When I was teaching a workshop a couple of weeks ago, I made a flippant comment to a client. “Intimacy is not the same as unconditional love, nor is it the same as sex or compatibility.” My client wrinkled her forehead and took me aside later to ask me to expand on these distinctions between unconditional love, sex, intimacy, and compatibility. So this blog is for my clients—and any of you who might be confused (as so many in our bewildering culture are) about how love, sex, and intimacy can overlap, but rarely do.
- You can love someone as unconditionally as is humanly possible but have zero intimacy. (Feel into how a spiritually and psychologically healthy mother loves her adult addict child but has to cut off all contact because he is abusive, stealing from her, and refuses to respect boundaries.)
- You can have sex with zero intimacy. (Trigger alert: If you’ve been raped, you know what I’m talking about here. Also, if that’s you, I’m so sorry you had to go through that #MeToo experience.)
- You can be personally intimate with someone you have zero sexual attraction to. (You may be deeply close to your best friend or your sibling but feel no erotic charge.)
- You can be transpersonally intimate with someone who you don’t know very well. (You’re exposing your heart and your guts to your therapist or your priest, but neither one of you knows the mundane details of daily life and you don’t hang out beyond the therapeutic container.)
To have love, sex, and intimacy all with one person—that’s what so many of us crave but don’t actually experience. Not only do we often fail to be truly intimate with our romantic partners and family members; we’re also frequently on the receiving end of subtly or overtly abusive behavior on the part of those who say they love us. Such messaging confuses us, especially if we’re subjected to what my friend Keith Brazelton calls a “love reversal.” (Read more about what love is not here.)
Unconditional love, which can be either personal or transpersonal, is a state of consciousness, a way of being, a vibrational frequency I like to call “the plane of love” (which I’ve written about extensively here). To love unconditionally is to love the way the Divine loves you—without judgment, with total acceptance for you and all your parts, without expectation, and without—by definition—conditions. It is the opposite of what many people mistakenly call love, which is a conditional kind of transactional love. “I’ll coddle your wounds if you coddle mine” = codependence. “I’ll raise the kids, tend to the tribe, and have sex with you if you pay the bills, keep us safe and secure, and never leave me” is another common transaction that people mistake as love. While I certainly don’t believe everything in the Bible, I adore this Bible quote as a definition of the kind of transpersonal love that “unconditional love” invites.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. . . ” (New International Version (NIV) 1 Corinthians 13:4-8
What this definition of unconditional love fails to acknowledge is that actual humans are not fully capable of this kind of Divine love, offered to both others and ourselves, 100% of the time! It also does not take into account the inherent “spiritual bypassing” built into such a teaching. Unconditional love can be patient and kind, but it can also be fierce in the face of dehumanizing actions or destructive choices. (Read more about love’s fierce face here.) In order to unconditionally love others, we also have to have the capacity to unconditionally love all of our “parts,” which may require the fierce love that sacred anger activates in order to protect the parts of ourselves (or others) that have been wounded. For most humans, unconditionally loving both ourselves and others requires not only spiritual practice, but also a great deal of trauma healing work. If we meditate all day but fail to heal the wounding of the story of separation and all the ways that being in a human body can traumatize us, we will forever grasp at an impossible spiritual ideal and wind up bullying or criticizing our wounded parts—which is SO not unconditionally loving!
While unconditional love may be the aspiration of many spiritual practitioners, I wonder sometimes whether it’s even possible for humans. Maybe angels and deities can love unconditionally, but is unconditional love 100% of the time even possible in a body? Because part of the human experience is to have needs, to feel intense emotions, and to be imperfect, perhaps we are bound to lapse in our capacity to sustain unconditional love for ourselves and others whenever our wounded parts act out. Maybe when we leave our bodies, when we stop being a drop of the ocean and return to the ocean itself, we can once again fully give and receive unconditional love as the light of pure consciousness. But for now, let’s give ourselves a break! We can aspire to such love, but let’s be gentle with ourselves and acknowledge how hard it is to be human. We are all in this together.
As any person who has been the victim of a #MeToo story can vouch for, sex can happen without unconditional love or intimacy. While any contact between genitals or other sexy parts may feel intimate, rape, one-night stands, booty calls, or emotionally “checked out” sex is usually neither loving nor intimate. It’s a kind of transaction— “I’ll get you off if you get me off” or “I’ll help you Band-Aid your feelings of unworthiness by getting a hit off banging someone beautiful if only you’ll ease my loneliness.” While it’s possible (and highly pleasurable) to be sexually involved with someone you deeply love and who shares deep intimacy with you, most people who have a sexual relationship fail to experience the depth of intimacy that I’m about to describe.
Some have described intimacy as “into-me-you-see.” As the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote, “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.” To talk about intimacy is to open ourselves to a depth of what can only be described in spiritual terms. The Inner Pilot Light in me honors, respects, and humbles myself before the vastness and beauty of the Inner Pilot Light in you. In other words, in Sanskrit, “Namaste.” Such intimacy does not need to have anything to do with sex. It’s a spiritual experience, to witness another being—or a whole community of beings—as sacred vessels of divinity. This is the kind of intimacy we’ve been cultivating in the Healing Soul Tribe, where people healing from illness, injury, or trauma gather together online and on phone calls to learn how to gather those in their community together in person—communing with the intention of healing, connecting, and thriving. (You can join us in the Soul Tribe anytime. This month we’re focusing on the work/life purpose stone of the Whole Health Cairn—how your work can make you sick and how finding and fulfilling your calling can lead to spontaneous remission. Next month, we’re focusing on the spirituality stone and the Divine Feminine. Red, Hot & Holy author Sera Beak will be our guest teacher. Join us here.)
Like love, intimacy can be both personal and transpersonal. Intimacy taps into the plane of love, but love may not coexist with intimacy. I can love someone with whom I am not intimate, but I cannot be intimate without love present.
When I use the term intimacy, I’m usually referring to personal intimacy. Personal intimacy means being close to someone and feeling the deep, nourishing connection of that closeness. When you are personally intimate with someone, you know someone else (and they know you) at a deep level, not just the stories, experiences, and mundane or exciting details of their outer world, but the landscape of their soul—their deepest yearnings, their ecstatic, painful, or mundane feelings, their trauma histories, and maybe even the dreams they have at night, their private fantasies, their most tender disappointments, or the thoughts, impulses, or behaviors that they feel ashamed about.
To dare to let yourself be known in this way is a great risk. When someone knows the most vulnerable territory of your inner world, they also have ammunition to hurt you—or worse, abandon you—where it can devastate you the most. For this reason, many people resist opening themselves up to deep intimacy, preferring to employ all sorts of intimacy bypassing strategies, such as emotional detachment, blending with a codependent part or a narcissist part, sabotaging or leaving a relationship when someone gets too close, polyamory, or attracting unavailable friends or partners who aren’t capable of deep intimacy because of their own traumas.
When you are truly and personally intimate with someone, you feel safe enough to be vulnerable. To be intimate with someone unsafe is masochism, and it can backfire by triggering all your traumatized parts. Some people who have a tendency to “floodlight,” vomiting up their whole life story to someone they’ve just met and haven’t established trust with. This can set you up to get rejected by someone who gets overwhelmed by your “TMI” disclosure and pulls away because it’s just too much, too soon.
But if you take time to build trust, checking in with one another, investing time and care and bandwidth into establishing a container of safety, security, and mutual reciprocity, you can hold space for one another and the possibility of really deep intimacy opens up.
Personal intimacy requires a level of trust and commitment. A straight guy friend of mine was surprised when he was becoming close to another straight male friend and his buddy initiated a conversation with him about whether they were going to be intimate. “Dude, I’m not gay,” was my friend’s first reaction, but his buddy shook his head. “I’m not coming onto you. I just believe that intimate friendship requires commitment and bandwidth. I am getting a lot out of this friendship and I’d like to invest in getting closer to you. But I don’t know where you stand, which is why I brought this up. Are we going for this, or are you not interested in getting that close to me?” I was touched when my friend told me about this. I thought it was brave and badass for one man to talk about intimacy, commitment, and connection with another man. My friend was touched too. He said yes to the commitment, and they mutually decided to make space in each other’s lives to deepen their connection and invest in something deep and meaningful.
My husband Olivier Bessaignet is also in a weekly men’s group through Mankind Project. In his group, he experiences both personal and transpersonal intimacy. He knows a lot of the guys, and their commitment to gathering weekly—and sometimes outside the group—is strong and runs deep. Their intimacy is personal, as well as transpersonal. But sometimes there are new men in the group who drop in to check it out. Olivier also feels intimate with these men, who disclose vulnerable shadows and open their hearts to the men in the group. Although he is not personally committed or invested in relationships with these new men, the spiritual spark that connects us all runs deep and clear as the group and all in it opens the field to the plane of love.
Olivier, who teaches Tantra, coined the term “transpersonal intimacy,” which I appreciate as a distinguishing reference to intimacy that may be quite impersonal. For example, I spoke at a conference where I asked hundreds of people to turn to the person sitting next to them and gaze deeply into the eyes of the “Inner Pilot Light” of the person next to them. Many cried and felt deeply touched to see how beautifully the light from a stranger radiated through their loving but impersonal gaze. The unconditional love of the Divine can be witnessed in just about anyone, even murderers in a prison, if the container can be held with enough safety.
Another example of transpersonal intimacy is the intimacy you might feel with your therapist. While your therapist may know personal details about you, you might know nothing about your therapist’s family, inner world, traumas or shadows.
In my book The Anatomy of a Calling, I told the transformative story of an intense experience of transpersonal intimacy, when I was doing a therapeutic Watsu (Water Shiatsu) session with the Watsu practitioner Nico, who was naked in a hot pool, holding me naked in his arms with my cheek against his hairy chest while performing a deeply intimate but totally transpersonal healing Watsu/Waterdance session with me. I know nothing about him. He knows nothing about me. But to say we weren’t intimate is to negate how deeply it impacted me (and perhaps him, though not necessarily).
When Olivier facilitates Tantra gatherings for singles and couples who are interested in experiencing more personal intimacy, he helps them practice a really safe kind of transpersonal intimacy so they can bring this openness and depth into their relationships with their family members, romantic partners, and friendships.
It’s devastating to admit this, but we have to accept that you can absolutely adore someone, feel intense love for them, be sexually attracted, have personal and transpersonal intimacy, and be completely incompatible! If one of you desperately needs to be a parent and the other is rabidly anti-children, I know it’s hard, but it ain’t gonna work. That would be a clear deal breaker. If one of you prefers monogamy and the other is polyamorous, no go. If you’re in therapy, on a healing journey, 12-stepping, or devoted to a spiritual path, and it’s your #1 priority to be close to people who do their personal/psychological/spiritual inner work, and you’re attracting atheists who have zero interest in therapy, you may simply be incompatible. If you need to live a lavish, expensive socialite life and your beloved in a minimalist Zen monk, there’s gonna be problems. If you long to travel the world and your partner is a homebody who wants his partner by his side, you both have a right to get your needs met—but it’s probably not the right fit. If your best friend wants to talk on the phone every night and prioritize closeness and you’d rather just go for a hike once a month, prioritizing freedom and space, acknowledge that you want different things. Rather than complaining, overly compromising, or pretzeling yourself into a shape that’s not natural, let the lightbulb moment hit you. “Aha, our needs are valid but not compatible!” Create more distance and find the places where you are compatible, appreciating those areas without applying undue pressure on someone else, expecting them to change in ways they don’t wish to change.
People have a tendency to ignore basic incompatibilities. They fall in love and then realize that there are real, nuts and bolts deal breakers in the relationship. Then one or both parties go on a mission to convert the other—trying to convince someone that their perfectly valid need and preference is not the best choice, pressuring the partner to change when the partner doesn’t want to change. This is a recipe for misery. If you love someone who isn’t a compatible match, bow deeply in respect for someone’s individual preferences, grieve the loss of what could have been, and wish them all the best in going elsewhere to get their needs met.
Why Distinguish Between These Terms?
I hear people misuse language all the time, and I think it can be a recipe for confusion, disappointment, dashed expectations, and unclear agreements. If someone says “I love you,” what does it mean? If someone says “We’re intimately connected,” how do you interpret that? If a friend asks if you’re available for more intimacy, do you know what they’re suggesting? It always helps to ask for clarification, since these definitions are mine but may not be the same for others.
I think it’s valuable to tease these often overlapping terms apart, however, since confusion and hurt can arise when someone has a transpersonal intimacy experience (at a Tantra workshop, for example) and they mistake it for a personally intimate experience, feeling rejected when someone with whom you experienced deep, soulful eye gazing in a workshop says no when you ask them on a date, or when the love you feel for your therapist (because of the well-known phenomenon of transference) confuses you.
While many people have a deep, often unmet longing for love, sex, and personal intimacy, all with one person, it’s also possible to get your needs met without finding all of those needs in one place. For example, when Olivier gathers people in the Bay area together for an experience of non-sexual transpersonal intimacy, his intention is that, by practicing intimacy in a safe way with people you won’t take home with you, you exercise a muscle—as you would at the gym, in yoga or in meditation—that can deepen your personally intimate relationships or make you more available for a personally intimate relationship with someone you haven’t met yet. When you walk around feeling full from the transpersonal intimacy, you’re more capable of carrying that frequency that will help you attract others who are open, available, and ready for intimacy too.
How Do You Define These Terms?
These definitions are my own, but I know many of you have insights, reflections, and wisdom you’d like to share. I’d love to hear your feedback. Please post your comments below. My husband Olivier is also curious about what others have to say about love, sex, intimacy, and compatibility. Please support our curiosity and fill out the survey below in the PS.
PS Olivier is about to interview experts on romantic relationships, intimacy, sacred sexuality, Taoism and Tantra. He’s curious what questions you would like to ask these experts! He’s not focusing on technique—such as multiple orgasms or upside down sex. He’s more interested in what interferes with genuine intimacy, what you’re afraid would happen if you open yourself up too much, and what’s interfering with the real heart-to-heart and body-to-body connection that can satisfy your heart’s deepest longings. He’s curious about questions like this—Do you have a hard time finding a partner who can match you? Do you feel lonely or unsatisfied (even if you are married or in a committed relationship)? What are you looking for in a romance? Why are more and more people choosing to be single, even though they’re feeling desperately lonely? What needs would you hope a relationship could meet? What do you dream of offering in a romantic relationship?
Please take a moment to answer by visiting this page.
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