Understanding Intimacy & Closeness in Relationships

Most close relationships between couples, married partners and friends, eventually suffer from some degree of conflict or deterioration in intimacy. As people grow and develop and have new experiences, their needs change and they may grow apart. Some individuals may expect more commitment from their partners, while others may desire a greater degree of autonomy. This can cause friction or disappointment if the couples’ capacity for open and honest communication is limited. Additionally, tensions may arise if each individual’s need for emotional intimacy, affection and independence is mismatched.

Conflict is a necessary and normal part of this change as each individual seeks to redefine their roles, expectations and boundaries as the developing relationship undergoes transformation. This may involve negotiating or arguing about whether the relationship is still valued by each individual in the same way.

Sometimes one person may experience a personal crisis, a tragic bereavement or a life changing event (such as being made redundant, falling seriously ill or losing loved one in their family). It is quite normal for relationships to suffer as the tensions of everyday life, work and family relationships begin to intensify. Intimacy, loving care and sex may begin to fade; being replaced by feelings of detachment, isolation, resentment, anger and even intense arguments or violence. As soon as this happens people begin to take up fixed positions and seek to assert their own viewpoint. They might also feel a sense of injustice or try to score points against each other. One individual may begin to feel diametrically opposed and view this conflict differently, depending on their own deeply held values or experience of family life. One partner may turn to sadness and despair, while the other may view it as unproblematic or a temporary blip. Depending on each person’s ability to adapt and be flexible, this may mean that relationship issues are more or less difficult to resolve.

In some sense, all relationships go through a process of rupture and repair; as people seek to separate and come together again. This may reinvigorate the relationship or threaten to destroy it. Sometimes, where couples have become too hastily attached or co-dependent in response to intense sexual passion, feelings of neediness, or unrealistic fantasies may set in. This may be as a result of expectations not being met and resentment beginning to fester as the initial excitement of intimacy fades. This is where skilled listening, empathy and renegotiating the boundaries of the relationship can help.

If a couples’ opposition to each other has become entrenched and rigid then talking with a trained, impartial and experienced counsellor may be effective. Couples counselling and relationship counselling help you build empathy with each other, so you can appreciate and validate each person’s point of view. It can help create more realistic expectations and will allow you to develop a mutually satisfying approach to compromise and a deeper sense of intimacy in relationships. It can also help couples to come to a less conflicted break up, if that is what each person wants. Couples do not have to be certain of what they want before they begin; they merely need to be honest and open to the possibilities. The counsellor is there to be impartial and restore a sense of balance that respects each person’s feelings and viewpoint. The counsellor will help them to explore these issues in a safe and confidential way without fear of direct attack.

Reasons why relationships break down:

  • a betrayal of trust, an affair, debt or keeping secrets

  • poor communication leads to conflict, confusion or anger

  • open and honest communication is absent

  • separation or divorce has been broached

  • a lack of intimacy or sexual desire

  • arguments go unresolved

  • serious violence or abuse.

Conflict in relationships is a normal, necessary part of change in relationships; but knowing how to argue or manage conflict is a solid foundation to an effective partnership. It is unrealistic to expect that intimacy can endure in a relationship without conflict or that arguments can be avoided. Everyone enters a relationship with their own set of values, morals and beliefs. Therefore both people must feel that their voices can be heard in order to maintain autonomy and freedom. The differences between people need to be acknowledged and valued before they can be resolved; otherwise when boundaries become blurred each individual might feel their personal identity is being compromised or one person is not being seen. Sometimes it may feel as if one partner is dominating the relationship, while the other is in a position of passive acceptance.

Arguments themselves can be a healthy part of any relationship. It encourages mutual growth, change and even revitalises a relationship if it is carried out skilfully, or with empathy and understanding. Anger that is directed without awareness however, can become very destructive, resulting in abuse or a breakdown in trust. Relationship counselling may help couples to understand the boundaries, ‘rules of engagement’ and passive aggressive behaviours which have emerged in their relationships. The causes of relationship problems:

  • physical or mental illness may be a burden

  • in-laws and relatives can lead to family disputes

  • a lack of willingness to compromise or negotiate

  • a sense one partner has all the control and power

  • external pressures like work stress may lead to anger

  • birth of a child can leave one partner feeling abandoned

  • an affair can leave a partner feeling betrayed and rejected

  • alcohol, drug or gambling addictions can lead to a loss of trust

  • an unexpected life crisis, bereavement or change in circumstances.

If conflict remains unresolved the mental health and well-being of couples can be deeply affected. One partner may feel they are the victim of repetitive patterns of conflict as a means of revenge. It tempting to believe one partner can rescue us and resolve all our problems, leading to disappointment if this is not fulfilled. Some people may perceive themselves as victims and one partner as more controlling. Intimacy is as much about being able to feel secure and be separate as it is about experiencing periods of closeness together. This is why respecting each other’s individual identity are essential in developing a good relationship. Couples counselling and relationship counselling can help with:

  • developing better empathy with each other

  • learning new ways to manage conflict

  • identifying repetitive patterns of relating

  • gaining insight from previous relationships

  • developing more effective communication

  • understanding the impact of trauma in childhood

  • exploring the impact of change and loss

  • acknowledging patterns of abuse

  • making sense of sexual difficulties

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Twickenham TW2 & TW1
Written by Gregori Savva, Counselling Twickenham, Whitton - Masters Degree
Twickenham TW2 & TW1

I am an experienced counsellor at Counselling Twickenham, Enduring Mind. I've been profoundly affected by my work with other people as a psychotherapist, anthropologist and writer. I'm captivated by the interior lives of others and the cultures they live in. Please visit my website for resources on counselling, self-help tools and resources.

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