People toss around the word “intimacy” euphemistically to mean sex, but it goes beyond experiencing the results of the sexual act. Rather, it’s knowing who you are in relationship to another person as you grow and change together. Your commitment to living with intimacy allows you to confidently learn how to create deeper relationships. Understanding the “Four Cornerstones of Intimacy” can help you conceptualize what it means to be truly intimate.
They are: Cornerstone No. 1: Self-knowledge
All relationships start with knowing and accepting yourself.
- What do you like and dislike?
- When do you become anxious or frightened?
- Where are your growth edges?
- When you are out of your comfort zone, do you want to play it safe?
- When you are out of your comfort zone, how can you create an environment that allows change?
Knowing the answers about yourself-and accepting them as your truth-enables you to do the same for another. Self-knowledge is crucial, given that sober addicts often talk about losing themselves to their primary relationship.
Self-acceptance means that you know who you are and are comfortable with that knowledge at this stage of recovery. It means that you are able to take input from those closest to you and decide what is in your best interest. This is not about making unilateral decisions or being selfish, but about making intelligent choices. The challenge of self-acceptance means you know who you are and take a stand for what’s true for you in order to create change, even when it’s uncomfortable.
An example of this is setting appropriate personal boundaries. You can think of your boundaries as your own personal limits. You define those limits to your partner by saying “yes” or “no” in such a way that protects and maintains your integrity. Once you know what you need, you and your partner will be free to grow and change into more solid adults.
Cornerstone No. 2: Comfort and Connection
Sex addicts often find and create families out of a need for comfort and connection. People who come from difficult family backgrounds commonly have a desire for normalcy. While creating family is easy, maintaining, nurturing, and attending to a family requires diligence and discipline-two traits sex addicts don’t typically possess. However, by building connections to yourself and others, you can develop the capacity to comfort your anxieties and connect to your partner without reacting to his or her feelings.
Paradoxically, addicts might turn away from comfort and connection to seek sexual novelty and intensity, which seriously disrupts the family in the process. Then, if the sexual object gets too close, they may run again. Addicts often bounce from family life, where they tolerate minimal connection, rebound to their addictive behaviors, and then bounce back home. One man in my therapy group stated, “In my addiction, I wanted intimacy everywhere but in my house.”
Sex addicts who are single typically avoid connection altogether. Although they are seeking comfort and connection, they often report fears that being with one person will limit their options in life. Their inability to hold on to their individuality can have them acting in a reactionary way to another’s needs, which may make them feel like they want to run away. Overcoming these fears, in part, involves listening to their partner’s response rather than reacting to it.
Cornerstone No. 3: Responsibility with Discernment
Responsibility within intimacy requires discernment, which means being assertive, speaking up for yourself, taking responsibility for your actions, and telling the truth, even though it may be difficult for your partner to hear. To avoid conflict, most sex addicts find themselves accommodating their partners, meaning they adapt to what their partners want. They then “act out” their unexpressed feelings sexually as a way to feel a sense of power and control.
Deciding to avoid conflict becomes easier than dealing with interpersonal conflicts. In recovery, you become assertive as you face conflict head-on. Specifically, you discern the difference between saying things that are mean and hurtful and stating the truth about your preferences. An old adage states that addicts would rather ask for forgiveness than permission. But consider this: In a healthy relationship, people don’t avoid conflict. They show responsibility by being direct and assertive about what they want and need. They choose to be accountable for their feelings and whereabouts.
As a recovering addict, you might use another adage that advocates you “stay on your side of the street.” That requires taking responsibility for your part in your interactions in healthy ways on the way to reaching your goals.
Cornerstone No. 4: Empathy with Emotion
Empathy is your ability to recognize, feel, or experience another person’s thoughts and moods. Reading your partner’s thoughts and moods accurately is essential to building intimacy. Sex addicts often find it difficult to have empathy for their partner’s feelings. They don’t accurately listen to their partner and can get defensive when their partner expresses hurt, anger, or upset. Why? Because they may feel shame in the face of another’s pain and make inaccurate assumptions about themselves and the other person. So in recovery, your challenge is to listen accurately by focusing on what your partner is saying about his or her feelings without defense or judgment.
There are two types of empathy: emotional empathy and cognitive empathy. Emotional empathy involves a bodily based feeling in our hearts or guts in relation to another. We can read the experience of another as if we had it ourselves. For example, if we see someone stub a toe, we wince. If our partners delight in eating their favorite ice cream, we delight in their joy. If our children cry because they fought with their friends, we feel sad along with them.
The second type of empathy, cognitive empathy, arises out of how we think we are supposed to respond. Cognitive empathy does not have a bodily based feeling to it. Rather, it’s an idea born out of what we know to be socially polite, kind, and thoughtful. For example, if you see your dentist after learning that his grandmother died the previous week, you would say something like, “I’m so sorry to hear about your grandmother’s death.” You convey this because you genuinely like your dentist and imagine him feeling sad. Therefore, you offer your condolences even though you may not feel sad yourself.