Safe intimacy: simply an oxymoron or a relational necessity?

intimacy means that were safe enoughSomething that often comes up in my work as a therapist and role as teacher of therapists is “intimacy”. We might crave it, we might push it away, we might do both. How on Earth as people with different needs, do we “meet” – how do we form relationship in a satisfying way? Can we do this AND feel safe?

What is intimacy anyway?

We might use this word exclusively in reference to sexual relationships. Yet, if we pause and consider the feelings we get from being in ‘intimate relationship’ with a partner we might recognise there are emotional and physical aspects to intimacy, to being close. We might also recognise that we need one in order to have the other. We might use words such as closeness, trust, openness, comfort, safety, reliability, honesty – to name but a few. I might add such characteristics are flavours of the therapeutic relationship: the ability to hold a client in their vulnerability requires, at some level, a degree of intimacy.

Since changing career track and re-training as a therapist I have recognised how differently I think about intimacy. Firstly, I have teased out the emotional and physical needs that form relationships: and, to not confuse one for the other. I recognise looking back how I held the view that one person had to fulfil my needs in both. During my training however, I developed intimacies with fellow trainees that occurred on many different levels – in a way, only someone going through the unravelling, the unfolding that is required in training as a therapist can understand what is being gone through, what is demanded ahead of the work of being a therapist. This can lead to a bubble of intimacy that contains only those going through the ‘same’ thing.

Time and space play a role: we often require time to let down our barriers, to let someone in: weekly meetings between therapist and client enable this, as does weekly coming together on therapeutic training courses. We need regular contact to establish a ground for relating; in some ways we also need to commit to that meeting (not quite being forced to do so, but “encouraged”) – or relational wounds might be kept to be “licked in private”. We also need the space to meet – the container of the therapeutic dyad, or the environment of the classroom – a place upon which we enter and know what the deal is. A time and space that, to quote Marianne Williamson above, is safe enough.

Intimacy in 1-2-1 relationships is less complicated than in groups. Its not common to see group members withdraw in to their safe friendships to explore the shadow side of their journey, or to seek refuge in a safe relationship when another in the group has triggered them – alliances are clear to see. Yet I would ask, where are our edges? How can we stay open (and open hearted) even when “negative” emotions arise? This is offered in group work – but its incredibly challenging. I discussed this with a group just last week – how do we relate to 10 people in the room? How do we stay open when we have 10 pairs of eyes gazing our way – and we can only look back at one pair of a time? Of course, this is my view of things – I know I am someone who developed the “super power” of vigilance as a child: I am very sensitive to the energy and emotions of others, I look for those signs to stay on top of things. I need to “see the whites of the eyes” to stay safe! It means in groups I can be working very hard and get overwhelmed. One to one is safer; yet it means I can miss out on “belonging”. How can we make the group experience ‘safe enough’?


Another question – how do we see vulnerability and intimacy relating? Can we feel too vulnerable to be intimate? Or, do we need to bevulnerable in order for intimacy to grow? Going back to my experience as a trainee, I discovered for the first time that I actually got closer to people the more vulnerable I became: to share of myself became a place I could “meet”, where I could make contact, where I could experience being received – arguably for the first time in my life. Yet even this needs care. Brene Brown writes a lot about this in her work on vulnerability (The quote to the right is from “Daring Greatly“, pg 114) – if we begin to ‘showcase’ our vulnerability that can become a shield – only offering outward prevents others coming toward, making contact, and can be a block to letting them in. In order for vulnerability to develop intimacy there is something of a two-way energy required – the offering out, the receiving in; back and forth.

I often come back to the words of John Welwood – given our childhood wounding took place in relationship, what better way to heal that wounding than IN relationship? This might make sense in our personal relationships – we find friends that accept us for all we are, we share (two way), and closeness grows and becomes the basis of feeling “good enough” about ourselves. But, can that also be the mechanism in therapeutic relating? How does one experience the sharing of vulnerability if one of the dyad (the client) is sharing their vulnerability yet the other (the therapist) is withholding personal information, having been told in their training to be mindful of disclosing too much? My ideas around this continually shift – and with experience I am learning how I can remain a vulnerable human being in the room with a client without the need to disclose my personal life. I do not work from a defended position – I simply allow myself to share IF (and only if) it is in the service of the client and our relating. What clients get from me is my full humanness: and being vulnerable is part of that. I guess one example would be holding a position of uncertainty – I do not know what is best for my client, I do not proclaim to have answers nor know what to do or what to say at times. Vulnerability is, in part, being able to allow that ‘not knowing’, not being able to take away the pain of the other – despite people coming to therapy wanting me to do so. Intimacy might then become exploring our experiences of being in that vulnerability together. It might be sharing what it feels like to be in close relationship together: sharing where we feel received or not received (especially if that helps a client recognise similar dynamics outside in the ‘real world’). What feels vunerable enough that allows this type of working?

None of this is straight-forward nor easy, yet not as complicated as it may sound or appear at first. What it does require is the commitment to stay with the process; to find enough safety and support to keep with it at the edge. Unfortunately, our culture does not support this – we are encouraged to be autonomous and self-sufficient. Being vulnerable and looking for intimacy suggests neediness. I’m committed to changing this attitude in my work as a therapist and as a teacher. I recently heard Rachel Naomi Nemen interviewed on the podcast ‘On Being’ and I keep her words in mind: we commit to change one relationship at a time, one person at a time – the people we are in contact day by day – that is where we have power.

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