Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Emotional Intimacy

When most people think of the word intimacy, they think of a romantic relationship. Yet, there are many types of intimacy- physical, spiritual and emotional. I was recently reading “The Orphan Master’s Son” by Adam Johnson[1] and was struck by the theme of intimacy and its risks in the context of modern day North Korea. In this novel, intimacy is defined as “when two people share everything, when there are no secrets between them.” It goes on to explore intimacy between parents and children, between friends and between romantic partners. What stands out is the rarity of such intimacy.
Taking a step back, it is not so surprising. After all, how many people do we have in our lives with whom we share everything? It would not be terribly healthy if everyone knew everything. But this is what makes intimacy, whether in its fullest expression or even in parts, so wonderful. When enough trust is established for two people or a group to be safe enough to be vulnerably honest, it can be incredibly freeing and unique. In the novel, the main characters struggled to establish intimacy in the context of unsafe environments. In our own worlds, this can be true for so many of us as well. Most have had the experience of having a trust betrayed, of disclosin a secret that was revealed- in bigger or smaller ways. These experiences may cause many to hesitate to establish new, emotionally intimate relationships. Yet, they are so very important to our ability to feel connected in important ways.
A study out of University of Arizona[2] noted that people who spend more time with others and are engaged in meaningful conversations expressed a greater sense of well-being than those who either spend less time with others, or engage primarily in small talk. The more beneficial conversations are typically driven by sharing thoughts, opinions and feelings… and are the beginning of developing meaningful, emotionally intimate relationships. So how do you begin?
Many people have had the experience of a dear friend, a cherished partner, or a close familial relationship. Some may have had few such opportunities. But even those who currently have these relationships may benefit from thinking about some of the simple elements that go into having meaningful, emotionally intimate dialogue. The space in which you are engaging is important to a good conversation. Choosing an environment where everyone can be relaxed allows a more natural dialogue. Another element is daring to disclose. This does not mean baring your entire soul in one sitting, but rather, taking a chance on sharing something- a feeling, a political view, a personal experience that is important to you….. And then allowing the other person to respond, reciprocate and engage while giving them your full attention. As you offer your attention and ideas, you may find common ground from which to discuss both harmonious and discordant views on matters that are important to you both.
This can feel like it takes work… because it does. Like many things that are good for us, it can take effort, especially when we are off track. However, there are many benefits to offering thoughtful attention to the emotional intimacy in an important relationship or to developing strong, supportive relationships. If you find yourself struggling with this, please feel welcomed contact me, your Kesher social worker. I would be more than happy to talk and help identify the next steps to developing strong relationships in your life.

Rose Murrin, LICSW, is the Kesher social worker at Temple Congregation Beth Sholom.  Kesher is the congregational outreach program of Jewish Family Service of Rhode Island, generously funded by the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, and currently active at Congregation Agudas Achim, Temple Torat Yisrael, Congregation Beth Sholom and Temple Emanu-El.  She can be reached at or 401-331-1244.

[1] Johnson, A. (2012) The Orphan Master’s Son. New York, NY: Random House.
[2] Mehl, M. R., Vazire, S., Holleran, S. E., & Clark, C. S. (2010). Eavesdropping on happiness: Well-being is related to having less small talk and more substantive conversations. Psychological Science, 21, 539–541.