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Male Intimacy

by Herb Stevenson

Robert Bly and Robert Moore are often associated with saying that male intimacy occurs shoulder to shoulder as father and son or as close male friends walk or work together while never making eye contact. It is a pregnant moment that seems delicately balanced between anxiety1 and excitement that is safely contained, sometimes, for only a moment or two. The anxiety2 is like a deep knowing that this is important and something that has been internally sought and fought for many lifetimes and may last only for a brief moment or two. The excitement is like the potential to bring satisfaction to a deep yearning that has existed long before time.

Karen Prager makes a strong case that the desire for intimacy is inborn; everyone needs it for sustenance. In her book The Psychology of Intimacy, she notes that “research indicates that it promotes well-being. People who have intimate relationships are less likely to develop psychological symptoms, have a lower mortality rate, have fewer accidents, and are at lower risk of developing illnesses, than those who lack intimate relationships” ((Alperin, 2001, 138, Original source Prager, 1995)

Why do We Seek Intimacy

Even though I agree that the desire for intimacy is inborn, my focus is not the symptomatic results of having an intimate life or intimate relations, I am curious about what is intimacy and why do we seek it. Therein lies the focus of this exploration.

Some Definitions

Richard Alperin, a psychoanalyst, (2001, 138) defines intimacy as a “process by which a dyad—in the expression of thought, affect, and behavior—attempts to move toward complete communication on all levels”(Original source: Hatfield, 1982, 271) and indicates that a prerequisite for intimacy is “intense feelings of liking or loving between members of the dyad”3 (138) Clark and Reis suggests that intimacy is “a process in which one person expresses important self-relevant feelings and information to another, and as a result of the other’s response, comes to feel known, validated...and cared for”. (Clark & Reis, 1988, 628)

Some Basic Conflicts

Otto Rank introduced the existential paradox between life and death as an experiential need to seek individuation and then integration. He felt we have a "life instinct" that pushes us away from joining and towards individuation so as to become individuals, competent and independent, and a "death instinct" that pushes us away from our individuality so as to be part of a family, community, or humanity (Boeree, 1998), creating sense of death, a psyche death of sorts. In many ways, these are the determining factors between whether we approach life intimately with courage or out of desperation. Both instincts create a tension that, if held throughout life, supports living on the edge of life in a state of being (or creating). When the balance is lost, we become overly enveloped by one instinct to the point in time that the other instinct erupts creating a sense of desperation to rebalance the tension between. Often experienced as an internal disintegration, the re-balancing process creates massive internal chaos until a new equilibrium is found and established.

Intimacy requires a fusion or crossing of ego boundaries with another that can be experienced as chaos or death to the psyche. However, unless the individual has established clear and secure boundaries between self and others and the formation of a separate self and identity, the capacity for intimacy is limited. Winnicott referred to this paradox as the capacity to be alone, wherein until the person sufficiently develops the capacity to be alone, separate from others, and clearly defining the self or self identity, the individual cannot be intimate with another. Therefore, the person that has learned how to nurture the self image and is able to soothe, nurture, and comfort him- or herself has the capacity to be intimate. “Without this capacity, intimate relationships in later years will be contaminated with overwhelming fears of engulfment and abandonment.” (Alprin, 2001, 141)

Barriers to Growth and the Potential for Intimacy

Life Fear/Abandonment

Juxtaposed to these instincts, we can feel a certain fear. The "fear of life" or “life fear” is the fear of abandonment, separation, loneliness, and alienation (Boeree, 1998) and is typically associated with the “fear of going forward” to become fully individualized. (May, 1997, 151) “It shows itself in the need for dependency on someone else and/or the need to throw one’s self so completely into a relationship that one has no self left with which to relate.” (May, 1994, 18). Therefore, “life fear” is the polarity, or the shadow, of the “life instinct”.

Abandonment derives from the desire to feel whole through others and therefore seeking the total immersion into the other is sought. When this immersion is complete, separation is often experience as a sense of total dissolution or annihilation of the self. Hence, intimacy is not possible because “having never acquired a positive self-regard and a sense of value and importance to others, they fear intimate involvements, anticipating that the other person will easily lose interest or grow tired of them and eventually abandon them. (Alperin, 2001, 142)

Death Fear/ Engulfment

Similarly, the "fear of death or “death fear” is the fear of getting lost in the whole, stagnating, being no-one (Boeree, 1998) and is typically associated with the “anxiety of ‘going backwards’ thereby losing one’s individuality” (May, 1997, 151) through fusion with another (Alperin, 2001, 137) “This is the fear of being totally absorbed by the other, the fear of losing one’s self and one’s autonomy, the fear of having one’s independence taken way.” (May, 1994, 19) Therefore, “death fear” is the polarity, or the shadow, of the “death instinct”.

Engulfment is a sense of a complete loss of self. It is experienced as being absorbed, smothered, stifled, suffocated, possessed, tied, imprisoned, dominated and/or swallowed up. Hence, without a clear indication and experience as a self, separate from and capable without other, the ego boundary and sense of self is insufficiently developed to create intimacy. Rather, the experience is quickly moving towards how to escape and survive.

Although both the fear of engulfment and fear of abandonment predominate for those that have not achieved a clear, safe sense of self, “the extent to which each fear inhibits the capacity to be intimate depends on how far along the developmental ladder the person is toward separating and establishing his or her own individuality....So pervading are these twin fears that they are responsible for the fluctuating patterns of closeness and distance in most relationships.” (Alperin, 2001, 142)

Intimacy: The experience of being—Life & Death

Erick Erikson believed that “intimacy is not possible without merger” with another person because it requires an exposure to one’s private inner self, a transparency, so to speak of one’s self resulting in a crossing , fusion, or melding of ego boundaries, one with another. As such, unless the individual has created the capacity for a basic trust in self and others, intimacy is not going to be possible. In other words, unless the individual is able to understand and accept that elements of like and dislike, good and bad, to judge and be judged, and love and hate are elements of most human relationships, intimacy will not be possible because the individual will either not trust him or her self or the other person. Alperin suggests the same process when he notes that “in order for a person to be able to achieve an intimate state of relatedness to others, he or she must have resolved certain intrapsychic conflicts related to his or her own development.” (138)

Life’s Separations

Our lives are filled with separations, beginning with birth. Rank's earliest work, in fact, concerned birth trauma the idea that the anxiety experienced during birth was the model for all anxiety experienced afterwards. After birth, there's weaning and discipline and school and work and heartbreaks.... But avoiding these separations is, literally, avoiding life and choosing death -- never finding out what you can do, never leaving your family or small town, never leaving the womb! (Boeree, 1998) So we must face our fears, recognizing that, to be fully developed, we must embrace both life and death, become individuals and nurture our relationships with others.

Psychoanalytically, the capacity to create and sustain a “safe space”, a “holding environment, a “melding pot” in which intimacy can occur is imprinted in early childhood. “The earliest form of intimacy between mother and child after birth develops through touching, sucking, holding, and laughter. When the quality of this mothering is “good enough,” characterized by sufficient empathic attunement, a foundation for subsequent emotional development and the capacity for intimacy has been established.” (Alperin, 2001, 140; Zuckenberg, 1988) These “moments of merger” have the impact of imprinting this universal experience on the child eternally, which in turn creates the “desire to return to benevolent state of oneness” (Alperin, 2001, 140)

Rank believed that “life fear” was more closely associated with women and that “death fear” was more closely associated with men, however he lived through the late 1930's, and it is now believed that both fears permeate the existence of both men and women. Regardless, “between these two fear possibilities, these poles of fear, the individual is thrown back and forth all his life” (Rank, 1936, 175) between claiming the right to fully individuate and claiming a place amongst mankind, such as being a part of a marriage, family, organization, and community.

Male Intimacy

For men, the ability to fully develop an identity is complicated. Generally portrayed masculine identity often masks the need for intimacy, “inasmuch as intimacy elicits tenderness, compassion, empathy, and nurturance, feelings associated with the feminine self. Therefore, intimacy can be highly threatening to some men’s gender identity, resulting in their denouncing anything perceived as feminine and therefore any need for intimacy. Furthermore, because intimacy requires a fusion with another, it can be perceived as extremely dangerous to the psyche (death fear) as it is experienced not only as a loss of control but a loss of self. As a result, men often become extremely aloof, independent and selfsufficient to avoid any semblance of intimacy; ergo weakness.

Male Confusion: Privacy versus Secrecy

One of the most difficult experiences in developing masculine identity is to unravel the multiple stereotypes that suggests how a man should be in the world. Homophobia has become a paralyzing manitou that haunts many men. As such, fearing that their sense4 of maleness and masculinity is in danger, leads to exaggerated concerns about any homosexual associations, desires, innuendoes, or thoughts and a phobic avoidance of intimate relations with other men; not understanding that intimacy does not necessarily equate or lead to sexual act.

The most enduring stereotype for masculine men is considered to be strong, quiet, enduring. The strong, quiet trait is typically translated in not needing to share intimate details or to disclose the rich internal world of the man. Often this is further reified with “personal issues are private” as in not available for public consumption. Carried to extremes, the male inner world becomes a mystery of secrets, possibly never shared with anyone except on very rare occasions.5

Avrum Guerin Weiss (1988, 120) suggests that in general society, we equate privacy with selfishness, thereby creating a double bind for most men. On the one hand, if the man is strong, quiet, enduring, he may be accused by close friends, partners, and spouses as being selfish because the individual does not disclose the internal world in like manner. On the other hand, if he discloses his private inner world, he risks being called soft, tender, and weak and thereby ridiculed by others, often to the extreme of being accused and/or teased for being “pinko”, “homo”, or “effeminate”.

Weiss continues on to note that in fact there is a distinct difference between what is private and what is secret. Secrecy is tightly bounded, hermeneutically-sealed6 by strong defense mechanisms such as shame and blame, and rarely will be voluntarily revealed to the public. Private simply means “out of the public view or knowledge” such as what happens between consenting people should remain private. This definition is expanded when we recognize that privacy in behavioral research is represented as the control of transactions between person(s) and other(s), the ultimate aim of which is to enhance autonomy and/or to minimize vulnerability....Furthermore, the experience of privacy involves an open and unifying relation with aspects of the world, contrast to the traditional conception of privacy as secrecy involving isolation and distance....The experience of privacy could not, by definition, include the personal boundary control involved in secrecy, because in privacy those boundaries are not present for the individual(s)” (Weiss, 1988, 120-121) When we look at the definition of intimate as suggested by Weiss, “not open or accessible to people in general; very private or closely personal; and pertaining to the inmost or essential nature”, we realize that privacy and intimacy are closely and deeply related. “Privacy is in part the essential foundation upon which genuine intimacy may be built. Intimacy is, in part, interpersonal privacy, the coming together of two or more people each with a secure sense of their own privacy.” (121)

The Phenomenology of Intimacy

In terms of intimacy, a paradox occurs when two people fuse together to share a powerful moment. Typically, both are fully present and yet slightly vulnerable. Safe, and yet revealing. It is as if they are drawing upon their internal awareness and authority to be safely in their own identity while allowing some else to see and know them in a very private and personal way—ergo, the everyday translation of intimacy of “into me thee see”, “a lifting of the veil between us”, and “the experience of being fully seen for the first time”. Register and Henley add more depth to our understanding in their research on the phenomenology of intimacy (1992). “Phenomenology is an attempt to give a systemic, descriptive account of the most fundamental aspects of an experience as reported by subjects” (Register and Henley,1992, 469) In this case, their research revealed that there are seven descriptive themes typical to the experience of intimacy: (1) non-verbal communications, (2) presence), (3) time, (boundary), (5) body, (6) destiny and surprise, and (7) transformation.

Register and Henley add more depth to our understanding in their research on the phenomenology of intimacy (1992). “Phenomenology is an attempt to give a systemic, descriptive account of the most fundamental aspects of an experience as reported by subjects” (Register and Henley,1992, 469) In this case, their research revealed that there are seven descriptive themes typical to the experience of intimacy: (1) non-verbal communications, (2) presence), (3) time, (boundary), (5) body, (6) destiny and surprise, and (7) transformation.

Non-Verbal Communication

In describing intimacy, statements such as “a look” or “the way she looked at me” or “a touch” or ‘for the fist time in my life, I experienced being truly heard (or seen)” suggest that intimacy can be expressed and experienced through wordless exchanges that involves the five senses.



Register and Henleys’ research indicates that presence is thematic to intimacy. “This was expressed as the noticeable existence of a person or ‘spirit’, in the presence of another, or other, person(s)...Here the complexity of the meaning of presence is stated by including cognitive, affective, physiological and spiritual aspects....A ‘presence’, then is like an ‘essence’, in that it is not limited to, or solely expressed by, one element (e.g. the physical presence) of a person. (Register and Henley. 1992, 473)



Intimacy is often related to a moment, frozen in time as a fond memory, where “time stood still” and the “details were illuminated”. Therefore, intimacy creates an experience where “it was as if being in the experience was not enough to make it intimate, but being able to perceive the ‘wholeness’ of the encounter, in the context of events that took place in time, was give it the complete quality of intimacy.” (Register and Henley, 1992, 474)



Boundary is the separating distinction between self and other (thee & me), sometimes referred to as “the edge of the life-world of an individual” (Register and Henley, 1992, 474) or the “contact-boundary in gestalt terms” as well as the circumscribing distinction that encompasses self and other (Buber’s I & Thou) separate from the rest of reality. Intimacy lifts the veil of distinction, or crumbles the walls of separation between self and other. To lift the veil of distinction between the individuals is “experienced as one getting inside of the boundary of another, allowing another to enter in one’s life-world, of the combination of both of these.” (Register and Henley, 1992, 474)



Intimacy is often experience through a sudden awareness of bodily sensations. (Register and Henley, 1992, 475) In Gestalt terms, this is a form of excitement (anxiety). The more familiar the sensations the more sense of support for the excitement, the less familiar the sensation the greater the sense of insufficient support and therefore a feeling anxiety. For example, supported excitement is revealed as “it felt like a combination of butterflies in my stomach , complete muscular relaxation, and freedom (weight of the world off from my shoulders). Under-supported excitement might be “an overwhelming wave terror burst through my pores.” Generally, intimacy is sufficiently support sensation that does not trip an anxiety reaction.


Destiny and Surprise

Intimacy has a mystical quality at times. As reported in research, “the paradoxical quality of destiny and surprise was experienced by many subjects. This paradox was described as something they knew was surprising or unusual, yet it had felt very natural, even destined...It was as if something unexpected had occurred and yet it was ‘meant’ to happen. [Therefore], intimacy is somehow both surprising or spontaneous, and yet, feels natural or destined.” (Register and Henley, 1992, 475)



Intimacy is often experienced as “a transformation or creating off something new through a movement or merging. Some described this as an intrapersonal experience ‘whereby one has, entirely on one’s own, an experience of revelation about oneself...a sort of ‘quasi-religious’ event.” (Register and Henley, 1992, 475-476)


In native American tradition, “crying or lamenting for a vision” (now more commonly called a vision quest), an individual would suddenly become aware that he or she had lost his or her purpose of life, granted by the Great Spirit. Culturally, it was understood that everyone was born with a purpose, their unique purpose, for making a difference in the world simply because they existed. When it was understood by the individual that they had lost their purpose, they would go into a deep sense of grief and lament their loss. The medicine man would assess whether or not the lamentation was genuine. If so, the medicine men would prepare the individual for a profound ceremony where the individual would cry and pray for a vision that would re-institute his or her original purpose for being here. Generally, the Vision's power comes when the story of a person's life becomes that of life as a whole and the individual is both surprised and aware that it was true all along.

Finding the Sacred

Intimacy is holy or sacred in that it brings us in contact with that which is core to our humanity, beyond the profane and into the liminal . A veil lifts and surrounds7 the moment with a connecting experience, one to another, that touches the heart and soul of the person. It might be in joy or sadness, but predominantly, it is a shared knowing between two people. For myself, I believe that amidst all of the complexities of life, the one commonly sought experience, often without conscious knowing, is to experience one’s existence being validating by another often via an intimate moment.


1. John A. Snyder in Flying Lessons: The Psychology of Intimacy and Anxiety states that “anxiety is the experience of feeling out of control and vulnerable, aware that something untoward could happen.” (2005, 5)

2. anxiety >n. (pl. -ies) a feeling of being anxious. ->Psychiatry a nervous disorder marked by excessive uneasiness. -ORIGIN C16: from Fr. anxiété or L. anxietas, from anxius (see anxious). anxious >adj. 1 experiencing worry or unease. 2 very eager and concerned to do something. -DERIVATIVES anxiously >adv. anxiousness >n. -ORIGIN C17: from L. anxius (from angere 'to choke') + -ous.

3. In terms of most romantic relations and/or in some family and friends relations, I would agree that the intense feelings may occur, however, I suspect that the key ingredient that triggers the actual act of intimacy is a safe container created by the spontaneous and complete presence of both persons.

4. manitou >n. (among certain Algonquian North American Indians) a good or evil spirit as an object of reverence. -ORIGIN C17: via Fr. from an Algonquian lang. It also is often associated with a man-made spirit form created by a collective fear. Once fully established it functions similar to an addiction and the fear of haunts the individual as fully accepted in the individual belief system as an absolute hreat to self identity.

5. Some of the most intimate moments with my father, a lifelong construction worker and hard-core homophobic, occurred in his waning years of life, when he preferred to sit and hold hands and on rare moments share some of the driving forces in his life, while pondering had he chosen well.

6. Value-ladened interpretations, often laced with religious meanings and threats to self identity.

7. liminal >adj. technical 1 of or relating to a transitional or initial stage. 2 at a boundary or threshold. -DERIVATIVES liminality >n. -ORIGIN C19: from L. limen, limin- 'threshold' + -al.


Alperin, Richard M. (2001) “Barriers to Intimacy: An Object Relations Perspective” Psychoanalytic Psychology, Vol. 18, No. 1., 137-156

Boeree, C. George (1998) Otto Rank,

Clark, M.S. & Reis, Harry T. (1988) “Interpersonal Processes in Close Relationships”, Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 39, 609-672.

Hatfield, E (1982). “Passionate Love, companionate love, and intimacy”, in M. Fisher & G Stricker (Eds.), Intimacy, (267- 292. New York: Plenum.

May, Rollo (1983) The Discovery of Being, New York: W. W Norton & Co.
.........................(1994) The Courage to Create, New York: W. W Norton & Co.
........................(1996) The Meaning of Anxiety, Revised Edition, New York: W. W Norton & Co.

Prager, Karen J. (1995) The Psychology of Intimacy, New York: Guilford Press.

Rank, Otto, Will therapy (1936) New York: Alfred Knopf

Register, Lisa M. (1992) “The Phenomenology of Intimacy” inn Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Vol. 9. 467-481.

Weiss, Avrum Geurin (1987) “Privacy & Intimacy: Apart and a part” Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol. 27. No.1 1, Winter, 118-125


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