This is a big topic for me. Not because I have an awful lot to say about it, but because the resistance I feel to changing my mind is colossal.
For a whole bunch of reasons, some known and some unknown, I have reached adulthood with the belief that to change my mind is to be flakey, inconsistent, and unreliable. Sticking to my word, on the other hand, means I am deserving of trust and love, and so being dependable is something I often strive for – at the expense of taking care of my own needs.
Naturally, this comes up most acutely in relationship. Open relationships in particular require me to check in with myself often about my comfort levels – perhaps things that felt fine a month ago no longer do. Polyamory means putting myself in potentially challenging, triggering situations often, more so than when operating within the relative security of monogamous commitments. It’s crucial to be able to acknowledge that, for whatever reason, I am feeling particularly tender and would prefer a little more care than I needed before.
If this sounds familiar to you too, then know that being able to express this to those you love and have it heard and honoured is the best way to learn that changing your mind is actually ok. That it won’t necessarily lead to abandonment or rejection.
This can be done slowly and gently, too, as with learning how to be vulnerable. Try noticing the little things that don’t quite feel right: have you changed your mind about where you want to eat after your partner has made a reservation? Or have you changed your mind about the film your date has just started playing, and you’d rather watch something different? How does it feel to acknowledge this to yourself, and to speak it out loud?
The final piece is to realise that just because you have changed your mind, it doesn’t mean that the other person has to go along with your request. You can trust them to hold their own boundaries and say no if they need to. And maybe it doesn’t matter so much anyway – often, the act of noticing and voicing your change of preference goes a long way to you feeling heard and complete.
If I were to step into a bath of water that was far too hot, I’d immediately know from the uncomfortable feeling against my skin. After stepping out and deciding to add some cold water to make it a better temperature, I might notice that I begin to rationalise or explain what had happened: I had gotten distracted and forgotten to check the temperature, or maybe I’d tell myself that I can never get the temperature right. Perhaps this leads to frustration.
But the feeling, when I first stepped in the bath and noticed that it hurt my feet, has passed. The feeling was unavoidable and unpleasant, but short-lived; the emotional component of frustration came afterwards, caused by the conscious process of telling myself a story about the feeling.
Painful feelings can be caused by other people too, but these still pass quickly if recognised without bringing history and future into the mix, turning a feeling such as anger into sticky emotional response based on a “you always do this,” or “you never seem to care.”
A very helpful thing to be able to do is to notice when we’re turning a feeling into an emotion, so that we can acknowledge the feeling and allow it to move past instead of attaching narratives to it. While feelings are caused by things outside of us, our emotions are our responsibility.
If we can separate the two and acknowledge our feelings without attachment, then we can avoid getting stuck with unhelpful emotions. We can also begin to own our emotional responses instead of blaming another for making us feel a certain way.
Sex is often such a shame-filled place, whether we realise it or not, that the easiest expression can be the least authentic one. When we feel a need to compete with others, try to imitate media or porn, or simply hide what we really want, our sexuality is not yet our own.
At best this can leave us frustrated and unfulfilled; at worst, not being in touch with our real desires can leave us vulnerable to having our boundaries broken or compromised.
Questioning some of our patterns of behaviour can be a good place to start. Are these things we’re doing because they are really things we enjoy, that really satisfy us, or because we’re following someone else’s script? In those moments, what’s keeping us from expressing ourselves more authentically?
We don’t need to give away our power by taking anything outside of ourselves as any kind of standard or ideal. In meeting ourselves with compassion and honesty, we can begin to learn that our pleasure and happiness must ultimately come from ourselves, and our sexuality can be our own.
It can be so easy to minimise what we want, think, or need. “I just feel that…” or “I think I’d like to…” instead of “I think” or “I want.” Not wanting to admit or commit means our words come out fuzzy, and we have a get-out clause; we were never that bothered anyway, we weren’t completely sure.
We fail to find the confidence to say what’s really going on, to be direct in saying what’s really true in a way that shows we also know ourselves.
This lack of confidence shows up in other forms too.
“This always happens,” or “I never do that” seem like the opposite on the surface, an over-confident sureness in our conclusion. But this is coming from a similar place: wanting to find a way out, an excuse or reason not to be who we truly are. Not to be occasionally wrong or inconsistent.
In both cases we’re lazily using language to hide behind, as way to cover our tracks and avoid being caught out. Either by never fully committing to a position in the first place, or by preventing us from seeing alternatives: only ever allowing one possibility, in case different outcomes mean failure or change.
Noticing both of these habits – and especially if they’re habits – can be a first step towards finding the places where we don’t feel confident in showing ourselves.
Beginning to change these language patterns can have a real impact on our thoughts and perceptions, and allow us to communicate with more confidence – both in our convictions and our fallibility.
Polyamory is the sometimes challenging, often liberating, and almost always unpredictable practice of having multiple simultaneous intimate, sexual relationships with different people. It’s becoming more popular. New dating apps cater specifically to non-monogamists, and more mainstream apps are beginning to include features for those seeking a polyamorous relationship. There are meetups and munches, conferences and communities.
Types of Polyamorous Relationships
On a practical level, different people do polyamory in different ways. Many of them have their own subcategories. Solo poly folks enjoy relationships without any expectation of merging their lives in many of the ‘traditional’ ways such as living together or combining finances. Kitchen table polyamory denotes constellations where everyone involved – partners, lovers, metamours – is able to sit down at the same table and enjoy each others’ company. Relationship Anarchists prefer to eschew all unnecessary hierarchy among their partners, whereas others will name a primary partner who always has priority among other lovers, or describe themselves as “monogamish”.
The common factor among all of these ways of approaching relationships is the belief that romantic love, sexuality, and partnership don’t have to be confined to only one other. And why should they? We don’t treat any other form of love this way – we love friends, family members, and pets without any fear that loving more than one will cheapen the love we have for others. We understand in this context that love is not a finite resource.
A (Brief) History of Polyamory
According to Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan (well worth a read), the ‘traditional’ approach of only having one partner at a time only came into being around 10,000 years ago – quite recently, in relative terms. Before this we were nomadic hunter-gatherers, living in tribes, enjoying promiscuous sex and not worrying about which children belonged to whom. Sexual intimacy was enjoyed playfully and openly, as a shared resource, strengthening bonds within the group.
The advent of agriculture brought a huge cultural shift, and with it came an incentive to know who our children were so that we could be sure they inherited the land and wealth we had begun to accumulate. And so we began to marry.
The “default settings” we’ve mostly been living ever since – the narrative of dating, then agreeing some form of exclusivity, moving in, and finally marrying – is a reassuring script to be able to fall back on. Engaging in polyamorous relationships forces me to eschew this progression and really feel into what I want, both in my life generally and with each new person I meet. Do I want hierarchy, or as little of it as possible? How much energy do I want and need to spend with the people closest to me? How much intimacy do I want with each person? This process is both liberating and occasionally exhausting.
What Does Polyamorous Mean?
There are clearly other things that define polyamory, besides simply the practice of having multiple relationships at once. For me it signifies a throwing out of this script: I no longer have to go along with the main narrative I’ve been exposed to my whole life about what relationships “should” look like. I can take each relationship on its own terms and define it however I like, and I get to create something new with every new person.
Perhaps this means only seeing them once a month or so with limited contact in-between, or perhaps they become a close friend who I catch up with often and can rely on. Maybe they’re in another country and we enjoy intimacy when we’re occasionally sharing physical space, or maybe we move in the same social circles and share many mutual friends and lovers.
How Polyamory Works
A polyamorous relationship is therefore built on an awful lot of honest communication, and a willingness for everyone involved to process their own desires and fears. I need to be truthful not only with myself about what I really want in my relationships, but I must be able to communicate this to those I’m in relationship with, too – even if they are casual lovers, even if what I need to say might end the relationship.
Fear, too, needs to be recognised and welcomed. So many of us grew up learning that we must jealously guard our partner, that any attraction to third parties threatens – and may necessarily end – our relationship. We learn to find safety and security in monogamy, but this is false.
Monogamous relationships can still end for all sorts of reasons, and remaining exclusive to each other doesn’t really protect against any of the things we fear. The only difference with polyamory is that we make these fears explicit.
As Willow Smith said recently:
“That insecurity and fear is something that we need to overcome and something that we need to evolve out of and transmute that into something new and different that can actually be helpful and make us love more and more freely… Monogamy, I feel, actually inhibits you from learning those skills of evolving past those feelings of insecurity and jealousy.”Willow Smith
Polyamorous relationships, when done successfully, force us to confront the things we’re scared of in a much more immediate way than monogamous commitments. Perhaps I feel anxious if I know that my partner is on a date with another person, scared that I will be abandoned – even if there is no evidence to support this. Bringing this up when we’re next together, naming it and acknowdging it as part of my experience can help to remove its power. Perhaps there’s something my partner is willing to do to help, even if it’s as simple as offering reassurance.
Relating in this way also encourages me to become more self-reliant, which seems a little counter-intuitive in the context of having multiple intimate partners.
One of the first arguments many people make in favour of polyamory is how great it is not to have to rely on one person for all of their needs (and likewise not have them rely on us for everything either). The tricky side of this is that my partners are not always available to me in a way which I enjoyed in monogamous relationships. If a partner is spending a weekend with another lover, then they are unavailable to me for a couple of days. I have to know that I have a solid network of friends (platonic, romantic, or otherwise) in case I need company or emotional support. And in the worst-case scenario that no-one is around, I know will be ok on my own for a little while.
As someone who has a history of losing myself in another at the expense of investing time in friendships, this has been a helpful lesson to learn. It’s nudged me forcibly in the direction of finding and building my own communities.
Relating openly, practicing polyamory, means being able to own all of our jealousy, fear, and anxiety and discuss it with those we love, trusting that it won’t necessarily end our relationship. It means being able to grow through these challenges and learn how to really understand what we want and how to care for ourselves. And finally, of course, it means being able also to express the love and affection we have for all of the people we’re close to, in the ways it feels most authentic for us to do so.
I recently had a conversation with a friend about how ironically lonely it could be to have polyamorous relationships. Or, perhaps more specifically, even to be part of the polyamorous community. Not to mention how hard coping with that loneliness could be.
They agreed, and offered the observation that being on the edge of something can be lonelier than not being involved at all. It strikes me that if those of us who can theoretically have as many relationships as we want struggle with loneliness, it must be a function of something deeper than our connections with others.
I can see echoes of this all over my personal life: how much harder it is when most of my poly friends have relationships and I don’t; how I’d much rather know quite a bit about my lovers’ or partners’ other connections than letting my mind fill in the blanks; how much I struggle with the grey areas of being on the edges of relationship.
The thing is, it’s so easy to not be alone. Or rather, it’s so easy to take small actions that will temporarily quench the loneliness we feel, but that don’t have the depth or the connection or the commitment or presence to really feel satisfying. I am talking, of course, about posting on Instagram, swiping on Tinder, snooping on Fetlife… Whatever our particular preference for non-committal, at-arms-length connection.
I should be clear that it’s not necessarily the medium here that’s the problem. These channels can be extremely useful when used mindfully. But their ubiquitousness, their lack of friction, and the deliberate way they demand our attention create a situation where we can find it incredibly hard to get our needs really met, while believing we have over and over again.
I have one person in my life who is definitely not a texter. At first, I was a little disappointed at how uneasy I felt not to be in as frequent contact with him as I am with other people I’m close to. I could feel stories starting to play out in my mind about how it’s only me that they don’t text, and that there was something wrong with me. Because I didn’t want this to build to resentment, I decided to knock this on the head and bring it up with him.
After much hand-wringing over the best way to word it I blurted out,
“You’re a bad texter!”
Not my most eloquent moment. But it did start a conversation about our different communication styles, and for me it raised an issue that has bubbled away for a little while in my mind, about how I can tend to seek validation through less-committal forms of communication like texting and social media engagement. I’ve had friendships and relationships that have involved texting every day, and I remember noticing how obligatory this communication sometimes felt, how much more we had to actually talk about after giving ourselves, occasionally, some space from one another.
My bad-texting friend, on the other hand, prefers to call. This means that, every so often, we will commit to being present with each other throughout a conversation, the unspoken agreement being that we will say goodbye and end the exchange explicitly when either of us would prefer to be doing something else. I’m down for more of this style of talking.
I can remember when texting and MySpace were novelties. When most of my socialising happened in person or on a landline. I wonder whether I still had the same need for validation and reassurance then; I suspect it’s a need that has grown with these new communication styles, and the unwitting voyeurism that Facebook and Instagram coaxes out of us.
It would be easy for me to talk about turning your phone off more often, or deleting apps, or all the other methods for combatting this that so many people have said better than me before. While useful for interrupting habitual behaviour perhaps, these solutions feel like they are only treating symptoms.
How do we learn to be satisfied with ourselves, confident that we are enough, and able to feel secure without needing to seek validation through constant contact with others?
So How Do We Learn to Cope with Loneliness?
Roan Coughtry recently wrote about how we can find this sense of security in ourselves by being unapologetically ourselves: overcoming a fear of abandonment by never abandoning our own needs and wants. Allowing ourselves to be seen and heard. I certainly know that this is something I would like to be better at, and I wonder whether developing my capacity for being with the discomfort of asking for what I want might help me to feel more secure.
I’m also aware that it’s a fear of abandonment and loneliness that often prevents me from speaking my wants in the first place. It seems to me that the only way to break such a pattern is by changing my behaviour, and the only behaviour in this instance that it would be helpful to change would be to be more honest with others in speaking up.
There’s another piece to this too, though. A deeper questioning of what it is that we are asking others to do for us in our loneliness: to distract us? To reassure us? To hear our insecurities?
I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with requesting these things, as long as we understand what we’re doing and speak about them honestly. A process of noticing what it is we want to be distracted from, what we need reassuring about, which insecurities we need to speak. Otherwise, our loneliness can overwhelm us and leave us chasing after something that never quite helps – such as more frequent and superficial contact with someone – because we’re unwilling to look at the real fears underneath it.
There are two things I’ve discovered while learning how to be vulnerable recently: it’s really fucking hard, and really fucking worth it.
I could never have known how to be vulnerable through most of my twenties; I’m not sure I really knew what vulnerability was. Or perhaps I did, I just didn’t realise that sharing my softest parts could lead to more depth in my relationships.
The thing with allowing yourself to be vulnerable is that it allows the most scared, fragile, and young parts of you to be seen, and this process of showing all of ourselves to those we love is what creates the most real intimacy.
With hindsight, I can see now that resisting allowing my vulnerability to be seen only lead to more anxiety: not talking about what I need in a relationship in order to feel safe meant that my needs were not met out of fear of losing the other person. Failing to honour those needs resulted in relationships where I could never grow, ultimately ending in a feeling of stagnation and resentment.
Here are some of the ways I am learning to become friends with showing my vulnerabilities (it’s a work in progress).
How To Be Vulnerable… Slowly & Gently
You can start small. Perhaps a new romantic relationship isn’t the best playground to start exploring your vulnerability right away if it’s not something you’re used to doing; start with friendships that feel secure, and topics that feel only a little edgy.
What things would you not want your friend to know about you? Is there anything you’re ashamed of, scared of, or anxious about that you could consider talking with your friend about, as an exercise in sharing something vulnerable with them?
It can be interesting to notice how you feel in the friendship after trying this. In my experience, sharing something difficult and being seen and heard in that way brings me closer to that person, and leaves me with gratitude for our connection. Usually for me, fear of speaking my vulnerability comes from a fear that the person will disappear if I do. Practicing doing this with someone trusted, and with topics that are unlikely to compromise the friendship, allows me to start understanding that vulnerability doesn’t have to lead to abandonment or rejection.
Speak Your Vulnerability
Once you’re feeling a a little more comfortable with consciously sharing vulnerabilities with people you already feel secure with, you can bring those practices a little more ‘into the wild’. Stumbling into a feeling of vulnerability with someone who matters to us, unintentionally, can be scary and triggering. There are tools we can use to use these situations to create deeper intimacy, instead of feeling that we need to run away, freeze up, or fight.
This can be as simple as saying, “I feel really vulnerable right now.” Sometimes this is all that is needed to begin to pull us out of an unhelpful place and into somewhere where we have more opportunity to vocalise what’s going on for us. Being able to voice the impact of the situation – that we’re feeling scared, or anxious – can give us a little space to decide whether we want to explore this further, or whether we need to take care of ourselves by moving away, if possible.
In my experience, telling someone close to us that we’re feeling vulnerable engenders more trust and honesty from their side, and a desire to understand and help if possible. Ultimately, if we want it to, this can lead to more productive and intimate conversations.
Use a Reality Check
It’s always possible to ask yourself, no matter how anxious or scared you’re feeling, “am I safe right now?”
Noticing that the answer is “yes” can be a necessarily calming thing when feeling particularly vulnerable, especially when practicing sharing things that we feel anxious about.
Often the things I’m feeling most scared over are fairly irrational, if not almost inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, and so reminding myself that I am ultimately safe is a helpful reminder of perspective.
Develop a Support Network
It’s much easier to be vulnerable if we know that we have supportive folks around us. The (often irrational) feeling that we’re risking one relationship by showing our darkest sides can seem less scary if we know we have others with whom we can be fully ourselves.
This doesn’t happen overnight, of course. But beginning to foster friendships built on allowing vulnerability, and a community where the tough stuff is just as welcome as the joy, is a really valuable thing. For me it means that there are always people – whether I’ve known them for years or only a couple of months – who welcome my vulnerability, anger, fear, or grief, and with whom I can practice speaking it, sharing it, and processing it if I need to.
Know Why You Want to be Vulnerable
The reason I put so much energy into identifying my vulnerabilities and sharing them with those I love is that it allows for deeper connection. It’s a sign of trust, of self-knowledge, and of how much I value the relationship: so highly, that I want this person to see every part of me.
This isn’t only relevant for people you’re already close to, though. Meeting strangers with the vulnerability of admitting, “I’m new and I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing” or, “I’m lost, can you help?” or, “I’m feeling really nervous right now” can instantly create a much more honest connection, and invite the other person to share deeper parts of themselves, too.
Be Clear On Your Boundaries
This is perhaps the most important thing of all. Being able to identify and communicate boundaries allows us to open up with others, because we can feel safe in knowing where our limits are.
For me, one of my most vulnerable places is in anger. Sharing anger with those I care about, when that anger is directed at them, feels particularly edgy because this is where I am most fearful they would walk away from our relationship. And yet anger is such an important feeling, often necessary for setting and upholding boundaries. One of my biggest challenges recently has involved learning to allow this anger, and the vulnerability I feel in expressing the boundaries it signifies for me, trusting that those I love won’t disappear as a result (so far, so good).
Being over-vigilant with boundaries keeps people out; we never allow ourselves to be vulnerable out of fear or shame. Conversely, if we don’t hold our boundaries at all then we put ourselves at risk of being compromised. The balance is in knowing our needs – how much of ourselves we can give, how much capacity we have, how we need others to treat us – and feeling confident in communicating this to others.
The confidence in knowing that we can look after ourselves, without relying on others to care for us, frees us up to share our vulnerable, fearful sides. This is because we’re doing so from a baseline of self-responsibility. We can seek deeper intimacy through sharing our challenges, knowing that we are already enough.
Whether you’re into floggers and rope or vanilla as it gets, there’s a lot to be learned about communication, boundaries, and consent from those in the BDSM community. Although these may not be the first things many people think about when asked what makes for the most memorable encounters, they can make sex so much better if we get good at them.
So why is that?
One thing I’ve learned during my own explorations is that relaxation is everything when it comes to pleasure. And in order to relax, we need to feel safe.
If there’s one thing experienced BDSM enthusiasts know about, it’s safety. Knowing how to ensure everyone is as safe as possible is absolutely vital when experimenting with bondage, intense sensation, and other activities which could cause real physical (and emotional) harm.
Here are a handful of ways those in the BDSM scene ensure safety – and therefore also relaxation, and ultimately pleasure.
Talk About What You Want
Responsible BDSM players will only engage with others who are able to clearly speak their wants, needs, boundaries, and limits before they begin a scene. When people’s physical and emotional safety is at hand, it’s vital to be able to know that your partner knows their limits and has communicated them clearly with you.
Even when you’re not tying each other up or playing with extreme sensation, being able to voice your needs is so valuable. It can feel vulnerable and tough to admit to what you want, especially with those whose opinion matters most. But being able to do this can only make sex better; it’s unfair to assume that our lovers can read our minds and know what we want, or what our limits are.
Being able to be vulnerable and intimate in this way, and showing all of our desires, encourages our lovers to open up to us, too. This is how intimacy begins: by allowing all of ourselves to be seen by those we trust, our desires as well as our limits.
Talk About What you Need
Alongside being able to discuss your wants, you can also think about what you need to feel safe, to be able to relax and enjoy. If you’re negotiating a BDSM scene you might be asked by your partner about what aftercare you may need once it’s over. Do you need contact, cuddles, a particular food or drink? What about a check-in the next day?
This doesn’t only have to apply to experiences that include extreme sensation and power play. Perhaps we would like to request a text from the person the following day, or lots of cuddling afterwards. Maybe you need them to spend the night afterwards.
Being able to identify what you need, and ask for it, helps to remove anxieties over whether our needs will be met. And discussing these in advance also helps to filter out people who cannot meet our needs.
Establish Safe Words
It can be so easy to ‘tolerate’ touch; to allow our lovers to do what they’re doing without correcting them or asking for something different, out of fear of rejection, abandonment, or shame over our true desires.
Sometimes in the moment it’s far too much to specifically ask for something else. Being in this place of noticing you’re not enjoying what’s happening but feeling frozen or stuck and unable to ask for something else can be unpleasant and triggering.
In these moments it can be helpful to have a safe word. Many people who indulge in BDSM use a traffic light system, with red meaning stop and orange meaning a check-in is needed, and that can be helpful here. Or, to make it a little more gentle, I like to adopt the word ‘pause’ (thanks to Rachael Maddox for that one). I explain to my lovers that when I say pause, it means just that: we pause what we’re doing, we cuddle, we give me some space to feel in to what’s not working and figure out what I’d like instead. This might be a massage or a cup of tea.
Safe words are so helpful because they allow us to interrupt whatever pattern is currently playing out. Instead of getting caught up in the stories of what may happen if we ask to stop or ask for something different, we can use a different word to communicate that something needs to change, even if we’re not quite sure what yet.
Sex Can Mean Different Things
In the vanilla, hetero-normative world of sex, the definition of what ‘counts’ is often fairly limited. And if those few activities don’t work for you then it’s easy to feel like the sex you have isn’t valid or good enough.
We can learn from the creativity of the BDSM community. As a well-used saying goes, “Your kink isn’t my kink (but your kink is ok).” People come up with all kinds of ways to enjoy each other’s bodies and minds outside of the conventional narratives, and in doing so liberate themselves and their partners to enjoy sex on their own terms.
If the sex you’re having isn’t working for you, maybe it’s time to question whether you’re only engaging in particular activities because you feel it’s what sex ‘should’ look like. You get to decide what works for you (and it doesn’t have to involve kink).
Learn New Skills
If you want to be able to tie someone up Japanese rope bondage style, and do it safely, then you’re going to have to ask someone to teach you. Likewise, there are countless workshops teaching all kinds of skills in playing with extreme sensation and power dynamics. Within BDSM there are always new ways to learn new skills if that’s what you’re into.
Why should vanilla sex be any different? What skills could help us to make sex better with our lovers? And how could this attitude of wanting to learn help us?
Firstly, a keenness to learn about our partners’ bodies is a great place to start – without going with a fixed script or approaching the exercise with judgement. There are all sorts of other communities too who teach techniques you can use to help develop intimacy with yourself and the other, and relax into feeling more pleasure. Explorations into Taoist methods and neo-tantra can help us to feel more into our sexual energy, for example, and bring us more in tune with both ours and our partner’s needs.
Ultimately, all of these practices we can learn from the BDSM community are in place to keep everyone involved safe. And when we’re feeling safe, we feel more able to relax and open more of ourselves, which is key to deepening intimacy and more fulfilling sex.
I read a quote recently which really stuck with me:
“People think that intimacy is about sex. But intimacy is about truth. When you realize you can tell someone your truth, when you can show yourself to them, when you stand in front of them and their response is ‘you’re safe with me’ – that’s intimacy.”Taylor Jenkins Reid
Before I’d really given it much further thought, I suppose I would have said that ‘intimacy’ between two people meant a kind of sexual closeness; intimate massage, intimate relationship, intimate touch. ‘Intimacy’ becomes one of many euphemisms for sexuality without us having to think twice about whether it’s actually separate, and whether we can seek out one without the other in our relationships.
I’m certain I’m not alone in having proven many times how easy it is to engage in sex without intimacy. Which makes it all the more curious to me that it’s one of the words so often used to refer to types of bodywork that involve genital touch, or relationships that include sexual contact, regardless of any of the other dynamics between those involved.
What Is Intimacy, If It’s Not Sex?
Modern usage of the words intimate and intimacy date back to the late 19th Century, when newspapers used the word euphemistically to refer to sex (and women’s underwear). But it comes originally from Latin intimare meaning, “to make known, announce, impress,” which in turn came from intimus meaning “inmost, deepest.” Its roots are much more closely aligned with Taylor Jenkins Reid’s sense than today’s conflation with genitalia and sex.
Or are these two things – allowing ourselves to be known, and speaking about sexuality – really so separate after all? Our sexuality is so often the place where we hold the most shame, fear, and vulnerability. Wounds run deep here, and take time to heal, if we are able to even become conscious of them in the first place. Allowing ourselves to engage sexually with another, even to be naked in front of them, can require a huge amount of trust that we will be seen, along with all our anxieties, and feel safe.
There is an alternative to this of course, which is to never show all of ourselves to avoid the risk of rejection or abandonment, but sacrificing any chance of intimacy along the way. The conflation of sex with intimacy can lead to lots of very unfulfilling encounters, desperately wanting to be seen but being held back by fear, all the while substituting physical closeness for something that feels deeper.
Just as shame over sex caused newspapers 100 years ago to use ‘intimacy’ as a euphemism, our shame today causes us to confuse the two, seeking out sex when what we’re really craving is the intimacy of being seen.
Could we explore decoupling intimacy from sex, and learn how to feel safe while allowing ourselves to be seen first, before we engage sexually? Practice speaking our vulnerabilities before we introduce tangling limbs and sweaty requests for water?
Could we practice more intimacy in our non-sexual relationships, and notice what happens if we speak our immediate truth, with all the awkwardness and vulnerability of admitting that we’re frightened, or hurt, or excited?
Perhaps. But how do we go about this? How do we begin to understand what intimacy really is, and create more of it?
The first thing to know is that it starts with ourselves. We can’t just ask for more honesty and truth from another; we have to open ourselves up first. And before we can do that, we need to know ourselves. We have to practice intimacy with ourselves before we can ever hope to create something with someone else. What are you most scared of? What are you avoiding, and how? What are your most unhelpful patterns and habits?
Becoming better acquainted with all the gnarly, difficult stuff – and meeting it with compassion – means that we are able to bring all of this to our relationships in a conscious way. Instead of reacting out of fear without understanding why, we can speak about our vulnerabilities with those we feel closest to. In allowing these darker parts of ourselves to be seen, we can experience the kind of intimacy that comes from allowing another to see all of us while knowing we are still safe.
Last Valentine’s Day I sent messages to everyone in my life who I loved, who I wasn’t already in the habit of telling regularly, and told them so. This included family, housemates, close friends old and new. This is not a common thing for me to do. Sending those messages made me feel nervous; a fluttery kind of embarrassment around the vulnerability of being seen. And, of course, the fear of being laughed at, rejected, or ignored.
But those were platonic relationships. Easy! (Relatively.) What about lovers? What about those with whom we have no intention of jumping on a relationship ladder with? Or even those we do? How and when do we express love for those we’re sexually or romantically involved with, without giving anyone the wrong idea? How do we show our love when it’s so easy to have different definitions of love outside of conventional relationship structures?
Much of my personal journey recently has been involved with decoupling feelings from stories. The classic story heard when a partner or lover reveals their love is that of commitment, of escalation: I love you, I want to be with you forever, I want you to love me back. Perhaps it also involves expectations such as living together, getting married, or having children. But none of those things are actually love; they are stories that we tell ourselves when we hear “I love you.” Just as we might get caught up in stories of never being good enough if we feel frustrated over failing a small task, we can allow ourselves to conflate a spontaneous feeling with something much bigger, unintended, and unhelpful.
If we can learn to separate the stories from the feeling, then suddenly we are much freer to express love, as we feel it, with no expectations. As Carsie Blanton says, we can “allow it to be what it is: a sweet, ephemeral, exciting feeling to experience and share.”
We can tell those we love that we love them, knowing that we don’t need anything in return from them. It doesn’t mean anything other than what it is. In my experience, instead of cheapening the love I have for others, I notice that focusing more of my attention on it allows it to grow and expand.
This can get us into trouble, though. Unless our beloved is similarly adept at letting go of stories as we are, we have potential heartbreak on our hands. We must take responsibility for our actions as much as our reactions, meaning here that we must consider how these words will be received. There are some people to whom “I love you” will always be seen as an escalation, or inextricably tied up with other expectations or consequences. Perhaps these are people we shouldn’t be dating. Or perhaps we can be more careful with our words. Can we express something else authentically that would feel less loaded to our loved one? Gratitude? Care? Feelings of safety, closeness, connectedness?
Perhaps, as well as being more free to express our love for those closest to us, we can expand our vocabulary too to include all of these things.
Another way to expand our vocabulary could be to clarify what our love does mean. For me, love happens in the present. I love this person for all they are, right here and right now, and I want to share this with them. I can explain that I don’t need them to reciprocate or do anything about it, that it doesn’t mean that I’ll be doing anything else about it either. That I just want them to know that they are loved.
A little clumsy, perhaps, to those of us who have grown up with rom-coms and over-simplified expressions of what love is and is not, and no role models to demonstrate expressing romantic love without the stories attached. To me, this feels like a new skill to learn: using more words, and becoming more comfortable with finding clearer ways of expressing what I feel. But it seems a very necessary skill, while we collectively navigate alternative ways of exploring relationships.
And as for my Valentine’s Day messages, I was not laughed at, rejected, or ignored. I received heartfelt responses of gratitude and love, and really felt for the first time how important a thing this is to do, with our lovers as well as our friends.