One of the greatest challenges with intimacy is navigating the seeming universal ambivalence we have about having it. We want it and we don’t want it. Or part of us wants it and the other part doesn’t. Or we want it sometimes but sometimes not. This back and forth, push and pull, can make relationships confusing and difficult to manage.

There are different kinds of intimacy. There’s emotional intimacy, physical, sexual, intellectual and spiritual intimacy to name some. Our ambivalence seems to affect any or all varieties.

Should I stay or should I go?

The ambivalence seems to be fueled by two basic fears—the fear of rejection or abandonment and the fear of engulfment. When we think of the fear of intimacy, I think many of us think first of the fear of rejection. “I don’t want to get close because I don’t want to be abandoned ( . . . again).” We might be less aware of the fear of engulfment. “I don’t want to get close because I don’t want to be smothered; I don’t want to loss my self in another person ( . . . again).”

In a relationship, when both people want the same thing at the same time, things go fairly well. If both people want to connect in the same intimate way, we have a match of needs and a good time is had. Or, if both people want time and space to themselves, we also have a match and both are happy. But when one person wants to connect and the other does not, that’s where the work begins.

Sometimes couples wrestle with the ambivalence and the dynamic takes the form of one person pursuing the other. “How come you never talk to me any more?” “Well why do you have to follow me around all the time?” Sometimes couples resolve the ambivalence by just choosing one side or the other—they may attach at the hip and do everything together whether they really want to or not, or they may detach from intimacy across the board and continue to live together but alone.

Having your cake and eat it too

In order for a relationship to thrive and grow, it needs two things—it needs togetherness and separateness, closeness and space. When both partners understand and respect these two needs, negotiating the interplay between them is possible. When one partner judges or criticizes the other’s need for connection or separateness, conflict is likely to ensue.

It’s safe to assume that both people want the same thing—to have a healthy balance of closeness and space. But individuals are unique so some may tend to like more of the closeness in their blend and some may need more space. And to complicate things further, people can be inconsistent, unpredictable and finicky and sometimes we want more togetherness and sometimes we crave alone time.

Shall we dance?

The dance is like that of two magnets floating in space, sometimes racing towards each other for that delicious connection, sometimes pushing against each other just to get away, sometimes the pursuer chasing the pursued and sometimes ignoring each like two particles of space dust.

The goal may not be about achieving a permanent resolution. Maybe the goal is to get better at doing the dance, by respecting and even enjoying the different phases and energies of the dance—the eye contact and the glancing away, the exciting pull in to the embrace as well as the confident release of the hands.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of Prawny /