Lately I have been thinking a lot about the nature of intimacy. The more I reflect on the nature of intimacy, the more I think of it as a necessary ingredient to authentic living. And, for reasons I will soon explain, I am also coming around to the view that intimacy is a key precondition for love of all kinds.
What is intimacy?
Though it is by no means a complete definition, here’s a rough description of intimacy:
Being intimate requires a person to (1) share the actual texture and shape of his or her inner life, including his or her unique joys, quirks and vulnerabilities (2) while simultaneously taking steps to help the other person do the same.
Intimacy, then, is deeply reciprocal; you cannot open up to another person without providing an opportunity for that person to open up to you. For example, if you share your account of a childhood trauma, you are in turn inviting the other person into a space where she will naturally feel more comfortable opening up to you.
I also believe that the reciprocal nature of true intimacy engenders empathy. I’ve come to this conclusion because the openness involved in intimacy really isn’t possible unless one is aware of how hard it might be for the other person to open up. For example, if I tell you about something that makes me feel extremely vulnerable, I am much more likely to understand your reluctance to share a painful experience. By stepping into a space of vulnerability myself I am in a particularly good position to appreciate why doing the same might be incredibly challenging for you.
Why Would One Want to Avoid Intimacy?
If you talk to a traditionally trained Western psychologist, he will probably say that we avoid intimacy because we are in the throes of fear — that we are scared of becoming closer to other people.
This is a flimsy, superficial answer. It doesn’t shine light on why we don’t want to get closer to other people. More problematic still is that this answer suggests that the avoidance of intimacy is often justified — even in cases where intimacy is being avoided to serve one’s self-interest.
In the Bay Area, where I currently live, a lot of people deliberately avoid intimacy in order to avoid showing their true selves to others. (I’m sure this happens everywhere, but I am calling out where I live because the Bay Area is undergoing some massive cultural shifts, shifts that are making narcissistic and harmful behavior more and more prevalent.)
Let me say that again to make sure it is crystal clear:
A lot of people deliberately avoid intimacy in order to avoid showing their true selves to others.
Wait, what? People avoid being intimate — something that we all agree is positive and good — in order to hide who they really are from others?
Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying.
Why would someone want to hide who he really is? Well, for starters it’s easier to take what you want from someone else if they really don’t know who you are.
Take an example from the world of finance: If Bernie Madoff announced himself to his clients as a dishonest, scheming bastard, Madoff wouldn’t have been able to get his Ponzi scheme off the ground in the first place. Yet by presenting himself as a clever-but-respsectable businessman, Madoff was able to secure the trust of very wealthy folks. By wearing a cloak of “authenticity”, Madoff was able to hide who he really was.
Now, there are a great many ways to hide who you really are. In fact, some quite devious folks adopt a very different strategy than Madoff. They don’t present themselves as responsible and virtuous in a conventional way. Instead, these crafty people take a very different approach: They openly acknowledge or “own” their unconventional demands, hoping that they will find someone who will (reluctantly) agree to them. Often these demands are shared with a veiled threat attached: “I am asking you openly to engage in something you don’t want to do, but you know that our relationship or business arrangement cannot continue unless you agree to do this thing you don’t want to do.”
I call these bottom feeders Open Manipulators. They’re “open” because they do not hide the fact that their demands are selfish or destructive to the feelings of others; these individuals are “manipulators” because they leverage the fears of their victims against them.
Open Manipulators are dangerous because they appear to be honest and transparent. But such a person is anything but honest or transparent. By boldly asking for something that violates the autonomy or long-term self-interests of the other person, the Open Manipulator is actually hiding his or her true character. Similar to the Madoff case, the perpetrator here is masking the fact that his motivations are wholly self-centered and narcissistic, even while he prances about as if he were more virtuous, honest and open than everyone else. The Open Manipulator always has a willing coterie of enthusiastic supporters, a phenomenon which never ceases to horrify me when I see it with my own eyes.
I’ve seen dear friends fall for both kinds of tricks. I’ve seen the Madoffs and the Open Manipulators draw people into highly toxic emotional relationships as well as extremely damaging professional partnerships. Though the Madoffs and the Open Manipulators use radically different tactics, both are remorselessly destructive. They attack their victims with a cold, serpentine commitment to causing as much damage as possible.
The Difference Between Truth and Honesty
In the previous subsection, I showed that manipulators come in different flavors. The Madoffs of the world hide their intentions while Open Manipulators share them.
The distinction between these two types of manipulators forces us to notice something incredibly important: Truth and honesty are not the same thing.
Allow me to explain why this is the case. The Open Manipulator offers truth to the victim but is not actually honest with the victim. We can see this because the fundamental objective of the Open Manipulator is to serve his or her own needs even if doing so destroys the victim. That fundamental objective is never shared with the victim because the Open Manipulator is never going to be honest with the victim. He may share a bit of truth (“I want X from you”), but the lack of honesty about the background conditions of his request will never, ever be shared with the victim.
What are those background conditions? Well, let’s consider just two of them. Open Manipulators think of themselves as having unique entitlements. Now, these people will never openly admit that they think they’re special — that they’re not subject to the rules and norms that apply to everyone else. But this is the modus operandi of the Open Manipulator, apparent to all who watch their behavior closely. An Open Manipulator will go to great lengths to (i) take more than he or she is entitled to (ii) by presenting his or her attitude of radical entitlement as a form of virtue.
If you need a vivid example of this behavioral pattern in action, consider the following hypothetical example. A young female entrepreneur is seeking funding for her startup. An investor offers to invest in her company but on one condition: She must provide sexual favors to him. Now, the investor in this imagined scenario is often married, but he need not be. He could simply be imposing this condition on the female entrepreneurs that pitch their ideas to him. Whatever the case may be, such investors typically have a very polished, pro-social public persona. They use their public personas to create a perception of virtue that can be leveraged whenever sexual harassment complaints are raised by female entrepreneurs. In fact, I invite the gentle reader to think of these serial predators as follows: Whenever victims come forward, Open Manipulators hide behind their pro-social roles as facilitators of innovation and technological progress, and in so doing they are able to abuse individuals through pretending to work for the greater good. In this way, radical entitlement is repackaged as virtue.
The second background condition is harder to swallow, but it’s critical to understanding the psychology of Open Manipulators: The victim’s feelings do not matter. Let me say that again: From the perspective of the Open Manipulator, the victim’s emotions and well-being do not exist. The victim is simply a tool, an instrument to be used and then discarded. Or, to put the point another way, intimacy and its close sister empathy never play a role in the Open Manipulator’s behavior toward a victim.
This leads us to an important insight about what’s required for intimacy to flourish: It’s possible to have truth without intimacy. After all, we’ve seen that the Open Manipulators are not truly concerned with the well-being of their victims. These dark souls don’t want to be intimate with their victims. Instead, Open Manipulators want to remain emotionally distant from their victims so it’s easier to extract whatever they want.
Cultivating an Environment Where Intimacy Can Flourish
In my experience in the Bay Area, people are becoming increasingly terrified of being intimate with others. There are many contributing factors, but the biggest single cause is this: Open Manipulators are hurting other people without having to face any serious consequences for doing so.
Whether it’s the venture capitalist who tells a female entrepreneur that he’ll fund her company in exchange for sexual favors, or whether it’s the steady boyfriend who signals that his girlfriend should accept polyamory or he’ll end the relationship, the pattern is morally the same: The Open Manipulator uses a fear to coerce a victim into doing something he or she does not want to do.
I want to be crystal clear on where I stand on these people: They have no place in a stable, well-organized society. They prey on the fears and vulnerabilities of their victims, using legitimate human needs — like the need for physical contact and healthy companionship — as leverage to get what they want.
If you want to live in a society where people can be truly intimate with one another, a society where empathy, kindness and love abound, then I ask you to join me in doing three simple things.
First, do everything in your power to help victims of Open Manipulators. Try to see the world from their eyes, keeping in mind that victims often have traumas you cannot fully appreciate, unseen pains that have made them uniquely vulnerable to Open Manipulators. Open your arms and your heart to victims so that they will know that they matter, that they are valuable and loved.
Second, do everything in your power to stop Open Manipulators from plying their trade. Tell potential victims about how these people operate. Avoid doing business with Open Manipulators, because if you do, you’re just providing them with the capital and social proof they so desperately need to play their sick games in the first place.
Third, do not enable, directly or indirectly, the idea that what these people do is “normal”. There’s nothing normal about treating human beings as mere tools to satisfy one’s narcissistic or self-aggrandizing desires. That’s not normal, that’s sick.
Aiming for Intimacy
I encourage everyone reading this to take a firm stand against the Open Manipulators of the world. If you join me in doing so, you’ll be helping to create a warmer, safer world for human beings, a world that recognizes the central role intimacy plays in healthy love and friendship among healthy human beings.
Human beings are beautiful but also fragile. To truly connect with each other — to aim for intimacy, as it were — we must believe that it’s safe to make the attempt in the first place. Making that attempt is terrifying if the people around us aren’t interested in creating true relationships characterized by reciprocity. As Lewis, Animi and Lannon tell us in A General Theory of Love:
The physiology of love is no barter. Love is simultaneous mutual recognition, wherein each person meets the needs of the other, because neither can provide for his own. Such a relationship is not 50–50 — it’s 100–100. Each takes perpetual care of the other, and, within concurrent reciprocity, both thrive.
Because (truly healthy) relationships are mutual, partners share a single fate: no action benefits one and harms the other. The hard bargainer, who thinks he can win by convincing his partner to meet his needs while circumventing hers, is doomed. Withholding reciprocation cripples a healthy partner’s ability to nourish him; it poisons the well from which she draws the sustenance she means to give.
To everyone who made it this far, I truly thank you for bearing with me. If you have any feedback on anything I’ve said in this piece, or if you are in need of some support, go ahead and leave a comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you.