The Intimacy Equation

By Steven T. Padgitt, Ph.D.

Emotional intimacy in our lives can give us great pleasure and meaning. Intimate relationships provide psychologically rewarding kinds of interactions that both lend a richness to our personal experience and can be found nowhere else. Our society is oriented around intimacy with the family as the foundation. Unfortunately, life events such as childhood trauma may artificially reduce the ability to form and maintain loving and trusting relationships. The result is less enjoyment from and even a reduced tolerance of intimacy.

Because the ability to engage in intimate relationships is shaped by childhood experience and is clearly influenced by early social learning, many people realize that they can enhance the intimacy in their lives through psychotherapy. Indeed, the therapeutic relationship even becomes an emotionally intimate relationship that facilitates the process of enhanced personal intimacy with others.

Better than a decade ago I discovered that an individual's ability to establish and maintain intimate relationships could be conceptualized as an equation and that this kind of view was helpful to couples and individuals I worked with. Not only does this particular view help people understand where their conflict may come from, it provides a manner in which to view the enhancement of intimate relationships through personal healing.

Imagine a mathematic equation. On the left side of the equals sign we have two categories of intimacy: physical and emotional. Within each of these two main categories there are a multitude of different sub-categories. Within the category of physical intimacy these sub-categories range from shaking hands upon first meeting another person to the physical intimacy of sexual intercourse. Within the broad category of emotional intimacy, we have numerous sub-categories ranging from saying "hello, glad to meet you", to feelings of love, commitment, and deep friendship. On the right side of the equation, lie the three zones of intimacy experience, which serve to identify the general quantity and intensity of the intimacy that exists at any given moment in time. At the bottom is the insufficient intimacy zone, in the center is the comfort zone and at the top lies the excessive intimacy zone.

You may recall times in your life when you felt a strong need for more intimacy. This indicates experience in the insufficient intimacy zone. Other times you may feel overwhelmed by the intimacy, which suggests excessive intimacy. Lastly, there are times when the amount of intimacy feels about right and this suggests comfort zone placement. We are creatures who strive for the comfort of what we are accustomed to. Thus, it is easy to see how we are oriented toward maintaining a range of intimacy that coincides with our usual and customary experience. For example, if you grew up with a wide range of intimacy you would likely feel comfortable with the same. On the other hand, if your childhood contained little emotional closeness and considerable harshness and rejection, your tendency would be to fear closeness and be rigid about the amount of intimacy you could tolerate.

Psychotherapy can be a tool that helps broaden the range of intimacy we are comfortable with, thus enhancing the quality in our lives.