Intimacy in relationships is a state of closeness, or detailed knowledge, which is hard to achieve without spending a lot of time and energy. A scientist develops ‘intimate knowledge’ of their subject by leaning in towards it, spending years reading everything there is to read, and thinking obsessively about it. Relational intimacy involves one person ‘letting another in’, in a way which can involve physical, mental and emotional vulnerability.
We even call sex ‘intimate relations’, acknowledging the closeness it entails, and the dropping of the usual physical barriers between people. An ‘intimate conversation’ is one which touches on details and feelings often ignored or hidden. There is a granularity, and sometimes a special kind of dedication, around intimacy. It dares to go further than usual.
The word ‘intimate’ comes from roots meaning ‘innermost’. When we are intimate, we share our innermost stories, thoughts and feelings. We don’t do it with everyone. Why not? Because there are judgements to be made. If we shared a relevant secret with someone who can misuse it, then it can have disastrous consequences. There has to be trust. Otherwise who knows what might happen?
Of course, it’s possible to be intimate without developing trust, and without judgement. Sexually, we can have one-night stands with strangers. Emotionally, we can share intimate details of our lives with strangers, or online, or in published art. It can be very cathartic, especially where we have felt ‘bottled up’ for a while. There is nothing wrong with this, but it does tend to have repercussions. The phrase ‘knowledge is power’ exists for a reason. One has only to look at the negative stories heard when personal and professional relationships break apart. When intimacies break up, the threat of power imbalance can cause chaos.
With such negative repercussions, why is intimacy even desirable? Well, without it, relationships, and life in general, would be shallow and devoid of meaning. We humans are not just biological beings who eat, sleep and have sex. We are storytellers and meaning-searchers, curious about how things work, and keen to look under the surface. When we see something we like, we become interested in learning more about it, and interacting more with it. Through that interaction, we grow and develop.
Look at childhood. A child has crazes. It becomes obsessed with particular people and things, and, while the obsession lasts, learns everything there is to know. The first obsession is often the mother, then the father, then family and other friends, perhaps teachers. Objects and hobbies, too, become the focus of crazes. While in the grip of a craze, we learn everything we can, spend a lot of time just experiencing the object of our interest. We learn to negotiate life through repeated revolutions of attempted intimacy.
To learn, we have to bash ourselves up against the object, not take no for an answer, be insistent, be curious, and sometimes even be annoying. The result is that we become expert in the field, or close friends with the person, or in a lasting relationship with the beloved. It is possible to do all these things in a pedestrian fashion. But intimacy means accelerated learning. It is risky, but the risk pays off. That’s why humans have evolved to be so socially pushy with each other. The payoff in terms of learning is vast.
That brings me to the title of this article – ‘disturbing the peace’. The relationship where peace can never be disturbed, is not intimate. A law-abiding society, in which everyone avoids doing anything to upset their fellows, results in peace, but not necessarily in fulfilment. A partnership, in which both parties avoid upsetting one another, results in peace, but not necessarily in relational fulfilment. This is because no risks are taken, and the depth of knowledge and development is thus severely limited.
To find ripples, you have to risk disturbing the water. To grow vegetables, you have to risk disturbing the ground. To fly, you have to risk disturbing the air. This runs against the human need for security. We like our comfort zones. Intimacy involves risk, involves making yourself vulnerable.
In counselling, I often find myself in this dilemma with clients. I can feel that something isn’t being discussed, but I am also careful of disturbing the client’s peace. I can sit there for months, if I want to, listening to the client not describing the elephant in the room. I can preserve their peace indefinitely by simply agreeing with them, and arranging life so that they are protected from friction, especially with me. But am I doing them any favours if this is all I do?
At some point comes the feeling that it’s time to disturb the peace. Otherwise I am just helping the client get bored with life by having everything how they want it in the short term, without growing, or tackling anything in the medium or long term. I need to temporarily make the client more anxious, in order to seek greater depth.
Who do I think I am, digging like that? Actually, in part, I’m just a human, naturally curious about another person, and wanting to get to know them better, in a deeper way. But also, professionally, I have been asked by the client to find a way of helping them develop, and complacency rarely accelerates development. So I ask the question, I go there. I choose my moment, and my words, and my manner, but I go there.
Ideally, I also have to be prepared to make myself vulnerable, to share something deeper of myself, to develop trust. Otherwise the client would rightly accuse me of getting off on their problems without being prepared to share equally. This can cause instability, and temporarily, the relationship between counsellor and client can seem precarious. The client might leap back, or I might start to avoid the subject. We may, for a while, become awkward while we struggle and find our way.
But this is the nature of increased depth, and increased intimacy. It’s how we develop. We must sometimes disturb each other’s peace, just to make sure that we’re not taking each other for granted, being lazy. In jobs, we need to explore what’s missing, as well as enjoying our reputation. In relationships, we need to push and find out what holes we are leaving in someone’s life, how we might be letting them down, what we could do to make things even better. Equally, sometimes, on our own behalf, we need to share what is really bugging us, and not be so polite that nothing ever gets said. Otherwise, how will the other person ever discover our unhappiness or boundaries?
So let’s disturb the peace sometimes, and let ourselves be like that child exploring and learning. Let’s detach some limpets from the rocks, get our hands dirty, dare to be just a little bit rude. We are real beings, not automatons, and we are owed the privilege of being alive. Taking that risk of intimacy is the salt on our food. We don’t need it all the time, but we can’t live without it.