concept than with family. Young people don’t usually take death seriously until it happens to someone close, since we are told that it’s something that should happen when we’re old and we tend to avoid the fact that people can die at any age.
- In a relationship, partners usually don’t talk about death or don’t discuss its implications seriously. But in case of death, the one who remains alive is usually the most devastated of the affected people, together with the parents of the deceased if that’s the case, since they most likely have defined their lives surrounding their partner (or child, in case of parents). This is something which people rarely talk about, but we all should always be aware of our finitude, and find sources of sense and fulfillment in our life also independent of our relationship and children.
Now the issues regarding sex are rather paradoxical – we are all born due to this act, yet it’s common that we are ashamed to talk about it.
- Many parents are awkward to discuss it with us, in spite of the fact that sex the underlying causal act which led to our own existence. And even if parents do discuss sex with their children, they usually stick to the ‘technical’ part of it, which explains childbirth, and often avoid the dimensions of attraction, sensuality, pleasure, consent and abuse. Children don’t receive complete sexual education in school either, and most get their understanding from the internet, which, if not researched properly, can leave one with misconceptions, prejudices and biases. Due to anatomical and psychological differences, it is usually women who have to suffer most as a consequence of this approach, since the mainstream porn industry has been focused on male pleasure and fantasy, and does not attend to feminine needs for pleasure and closeness. This way, many women develop frigidness or difficulty to orgasm or to enjoy sexual experiences and relationships.
- Certain aspects of sex are usually discussed between friends, but are rather taboo or ‘indecent’ in wider social circles. Many people giggle or react in a relatively unusual manner when this topic is approached, fact which proves the improper education they received regarding sex. Biases embed this layer of society – for example, many perceive as normal or even desirable for a man to have multiple different sexual partners, while a woman risks of being frowned upon or labeled if she acts in the same way. Problems with experiencing pleasure during intercourse are misunderstood and difficult to tackle, and many women are ashamed to talk about their experiences and express their desires, but men also face similar issues.
- Relationships usually include sex, but there are many cases in which the sexual experience is based upon prejudices and unrealistic expectations. There are cases, mostly women, which feel that they need much more time to orgasm and would need longer foreplay, but feel awkward to tell their partners. Some end up faking orgasms because they don’t know how to handle the issue or communicate their desires. Many men feel anxious due to premature ejaculation, and don’t engage into other sexual practices such as oral sex, finger play and sex toy play. There are also many different types of orgasm that can be achieved, and many different ways to achieve it, but that is such a broad topic and will be left for another article. Until then, here are several articles which tackles some of these issues: https://tonic.vice.com/en_us/article/neepb8/the-science-of-female-pleasure-still-needs-more-attention
Ken Wilber (2017) – The Religion of Tomorrow: A vision for the Future of the Great Traditions, Shambala Publications, Boulder, Colorado