Article by Dr. Ng Wai Sheng

Image by Quino Al @ Unsplash

How do you understand intimacy?

I met a friend recently who got me pondering what’s really intimate and what’s not.

My friend shared that she’s been feeling depressed, but she didn’t know why. “Everything is fine in my life,” said my friend. I listened to her closely, offering her the emotional support that she needed.

And then, I popped the question: Does your husband know about your feeling depressed?

Surprised by my question, she responded, “Oh no, I don’t tell him things like this. He’s very busy with his new promotion now, and I don’t want to burden him.” And then, with a faint smile, she added, “Oh we are fine… we never fight!”

Hmm… 10 years of marriage, raising 3 young kids and living with her in-laws, I was truly curious how this couple “never fight”! According to my friend, she and her husband understood each other very well, hence there wasn’t any major disagreement.

As I was listening to my friend that day, the part of me that was conflict-avoidant could resonate deeply with her fear of “rocking the boat” if she were to actually “burden” her husband with her true feelings inside. On the other hand, the “fixer” part of me wanted to confront the issue head-on, but not quite sure where to begin since there’s seemingly “no problem” to be fixed in the here-and-now. Meanwhile, the therapist-self in me wanted so badly to tell my dear friend: What you can’t talk about is what you really need but can’t have…

We sat there in silence. And then it struck me how silence can be profoundly intimate! In fact, so much of our relationships occur in the space of silence. Not just when we are talking!

We know that when relationship is at its best, two people don’t need to talk. They just know and flow with one another. On the other extreme, silence can be deliberately withdrawing, ignoring or stonewalling, which is one of the most predictive factors of divorce in couples. Silence can also be awkward and uncomfortable, creating mistrust and misunderstanding. Silence is extremely hard; maybe that’s why most of us prefer to talk, in the hope to fill in the blanks…

I wonder, how much of my friend’s current predicament comes from a fear of change, a desire to hang on to a sense of familiar security (of how things have been and supposed to be…)?

The good old psychology and family therapy textbooks teach us that we all need secure attachment during childhood and adulthood. No wonder so many of us seek intimate relationships and marriages to give us a sense of security. We would try to cling on to all the goodness that a relationship can offer, for as long as possible. We would fight passionately, or appease quietly, or do whatever seems right at the time, just so that we don’t lose our current sense of security.

The problem is, security comes from certainty. Ironically, the only certainty in life is change! And change is supposed to be stressful, as it breaks down all our certainty and security. Perhaps, what’s more true about intimacy is that it IS supposed to be insecure and unstable! Insecurity is more likely the NORM than the odds, if all of life is about change and uncertainty. Imagine if we should aim for total or constant security in our intimate relationships, aren’t we setting ourselves up for never-ending frustrations and disappointments at ourselves and our loved ones?

According to relationship expert Terry Real who specializes in helping couples recover from infidelity, intimacy is about closeness, disruption and repair. And the most crucial part lies in the repairing. Kinda like pottery making, don’t you think?

Have you ever tried your hands on making pottery? It’s muddy and messy, sometimes frustrating, sometimes exhilarating, and every encounter you have with the clay creates something different! Whilst you may influence the shaping of it to some extent, you never really know how the outcome will be until the end. But supposed you decide to stop half way, all you get may just be a lump of clay, or something that looks like a pottery but not quite yet.

Constructing… deconstructing… reconstructing… Isn’t that the rhythm of all authentic relationships? You must be willing to allow the old relationship patterns, even with all its goodness and flaws, to deconstruct, to die, before a new pattern can emerge…

But, wait a minute, why would you want to do that? Most of us are habitual creatures who live by the golden rule “don’t fix it if it ain’t broken”! Not surprisingly, it often takes a personal or relational crisis to shake us up to the reality of our relationship patterns. Maybe it’s an illness or death in the family, extra-marital affair, or someone leaving home, to make us realize that what has been working before, no longer works now. The current crisis calls for a change… a reconstruction.

Here’s the challenge: In order to reconstruct something, we have to first deconstruct the existing one… The fear to deconstruct is real. We know too many breakups and permanent damages that were done to relationships. Deconstruction is scary, it requires us to first tear down our own façade and defenses, and be vulnerable to each other. It requires us to be real people and speak honestly from our hearts.

How do we even begin to do that, if you and I haven’t quite learned to be honest with ourselves and our own complex feelings? Deconstruction scares the shit out of us! No wonder many of us cannot imagine anything good can come after deconstruction… that there WILL be a time of reconstruction, if we choose not to give up on each other, on our relationship… It’s a real test of our faith about ourselves, about the other person, and about our relationship.

Undeniably, this is a huge risk! There is a chance that the new may never come, even as we deconstruct… And if it comes, we don’t know how it would look like, if we might even like it…

But to cling on to the old means that you will never know… What’s the possibility… You will just keep repeating the old cycle which is familiar, which is comforting… But nobody is growing, and the relationship is no longer authentic and life-giving. Like cells in the body, we either die and grow, or we grow cancerous and the whole organ dies.

Of course change is uncomfortable! It’s disruptive! Often it doesn’t make sense to want something to die, when so many other parts are still working fine. At the same time, it also makes a lot of sense to wish for something to die and reconstruct, when we know that it really doesn’t work anymore for at least one party, or everyone involved!

Healthy intimacy propels us to WANT to be better people, who can create better families and better communities for the wellbeing of many generations to come. This is what makes healthy intimacy starkly different from co-dependency, which traps us in a regressive-infant-burnout-parent cycles of functioning.

Having said that, even healthy intimacy is NOT stable or secure. Like making pottery, our relationship is dynamic. We keep working on it. First we try to construct something… then we mindfully deconstruct… and then we reconstruct… And the process repeats. With every effort of deconstructing and reconstructing, we are hoping to create a product (a relationship) that gets better and better.

There’s probably no end to this. Although, I suppose we have the “final product” when one or both parties physically pass on. That’s when there can be no more change. The relationship becomes more or less fixed in our memory as a certain way.

But for as long as two parties are still alive, the relationship is dynamic and changeable, moment by moment… It continues to hold the potentials to be deconstructed and reconstructed! It continues to be scary… and exciting… Full of risks and full of possibilities! How tiring…. and how rewarding!

Disclaimer: All stories presented in this article are based on, or inspired by actual events. In certain cases, incidents, characters and timelines have been changed for privacy and confidentiality purpose. Certain characters may be composites or archetypes, and are not intended to depict or allude to actual persons or families. Any resemblance to actual incidents, persons, places or events is entirely coincidental.


Published On: April 28th, 2018 / Categories: Blog Post /