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Unraveling Connection

Understanding Healthy Intimacy

Esther Perel said it best: “Tell me how you were loved, and I will tell you how you make love.”   

So then, how were you loved? Were you told you were special, that there was no one else on earth like you, that you were precious and unique? 

Were you celebrated? Or merely tolerated? Were you told that you were a burden or that your job was to make sure that your caregiver’s needs came first? 

All these experiences fold into what we understand “intimacy” to be and feed into how we relate to others in our relationships. The relationships we have with our caregivers inform how we engage with others.   

What is intimacy?  

Intimacy is “marked by a warm friendship developing through long association,” as Merriam-Webster would tell us. 

Intimacy exists in many different contexts.

We develop and exhibit intimacy through the following:  

  • physical closeness 
  • emotional experience 
  • touch 
  • spirituality 
  • curiosity
  • …and a million other little things

Intimacy is the feeling of “feeling felt,” says Dan Siegel.  

How Our Caregivers Shape Our Understanding of Intimacy: 

For people who grew up with supportive and loving caregivers, those definitions of intimacy may make sense and feel comfortable and natural. Intimacy is like that: it’s the safety of someone who feels like home. 

And for other people, that’s a problem. Because home, for some, was anything but warm and inviting.

Intimacy becomes more complicated for those given mixed messages about closeness and safety. The very people charged with keeping us safe, nurturing us, and showing us we were worthy of love were the ones who instilled fear and panic in us.  

Many of the people I’ve worked with through the years were given messages about their worth that impacted their understanding of themselves. They walked away believing they weren’t worthy of getting to know—that they were burdensome, lazy, bad, and wrong. 

How Disordered Intimacy Shows Up:

If intimacy is defined as a warmth that would draw others to you and you to them, intimacy gone wrong makes you feel like drawing closer to others is dangerous. It can be terrifying and even threatening. In these cases, with intimacy comes the threat of being hurt. No wonder many of us, facing the possibility of drawing closer to others, fight it, sometimes even unconsciously.   

Some of us self-sabotage our relationships, pushing others away when they, in good faith, would love nothing more than to express how much they care for us. Sometimes, we end up using our bodies to escape negative emotions or experiences through addictive or destructive sexual experiences: sex workers, serial relationships, betrayal of partners, and, more often, betrayal of ourselves.

We end up breaking promises to ourselves and further unraveling the relationship we have with ourselves. Shame then becomes embodied, and the messages we receive growing up about ourselves take root in our whole being. 

Add to this mix the element of sexuality, and we start to understand more of Esther Perel’s quote. If we were loved stingingly, forthrightly, or sparingly, we would tend to carry those dynamics into our sexual relationships and lives. Sometimes, as survivors of traumatic experiences, we might end up recreating the dynamics of the abuse in sexual situations. Did we feel powerless? We might find partners that recreate that pattern. Or we might pick partners we think or want to be the opposite of what we grew up with, only to find that the partners represent other aspects of our caregivers.  

How Our Relationship with Ourselves Impacts Our Relationships with Others  

In my work at Onsite, I have found that the relationship that needs healing most is the person’s relationship with themselves. There is a saying I have heard in some circles: “You can’t love someone unless you love yourself first.”   

This saying is utter garbage and can be toxic to live up to. Babies don’t love themselves before they can accept the love that a caregiver provides. A caretaker’s love provides the template for people to love others. 

Many times in my life, I have had to rely on the love of others before I could start loving myself.   

In essence, I had to borrow other people’s love to believe I could be loved. However, it is important to cultivate and grow our relationship with ourselves to love others more intimately. We must do the work of growing to love and appreciate ourselves so that we are someone that others can lean in towards. 

Matt Kahn stated this beautifully when he wrote,

“Despite how open, peaceful, and loving you attempt to be, people can only meet you as deeply as they’ve met themselves.” 

Some of the people who come to do work with Onsite come with a significant level of discomfort being in their bodies, carrying feelings of unworthiness. One of our goals in the work we do in our workshops is to teach people how to befriend themselves and feel more comfortable in their bodies so they can be more available for intimate relationships, including sexual relationships.  

The ability to be with someone, in mind, spirit, and in touch, being able to give and receive touch and sexual expression in safe, embodied ways, is the goal of healthy intimacy and sexuality. To be present and available in relationships, we must learn how to be at home with ourselves.   

In other words, I need to be for myself to be with others. 

Doing the Work of Healing Intimacy  

How do we begin to do this work?  

You’ve already started. By exploring this idea, you’ve begun to think about what it would take to draw closer to the people in your life in more intimate ways.  

To the same degree that shame makes us unavailable and takes us offline, connection to others and ourselves brings us back into the fold and helps us believe that we are worthy of love, respect, care, and grace. 

In “The Art of Giving and Receiving,” Betty Martin explores the concept of the Wheel of Consent and helps the reader think through how pleasure can be experienced with others in safe, empowering ways. Doing the work of healthy sexuality and intimacy means that you’re ready to start allowing yourself to feel pleasure, connecting with, and drawing closer to others. Sex or sexual play may or may not be involved, but you will increasingly feel loveable and worthy of what others want to share with you.  

In safe circles, drawing closer to others will not feel dangerous (or, as we heal, will feel less dangerous). This safety will become what we expect and even demand from our relationships.  

“How were you loved?” can be replaced by the question, “What do I deserve?”   

And you will come to find that you deserve the world.  

Written by Carlos Martinez, M.Div., MSMHC, LPC, ACS, CET-II

Carlos serves as a Lead Clinician at Onsite. He has worked in the helping profession and human-services field for close to 20 years, working as a pastor, chaplain, crisis screener at a hospital, in community mental health care as a therapist, counselor at a drug and alcohol intensive outpatient program, manager for a mental health intensive outpatient program, and an adjunct professor.

Before coming to Onsite, Carlos was an assistant director of counseling at Stockton University and an adjunct professor in the arts and humanities department. He also worked as the program manager for a mental health intensive outpatient program in Cape May County, NJ. At Onsite, he leads participant workshops on topics like trauma, healthy sexuality and relationships, intimacy, and connecting with the self. He also helps curate the experiential programs for Onsite and helps lead and recruit their team of therapists from all over the world.

Carlos earned his master of divinity (with biblical languages) from Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He earned his master of science in mental health counseling from Walden University and is a licensed professional counselor. He is also an approved clinical supervisor and a level II certified experiential therapist. He has experience working with people in both group and individual settings who have struggled with trauma, depression, anxiety, mood disorders, personality disorders, grief and loss, childhood abuse, incest, and sexual assault.

Looking to heal from unhealthy patterns or sexual addiction?

Join us for Healthy Sexuality and Intimacy for Men, happening March 14-20.

This week-long program offers a unique therapeutic experience for men who are coping with unresolved painful past events through unhealthy sexual addictions and patterns. By creating a safe space for healing, we guide and encourage you to move from a place of shame and isolation into greater intimacy and connection with the self and others.  

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