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Handling Intimacy

Chapter 11: Handling Intimacy

Tools for Relationships

By: James J. Messina, Ph.D.


What is intimacy in a relationship?

Intimacy with another person is the:

  • Unmasking of yourself in order to make yourself vulnerable in a trusting, loving, secure relationship.
  • Sense that you have a special, unique, and distinct bond joining you and another person.
  • Sense of closeness, proximity, and being in tight.
  • Sense of oneness, unity, and uniqueness.
  • Sense of being exposed, undefended, and fragile.
  • Sharing of tenderness, caring, and affection.
  • Sharing of secrets, hidden tales, and private thoughts.
  • Free will offering and receiving of each others' generosity, giving and sharing.
  • Sense of being in a nonpunitive, nonabusive and noncoercive environment.
  • Mutual respect, recognition, and approval of each other's need to be a sexual being. In a marital relationship this shared sexuality ultimately results in loving sexual intercourse.


How can you recognize intimacy in a relationship?

The following ten statements describe intimate relationships:

  • Continuous, honest communication and contact with one another exists even if the contact is not in person but is by phone, mail, or some other form.
  • A mutual task to carry out at home, school, or on a job is willingly shared, discussed, and enjoyed together.
  • An affinity or attraction to one another exists to the exclusion of others.
  • The company of one another is sought even when you both have a wide selection of other individuals from which to choose.
  • A sixth sense, ESP, or other extra-perceptual facility develops with which you can communicate at a nonverbal level, with no need for words to clutter or detract from the communication.
  • A sense of humor, sense of play and casualness develops in which you enjoy give and take and are relaxed in each other's company.
  • A protective sense of privacy and guardedness about your relationship exists; it is not subjected to public scrutiny, criticism, or judgment.
  • The relationship is a productive enterprise resulting in mutual satisfaction, reward, and reinforcement for each other.
  • The relationship has a purpose, direction, and order to it that is reasonable, realistic, and healthy for both of you.
  • A firm commitment, agreement, or contract exists with each other to be mutually supportive, understanding, and accepting of one another.

What are some obstacles to establishing intimacy in a relationship?

The following behavior patterns or feelings are barriers to establishing healthy intimacy in a relationship:

  • Inability to develop trust in one another
  • Chronic sense of insecurity
  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of being vulnerable to being hurt or subjected to pain
  • Inability to take a risk
  • Inability to let go of hurts and fears from previous relationships
  • Lack of role models for healthy intimacy
  • Inability to recognize or accept one's own problem in handling intimacy
  • Inability to control the impact of anger, hostility, or resentment in the relationship
  • Fear of losing the other in death or some other calamity
  • Fear of being successful in the attainment of intimacy
  • Inability to accept one's own responsibility in developing intimacy in the relationship
  • Inability to handle conflict within the relationship
  • Poor problem-solving between the partners
  • Fear of loss of approval; fear of rejection
  • Chronic defensiveness
  • Over aggressiveness or passivity between the parties
  • Power struggles between the parties for control of the relationship
  • Competition between the parties
  • Poor communication
  • Blaming each other for problems in the relationship
  • Fear of being too exposed or being found out for whom you really are
  • Fear of claustrophobia or being smothered in the relationship
  • Desire to be left alone, isolated, and ignored
  • Mental or physical health problems that impede the relationship's growth
  • Fear that the relationship will become sexual in nature (especially if the parties are not married)
  • Fear of loss of identity
  • Inability to show affection, tenderness, or caring
  • Inability to be open, honest, and forthright
  • Being in denial about needing help


If the parties are married or are sexual partners, other obstacles to intimacy include:

  • Fear of sexual intercourse
  • Fear of impotency, premature ejaculation, or no ejaculation
  • Physically based sexual problems
  • Lack of candor, openness, or honesty concerning sexuality
  • Unwillingness to be creative, explorative, or imaginative sexually
  • Embarrassment with one another in the sexual arena
  • Poor body image and discomfort with nudity
  • Hang-ups due to moral, religious, or value beliefs
  • Lack of appropriate education regarding sexuality
  • Unwillingness to establish a healing environment

What negative consequences come from being unable to handle intimacy in a relationship?

If a person has a problem securing, establishing, or maintaining intimacy in a relationship (in or out of marriage) that person is most likely going to feel:

  • Unwanted
  • pessimistic about the future
  • uncared for
  • depressed
  • undesirable
  • anxious over personal performance
  • lonely
  • inadequate
  • isolated
  • confused about sexual identity or adequacy
  • abandoned
  • not “good enough”
  • rejected
  • left alone
  • unloved
  • low in self-belief
  • unattractive
  • unwilling to get involved
  • angry, resentful, or hostile


What beliefs prevent an individual from establishing intimacy with another?

  • If I open myself up to another person, I am bound to get hurt and/or taken advantage of.
  • People with whom I have been involved with in the past have abused, neglected, and mistreated me. How can I expect it to be different in the future?
  • People have said to me I love you and I hate you in the same breath. I get so confused. How can I ever believe anyone?
  • If you open yourself up to trust someone, they will always take advantage of you.
  • I am a worthless, useless, piece of junk. How could anyone ever care about me?
  • You are a slut, a whore, or a pig if you delight in sexual escapades with your husband.
  • You are a failure as a man and a husband if you ever fail to satisfy your wife sexually.
  • A women's role is to be subservient to men in all respects.
  • All men are out to rape or violate you.
  • All women are out to seduce, grab, or chain you into a jail called marriage.
  • It is impossible to have a close friend of the opposite sex without the relationship becoming sexual in nature.
  • Married men and married women should never seek out friendships with married or single people of the opposite sex. It doesn't look good and people will never understand.
  • People who have close friendships in which they exchange signs of physical affection (like hugging and kissing) with partners of the same sex must be homosexual.
  • It is a feminine trait to be openly affectionate with another.
  • No one can keep a secret, so keep your personal business to yourself.
  • Intimacy always means sexuality and sexuality always means sexual intercourse.
  • It is impossible for men (or women) to remain faithful in a relationship.
  • Never get close to the people you work with!
  • Whenever you open yourself up to intimacy, you are bound to lose your friend through death or some other form of disaster.
  • I can take care of myself just fine. I don't need anyone else to clutter up my life.

What behavior traits could people develop to handle healthy intimacy in a relationship?

In order to secure, establish, and maintain healthy intimacy in a relationship you must:

  • Develop self-confidence in your ability to handle a relationship
  • Believe in your self-worth, your goodness and abilities
  • Let go of your fears
  • Open yourself up to trust in the goodness of others
  • Accept your body and body image
  • Learn to take a chance, take a risk
  • Have knowledge of the required attributes of a healthy relationship
  • Resolve feelings about past hurts, pains, and failures
  • Handle disagreements, conflicts, or fights
  • Forgive and forget past hurts
  • Work out anger, resentment, and hostility over the past
  • Work out blocking irrational beliefs about relationships
  • Maintain mutual assertiveness in the relationship
  • Problem-solve, make decisions, and execute plans to correct, rectify, and enhance the relationship
  • Reduce competition and the struggle for power and control in the relationship
  • Loosen up and show signs of physical affection and love to others
  • Improve communication to an open, honest, and productive level
  • Address the sexual issues in the relationship
  • Recognize the need for professional help and obtain such assistance
  • Work out hang ups, resistance, and objections to healthy, normal sexual relationship with your partner

What steps can improve intimacy in a relationship?


Step 1: Before you can improve the level of intimacy in a relationship, you need to identify those with whom you already have an intimate relationship and those with whom you desire to develop a relationship. Answer the following questions in your journal:

  • In reviewing the ten statements in the second section of this chapter, identify which people in your current life you (1) have an intimate relationship with at home, on the job, at school, or in the community, and (2) have the desire to establish an intimate relationship with (but to this point have been unable to do so).
  • For each of the persons identified above, review the obstacles to establishing intimacy in the third section of this chapter, and identify the obstacles present that impede the intimacy between you and each person.
  • For each of the persons identified, review the negative consequences in the fourth section of this chapter. Identify those negative consequences present due to the lack of intimacy you have with each person.


Step 2: Once you have identified the persons with whom you have intimacy problems and those with whom you desire to be intimate, identify those beliefs blocking your growth in intimacy with each of the people. Develop a replacement belief for each of the irrational ones.


Step 3: Once you have developed the replacement beliefs, identify those behavior traits you need to develop to correct your intimacy problems. To do this, review the behavior traits listed in the fourth section of this chapter; list them in your journal.


Step 4: Now that you know you have problems in intimacy that need correcting, review the Tools for Coping Series tools and identify the ones that will be useful in correcting your intimacy problems.


Step 5: To help you overcome problems or enrich your intimacy with a person, try one or both of the following activities with the person:


Activity 1: Secret-Telling Game

With a person who is in an intimate relationship with you, sit back to back on the floor with backs touching. You are to alternate turns. First, you share a secret you have been told by the other. In telling your partner the secret, relate when it was told to you, how you felt and reacted once you were given the secret, and how well you have kept the secret to yourself. Each of you shares secrets with one another until you have exhausted the secrets shared between you. Face each other knee to knee while sitting on the floor and discuss the following questions:

  • How confidential have we kept each other's secrets?
  • How freely have we shared our secrets with one another?
  • What hinders our ability to share secrets in this relationship?
  • What can we do to improve that sharing of secrets in this relationship?
  • How comfortable were we sitting back to back in this exercise? What made us nervous?
  • How comfortable are we sitting face to face, knee to knee discussing this activity?
  • Why is sharing secrets so important in establishing intimacy in a relationship?
  • How have our past lives affected our ability to share secrets in a relationship?
  • What other areas of our relationship do we need to address in order to improve our level of intimacy?
  • What are we willing to do for each other to encourage mutual growth and intimacy?


Activity 2: Draw A Person Game

With a person who is in an intimate relationship with you, sit back to back on the floor. Each of you should have a big sheet of clean paper and crayons. While sitting in that position each of you is to draw a full body picture of the other person. Be as true to life in the picture as possible. Make it a front view of the person standing up. Be very exact in all details in drawing the body parts, face, eyes, mouth, etc. Once the pictures are completed, you are ready to take turns describing the pictures to each other. Face each other sitting knee to knee on the floor. In sharing your descriptions, discuss the following:

  • Why I think you look this way.
  • How I see you in comparison to me.
  • What parts of your face and body are attractive or appealing to others.
  • Why you are an appealing and attractive person to me.
  • What I would change on your body if I could.

Once each of you has shared your pictures with these descriptions, discuss the following questions and record your responses in your journal:

  • How comfortable was I when you described my body in such intimate detail?
  • How accurately did we picture and describe one another?
  • How open and willing were we to listen and accept the descriptions of our bodies?
  • What did this exercise tell us about each other's body image?
  • How important is body image to intimacy in a relationship?
  • How comfortable are we with our bodies touching during this exercise?
  • Were we anxious in doing this exercise? Why?
  • What does each of us need to change concerning our personal body image?
  • What are we willing to do to help the other with body image?
  • What did this activity tell us about the level of intimacy in our relationship?


Step 6: If you still have problems developing intimacy with specific people, return to Step 1 and begin again.