Intimacy tolerance is important to relationships as water is to fish. Couples who have incompatible intimacy tolerances will find a pulling towards and a pushing away battle that rages, eating up the energy of their relationship. So what exactly is it, who has it, why is it important, and can it be increased in someone who has a low score?
Definition Of Intimacy Tolerance
Intimacy tolerance is, “The comfortability of having your true self deeply connected with another person.” If you are not comfortable with yourself then you will always be superimposing those fears on others you are trying to get closer to. If you are not comfortable in trusting another person with your honest, raw, true self with all its flaws then when your partner attempts to close the gap you will find yourself withdrawing to a safer distance which creates a pseudo intimacy – the one you’re comfortable with but at not too deep a level. Couples who have vastly different intimacy tolerances, therefore, have mutually exclusive comfortable zones with each other. This means the depth one partner is happy with is the other partner’s uncomfortable zone, whether it be shallow or deep.
Who Is Most Likely To Have Low Intimacy Tolerance?
According to the developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson people will have intimacy difficulties if they cannot negotiate childhood and adolescent challenges. The first one of these challenges which Erikson termed “trust versus mistrust”, is formed from birth to around 1 year of age. Whether the world can be trusted to fulfil one’s needs is largely determined by predictable parenting by the growing baby. Basically, parents who were nurturing, compassionate, positively interactive and understood and reacted accordingly to infantile communication cues, could build trust in the growing child’s brain. Abusive, traumatic or neglectful parenting resulted in the child mistrusting others and found it uncomfortable to get close to others. So the bottom line is, if you have been abused you will find it difficult to be in an intimate relationship where you will have to trust another with your true self. While Erikson understood the developmental stages to be formed as wet cement and then dried as hard as cement, psychologists today believe that intimacy tolerance can be increased if the person is open to growth and insight.
What about The Differences Between Men And Women?
This is where it becomes interesting. Obviously both men and women can be scarred for life from traumatic upbringings. But besides having traumatic childhoods, men with low intimacy tolerances are those who find it difficult to get close to their partners, and also find it difficult to communicate honestly and deeply. Men with low intimacy tolerances tend to want to avoid “talking about our relationship”, and avoid a neutral engagement in conflict. What this means is that the adrenaline and cortisol that hijacks intimate conflicts tends to work in one of two ways. It will either result in running from conflict (seen as withdrawing, hiding, sulking or being unavailable) or trying to dominate it (making sure one comes out on top as the winner and often taking an aggressive stance).
Unfortunately, many men live their relationships in this shallow end of the relationship pool, too afraid of plunging in the deep end, in case they suffocate from being exposed without their defences firmly in place neck to knee. The other complicating factor is that many men find it difficult to be at ease when talking about their emotions. But it’s not only talking about their own emotions, many men find it extremely painful to bathe in their partner’s emotions. This is seen clearly when a man’s partner is crying. A man can get focused on one point during such a scenario – stop the crying ASAP! To increase a man’s intimacy tolerance, he has to learn the skill of being present without judgement, be immersed in his partner’s feelings whilst being at ease with them and without taking responsibility for them, and re-frame the experience as an invitation for closeness.
This inability to truly connect with their partners at difficult times can leave men floundering in their intimate relationships. A man can be fully committed to his woman but if he struggles being able to connect at peak emotional times he will destine himself to a low level or what is often termed a “pseudo intimate” relationship. This leads men to avoid difficult conversations in their intimate relationships.
What About Women?
Many women don’t feel the need to self-protect when speaking to their partners about their feelings and emotions. So they can often communicate honestly about their emotions. This often allows them to closeness in their close friendships with other women. But the pitfall for some women is that they lose their clear sense of self in their intimate relationship. These women often come from what family therapists call an enmeshed family of origin. These women don’t have a clear sense of self because it has been consumed by the family they grew up in. They have often not been allowed choices by rigid parenting which results in them being told what they are to like.
This means they are not sure what they favour when confronted with several options. They don’t know themselves well enough to know what are their favourite careers, foods, fashions, colours or hobbies. These women end up people-pleasing in their relationships and struggle with boundaries. They end up in abusive relationships and are frustrated at being unable to experience any depth in their intimate relationship. This is because they are continually confusing the giving away of themselves with giving in the relationship. The constant giving away of themselves only serves to support a shallow and often even abusive marriage.
How To Increase Intimacy Tolerance
Sometimes the best way of understanding how to increase intimacy tolerance is to imagine how it would be operating in a perfect couple. Firstly, the couple would not have to worry the slightest about being self-protective. Why? Because their partner would never take advantage of any vulnerability to exploit it. Instead, the partner would be protective and affirming. This would allow completely honest communication which would allow the couple to be completely their true selves. This would be a relaxed position for both partners, free of defensiveness and barriers. They could, therefore, communicate without fear and be totally free to be their true selves – no attempting to only give what the other person wants to hear.
They would have a clear sense of self. They would know themselves well and would understand where they end and the other person begins.
Both would easily and freely choose to enter into the emotional environment of the other and could be communicatively neutral if needed. This means that the man would not feel uncomfortable if his woman was crying. He wouldn’t rush to stop it. Instead, he would listen to understand and view it as an invitation to respectfully share an intimate part of his lover. She could accept his support, knowing he truly cared and understood. These skills require a high level of emotional intelligence. There are no mixed messages, and the couple feels safe and supported by each other.
This perfect couple would also touch freely and regularly. Any touch by the man would not be instantly interpreted as a sexual invitation. It would simply be a reflection of their closeness. A hand extending out in a simple caress as the couple passed in a hallway would be interpreted by each other as “I am aware of you”, “You are not far from my mind”, “I love you”, “I love touching you”, “I am linked to you”.
There are also various exercises couples can do to increase their intimacy tolerance. In my book, Romance… Push The On Button!, I explain different exercises that can accomplish this. One is simply going on a date and asking each other 10 questions about their relationship and life together. Simple discussions about what each other would like more of in their relationship, in a non-accusatory way, can open the discussion up to an honest understanding of how to fulfill the other’s needs. Another is to make a list of ten things each finds attractive about the other, or what you are thankful for in the other.
These should be common conversations a couple has but, unfortunately, many couples never have them for varying reasons. Once a couple learns these skills and increase their intimacy tolerance, their relationship satisfaction can increase dramatically, their energy can increase, and their anxiety about an important area of their lives can relax. All this from increasing intimacy tolerance!
Previously published on Romanceisalive.com.
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