The Crisis of Intimacy

13 Jan

This post is heavily inspired by a variety of posts at Asexual Curiosities and Writing From Factor X. Those links go to the most directly relevant posts I could find, but I’m sure they (and others) have written many more interesting things on the subject, so I encourage checking out their blogs more thoroughly.

~~~

America has an intimacy crisis.

Other Western countries probably do too, but America is what I know.

I’ve had intimate friends, of course. In middle school, I used to spend the night with a friend of mind and we’d talk about our lives and the meaning of the universe until 4am. Now that I’m in college, I have several friends that I can grab for a late-night walk around campus when I need to talk about something. But for a lot of reasons, this isn’t completely satisfying.

For one, I can’t really count on my friends being there on any given night. We’re all busy, and there aren’t any social structures making sure we spend time together (well, except for the awesomeness of my dorm common room). It can easily be weeks between running into a particular friend, and no one considers that a problem.

For another, it’s very temporary. In the long run, we’ll all graduate and go our separate ways. In the shorter run, my friends might get involved in a serious relationship, or take up a new hobby or a new social circle, and not have much time to spend with me.

On a more individual level, it’s a very rare friend who is willing to really let down boundaries. Even with my best friends there’s a little bit of face-saving going on. This is exacerbated by the fact that men in our society aren’t expected to show emotion. Sometimes I’ll try to get a friend to open up to me, and they will. But more often, they’ll turn it into a joke.

I don’t have much faith that it’s better for other people in American society. I’m at a really amazing school, in an amazing dorm, with a very solid group of friends. I count myself lucky to have as much social support and potential for intimacy as I do. I would be really surprised to hear that I have it worse than normal.

A lot of my treasured moments with people have to do with sharing some special level of intimacy with them. For instance, I’ve been casually involved with a certain girl for several months, and the most meaningful moment in that relationship so far is when I was allowed to be there during a family crisis. The level of vulnerability and connection shared there was way more important than any of the sexual things we’ve done. For another, in high school I spent several years chatting online with a girl I’ve never met in real life, and there were times where that was my most important friendship, because the situation gave us the possibility of being very open and vulnerable with each other, even if only over the internet. Looking back at my life, a lot of the things I’ve done have been an attempt to squeeze a little more intimacy out of the world around me.

There is, however, a socially sanctioned way of getting more intimacy: a “relationship”. In a (sexual, romantic, monogamous) relationship, you have a lot more freedom and power to gain intimacy. You are supposed to be a scheduling priority, and you can expect a certain amount of regular alone-time. You have some say into where your partner lives, and if the relationship goes long-distance you’re assured of constant communication and visits as frequently as possible. You have both the time and societal permission to really let down your barriers and be emotionally vulnerable. All of this is wonderful. There’s a reason I don’t spend much time single.

But I wouldn’t be writing this post if I thought it was all peachy-keen, now would I?

This structure causes a ton of problems:

  • It doesn’t serve the needs of asexual/aromantic people, who may want intimacy and commitment but not the trappings that come with.
  • It means that you have a lot of incentive to focus your time on energy on solely the one partner, which exacerbates the problems asexuals face, and adds to the crisis of intimacy.
  • It means that your emotional support is very fragile, as it’s based on only one person, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll date that person forever.
  • That fragility means there’s a lot of incentive to stay in bad relationships, because being single is worse.
  • Paradoxically, that fragility also directly causes bad relationships, because you’re kinda screwed when your main emotional support is also the person who’s currently hurting you. There’s a reason friends tend to stay friends even if they fight, but “relationships” have a reputation for spiraling out of control.

There are also all of the traditional problems with monogamy that my poly friends will recognize:

  • It doesn’t allow you to get all of your (many and varied) needs met, assuming you’re a real person dating other real people, who are never perfectly compatible.
  • It denies the natural human tendency to form intimate connections with more than one person at a time.
  • It often forces you into sexual patterns that aren’t completely fulfilling, due to differences in libido, fetishes, etc.

How do we deal with this?

Polyamory does a pretty good job. It fixes a lot of those problems handily. Having multiple relationships means that you have more emotional support and chances for intimacy, and the compatibility and “singleness” issues become a lot less important.

However, I think polyamory, as currently envisioned, is missing a crucial realization: Relationships are not inherently more meaningful just for being sexual and/or romantic.

This is important for being inclusive to asexuals, who deserving some loving as well, but it also opens up a whole vista of possibilities for meaningful relationship structures. No one negotiates with their platonic best friend about how their relationship will progress… but why not? Platonic relationships can be just as meaningful as the best sexual/romantic relationship, why not give them the same time and energy and communication skills? Why do we assume we have to only be “partners” with people we’re attracted to? If we decouple intimacy, sex, and romance, then we have so many more ways we can make our relationships work for us. Why not have a straight guy and an asexual guy as primary partners, with the straight guy having sex with women on the side? Why not have a triad where only one of the relationships is sexual? If we break down the assumption that we have to sleep with people we’re intimate with, we can start to solve our intimacy problem.

This won’t be easy. If polyamory is weird, this is weirder. You try getting societal recognition for your life-partner-who’s-your-gender-even-though-you’re-both-straight. Not going to happen any time soon. But there’s no reason we can’t change our own lives, whether in small or big ways, to increase our openness to intimacy.

In future posts, I’ll have some ideas on how to do this in practical terms. In the mean time, DJ over at Love from the Asexual Underground has some great posts:

A Nonsexual Intimacy Playbook

The Art of Mindblowing Conversations

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11 Responses to “The Crisis of Intimacy”

  1. Sciatrix January 13, 2011 at 10:55 pm #

    Oh yes. The system might work for some people, but I think it could be greatly improved by a reworking of relationship dynamics. (And I’m not only saying that because American culture as is doesn’t actually have any room for me in it.)

    This is exacerbated by the fact that men in our society aren’t expected to show emotion.
    This has actually been bothering me for a while, but not actually being male I’ve felt weird talking about it. Am I the only one who sees the level of closeness you’re “allowed” to have in a platonic friendship to be a somewhat gendered thing in Western culture?

    There’s also this expectation that close platonic relationships are associated with youth, in my experience. Like it’s okay to have close, intense friendships in high school and college before you get a serious romantic relationship and “know better,” but real grown-ups place all their intimacy eggs in the significant other basket.

    • semiel January 14, 2011 at 6:21 am #

      Am I the only one who sees the level of closeness you’re “allowed” to have in a platonic friendship to be a somewhat gendered thing in Western culture?

      Definitely not. I think that’s a very real problem for men. I didn’t emphasize it too much, because I think everyone suffers from our intimacy-scarce society, but I definitely think you’re right.

      There’s also this expectation that close platonic relationships are associated with youth, in my experience. Like it’s okay to have close, intense friendships in high school and college before you get a serious romantic relationship and “know better,” but real grown-ups place all their intimacy eggs in the significant other basket.

      Another very good point. I should have mentioned that somewhere, but the post is long enough as it is. :P

  2. monotreme January 13, 2011 at 11:55 pm #

    What woud we have to do to the way we structure society to make these more meaningful human relationships possible? I feel that in some sense the central question that confronts us in human relationships is one of our relation to the way we enjoy things. We can only conceive of relationships in particular ways because we structure our ideas of enjoying relationships in a society with particular forms of enjoyment. Sorry for the Marxist rant, but I really think that this is something where Marx can shine in a particular way.

    • semiel January 14, 2011 at 6:23 am #

      Interesting. I never thought about it as a Marxist issue. I suspect there’s something interesting there, care to flesh your idea out a bit more?

      • monotreme January 14, 2011 at 10:05 pm #

        Oh yes! In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 Marx points to the structuring of society through capital relations as constraining the way in which we enjoy and perceive things. Sexual relations are no exception, in that under capital they take on an estranged, egotistical form. The structure of society as it actually exists moreover, renders one form dominant even as it renders others possible and shapes them. Homosexuality and gayness are different: the castro exists because of private property and the US navy putting people out for being gay in SF. What a positive transcendence would mean is a world in which “What we can now conjecture about the way in which sexual relations will be ordered after the impending overthrow of capitalist production is mainly of negative character, limited for the most part to what will disappear. But what will there be new? That will be answered when a new generation has grown up: a generation of men who never in their lives have known what it is to buy a woman’s surrender with money or any other social instrument of power; a generation of women who have never known what it is to give themselves to a man from any other considerations than real love or to refuse to give themselves to their lover from fear of the economic consequences. When these people are in the world, they will care precious little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion of their practice of each individual—and that will be the end of it.” (Engels)
        Accomplishing this requires remaking society, because our relations between each other pervert sex.

  3. Katie (MstrsK) January 14, 2011 at 1:41 am #

    Hey Semiel,

    I was reading this part of your post: “If polyamory is weird, this is weirder. You try getting societal recognition for your life-partner-who’s-your-gender-even-though-you’re-both-straight. Not going to happen any time soon. But there’s no reason we can’t change our own lives, whether in small or big ways, to increase our openness to intimacy.” It made me think of the current trend on facebook for close friends to list themselves as “married” or as brother or sister, to show the special significance of their relationship to their friends and family. Many times people seem to be doing it in a light hearted, somewhat joking way, but I feel like there is still a truth at its core.

    What do you make of this phenomena? I feel like it’s heading in a direction that socially approves close intimacy between friends.

    (And full disclosure, I’m guilty of doing both things on facebook myself! All the while I’m leery of posting anything about being in an “open relationship,” which is of course the closest thing to poly that fb comes close to acknowledging.)

    • semiel January 14, 2011 at 6:28 am #

      I definitely think that’s true. There’s a little bit of social space for “best friends”. It’s partially a gendered issue, I think. I haven’t seen a lot of men doing that. It’s also very much a special case, and not something that everyone is expected to do (unlike romantic relationships).

      I guess by social recognition I meant something more like hospital visitation rights and being on the same insurance. Especially if you have a romantic/sexual partner (or multiple!), you would be looked at funny if you expected your platonic partner to be taken as seriously as a “relationship”.

  4. Katie (MstrsK) January 14, 2011 at 1:59 am #

    Oh! And I have to insert some cultural awareness type stuff. There are still many subcultures in the U.S. that have much closer kinship ties and family networks than the American (generally white) nuclear family has. Recently immigrated ethnic groups, as well as lower income families continue to rely on and place greater value on extensive family networks.

    It has been argued that in poor inner city culture, where the rate of single motherhood is high, a person’s maternal family ties are much more important than who your father is. Which means that to the single mother, your family is much more important than who you sleep with since it’s your family who supports you in the long run. (I need to stop myself before I go on a ranty tangent yet again, but suffice it to say I don’t believe the high single parent rate is the fault of either poor mothers or poor fathers really, but rather the result of systemic institutional systems that have both accidentally AND deliberately aimed to keep certain people, especially people of color, in the lower classes)

    I hope this is making a some sort of sense, I’ve had most of a bottle of wine after a bad week. I’m enjoying our dialogues Semiel! What major are you in school, btw?

    • semiel January 14, 2011 at 6:33 am #

      Very good point. By “America” in this post, I obviously meant “middle-to-upper class white America”. Thanks for calling me out on that. My race and class privileges clearly need some checking.

      I’m a “HIPS” major: History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Science and Medicine. So, more or less irrelevant to any of these issues. (Although there’s a Foucault class this quarter, which I guess is pretty relevant.)

  5. superenigma June 14, 2011 at 6:41 am #

    Yes, closer friendships and a much easier time finding a romantic partner. Women sometimes do look like they have it all.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Update: Aromantic sexuals- still evil « asexual curiosities - January 14, 2011

    […] creates and uses artificial intimacy scarcity. Let’s pull out some quotes from his two non-101 posts: [On possible definitions of aromantic] saying that aromantics can form deep emotional […]

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