Cultivating Intimacy part 2posted on February 13th, 2013 / by Alan Smith / 6 Comments
Nancy and I have an amazing sex life.
I’m sure you’re all very happy for us. I share this, not to brag, but rather to make an important point about intimacy, one that applies to every level of intimacy but is most easily explained through talking about great sex.
Our marriage hasn’t always been great in every facet. The first few years were tough, and we’ve had to grow and are still growing in many areas. But things have been consistently good in the bedroom all along. I think there’s a reason for this.
Fun and frequent sex happens when both husband and wife understand what the other person needs and works to meet those needs. This isn’t a quid pro quo, either. It’s not a give-to-get scenario at all. Give-to-get is about control and manipulation in order to protect and serve self. Rather, it’s a give-to-give process that just inevitably winds up with some good receiving along the way.
Intimacy in other aspects of relationship works in the same way. Intimacy has the best chance to develop where both parties are effectively communicating what they need and, at the same time, working to meet the needs of the other person.
Intimacy involves seeing and being seen, knowing and being known. It requires the emotional risk of vulnerability, which grows and thrives where emotional safety is intentionally cultivated. Safety is cultivated through meeting needs. When we risk vulnerability and our needs go unmet, relational safety deteriorates and intimacy becomes difficult.
And this is the point where things can get very murky if we don’t clarify what we mean by “needs.”
Most people don’t understand the difference between need and dependency. Failing to make this important distinction, we bring our dependency to the relationship thinking all the while that we’re just being honest about our needs; then we wonder why intimacy isn’t the result. It is critical to understand this difference.
A little baby is dependent and unable to effectively communicate what it needs. These are two distinct issues. The infant cannot feed itself, dress itself or change itself and is therefore dependent upon its parents to meet these needs. The infant cannot speak and must therefore resort to what Danny Silk refers to as “behaving his or her needs.” The baby screams until the parents figure out what’s wrong, usually through trial and error, and then lovingly meet that need. The baby is unable to use words to help the parents understand what it needs.
Immaturity is marked by dependency and behaving needs. When adults are immature, they look to another to do for them what they can and should do for themselves. Rather than verbally communicating what they need for the relationship to be strong, they “behave” their neediness and dependency, usually through controlling and manipulative behaviors. They scream, they withdraw, they withhold, they intimidate, they sulk and pout.
Maturity is the process whereby a child develops—increasing in independence (can manage self) and increasing in communication ability (can verbalize needs).
Growth in these two areas actually necessitates a redefinition of what a “need” is. While immature, a need is equated with dependence. I need that which only you can supply. I am unable to manage me so I am dependent upon you to be okay. With maturity comes self-management and more independence. I am able to manage me. I will be okay regardless of what you do. I am not dependent upon you. I don’t need you, at least not in a dependent sense. Instead I am able to choose you.
But for our relationship to be healthy and strong, there are things we both need. Mature adults will vulnerably communicate those needs.
When I express my need from a place of dependency I inevitably wind up functioning in manipulation and control. Rarely is this communication mature and verbal. Rather, we tend to behave these needs in an effort to manipulate the other person into meeting them.
When I express my need from a place of mature independence I am expressing authentic vulnerability, offering you my true self, risking rejection or hurt, but cultivating a safe place for you to engage with me in intimate relationship. By doing this I also offer you the opportunity to offer your own vulnerability, thereby giving me an opportunity to meet your needs.
When “I need” means that I won’t be okay if you don’t respond according to my expectations—that’s dependency.
When “I need” means that I’m vulnerably presenting my true self, offering you an opportunity to engage with me in building intimacy in our relationship, that’s a mature need.
Dependency is offered for my sake.
Needs are communicated to strengthen relationship—for our sake.
Dependency is expressed with the assumption that I can control you and you can control me, that we are both powerless and unable to manage self. Legitimate needs are expressed with the assumption that we are both able and expected to manage our selves in the relationship.
When two mature people are both able to communicate what they need for the relationship to be strong and both are able to prioritize meeting the needs of the other, not to get something in return, but to deepen connection, then there is a safe environment for intimacy to grow.
Where are you in the process of maturity? Do you live from a place of independence with a clear sense of your ability to manage self? Do you consistently use words to communicate your needs without anger, guilt, shame or other manipulative strategies attached?
If you’ve discovered a need to mature in these areas, the key is discovering God as your source. Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit. Surrendering the ways we protect self and look to others as our source will result in a growing ability to self-govern. This will empower us toward authentic vulnerability and true intimacy.