My Struggle With Intimacy Began At Birth

followed by a roller coaster ride that still continues

John Walter 📣May 4 · 7 min read

Photo by Marco Trinidad from Pexels

Intimacy is a big thing. Something we are programmed to seek out from birth. It is human instinct to seek connection and closeness with others. It begins with our mother as we seek physical intimacy for survival. Physical intimacy also has a role in the survival of the species.

Often the concept of intimacy is collapsed down into this single idea—physical intimacy or touch. It is, in fact, a much broader idea.

You could break intimacy down into four parts:

  1. Physical
  2. Emotional
  3. Mental
  4. Spiritual

Troubles arise where we collapse these all together.

I have had a rocky journey with intimacy. I have sought out intimacy with others without exploring the intimate relationship I have with myself. I will share some of these ups and downs and hope you find them useful for your own journey.

Let us begin with a quote from Osho:

“The capacity to be alone is the capacity to love. It may look paradoxical to you, but it’s not. It is an existential truth: only those people who are capable of being alone are capable of love, of sharing, of going into the deepest core of another person — without possessing the other, without becoming dependent on the other, without reducing the other to a thing, and without becoming addicted to the other. They allow the other absolute freedom, because they know that if the other leaves, they will be as happy as they are now. Their happiness cannot be taken by the other, because it is not given by the other.”

― Osho

Being Left to Cry Under the Cherry Tree

My mum already had three sons when I was born. She says I was the one that cried the most, and she was worried about it. Understandably and typical of the times, I spent much of the day lying in a pram. If I cried too much, mum would wheel me out into the garden, well out of earshot, and place me under a cherry blossom tree.

I have considered this image a lot. A baby cries to create a connection with the parent. Mum will pick them up and work out what their needs are. Physical contact may be enough, or a feed or nappy change. What happens when they are put out of earshot and their cries ignored?

It feels like something around my need for intimacy was interrupted here. I am not judging my mum’s behaviour, just wondering what I made of it in my baby-brain way. The image often comes back to me. I sense I liked being under the cherry tree. I found a way to soothe myself by watching the soft pink petals in the sunlight.

Was it here that I began to crave physical intimacy with a sense that I would never get it? Was it here that I found that I could soothe myself by focusing on beautiful things, but there would always be a yearning in the background?

Here I am, 60 years later, and I have a wonderfully intimate relationship with my mum on a mental, emotional and spiritual plane. I have accepted and respect she does not want hugs or kisses on the cheek or any of that soppy nonsense.

Sewing Up My Pockets

So this is a physical bit; cover up your ears, mum! I was five, and I was very tactile, and mum decided that I spent far too long with my hands in my pockets, and I wasn’t playing with a couple of conkers and a worm that I had found in the garden.

She sewed them up. Verbal threats had failed, and it was the only thing left to do.

I craved touch and cuddles, and they were not on offer. This is not a complaint or a judgement. It was the ’60s; there were all sorts of bonkers ideas going around about how to bring up children.

So I was taught how to shake hands when a grown-up offered theirs, and I delighted in rare cuddle moments when my mum had to lance a boil on my bum, clean out my ears or squeeze my zits.

Any other physical contact was considered perverted. I understood that masturbation was a sin. Physical intimacy with yourself or another was something you probably had to put up with at some point in your life, but it’d be best to avoid it.

A Totally Confused Teenager

Deprived of physical intimacy and weighed down with shame for craving touch, I began dating girls. What a nightmare that was!

I was a cute geek. I fell in love with anyone that let me stroke their hair. I could sit for hours in the cinema, just breathing in patchouli oil and waiting for a chance to brush my hand against theirs.

Allowing me a tiny amount of physical intimacy sent me into a love-spin.

My mind was fried by conflicting pressure from peers and older brothers.

“Have you done this? Have you done that? Has she let you …….. ?”

It was as if it was a competition and the girl was just an object to be conquered, a series of challenges. If I didn’t complete them, I was obviously gay. I didn’t want to be part of this.

I just wanted to feel close to another human and make a connection. I could snog for hours on end, and I loved just touching and talking. I could become obsessed with smooth skin that felt like velvet.

Marrying Too Young

I was obsessed with physical intimacy to the exclusion of all else. The first time I met a woman and clicked physically, I thought this was true love. I had to marry her.

The marriage was doomed and lasted four years. I had no idea how to have a rounded intimate relationship. I was not even remotely emotionally literate. We had very little in common on an intellectual level and rarely knew what to say to each other.

Spiritually we were both lost causes, blindly flailing about in life, trying to make sense of all the conflicting messages, and having no idea who we authentically were.

Separating Intimacy from Love

Many years have passed, and I have been married to my second wife for 37 years. We are intimate with each other on all four levels (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual), and it all fluctuates wildly.

I have noticed that whenever I gain any level of intimacy with another, I get very confused. Particularly as a musician, this becomes a problem. Improvising music with someone is a very intimate act. I can enter into the zone with someone, and it is almost as if we are one. There is no separation between us. This is a sort of spiritual intimacy.

On several occasions, I have got swept up in this as if I was in love. I have not had the conceptual framework for separating these things. I seem to have no holistic understanding that I can be intimate intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually with someone. Physical intimacy does not have to be a part of that.

It is only very recently, in the context of a therapy group, that I have realised that I can be intimate with many people in many ways. I have learnt to separate it out and value it just as it is.

The Paradox of Intimacy

I have been afraid of intimacy on any of the four levels. I collapsed them all together, so obviously, if I am intimate emotionally with someone, then all the other three must follow, and that can’t work, so I must avoid any kind of intimacy at all costs.

If I allow myself to be intimate with anyone, all my relationships will collapse, and I will be alone.

I have felt so alone avoiding intimacy so I won’t feel alone.

The Freedom of Intimacy

Training to be a counsellor has brought me the freedom I have sought. The Counsellor/Client relationship is about as intimate as you can be. The work depends on it.

The work also depends on the boundaries around it. I will choose to be intimate with you for one hour a week. That’s it—no vagueness around the edges. You will learn to be intimate, and I will learn to be intimate, and then we will walk away from each other and go about our daily tasks. Both of us can bring more intimacy into our lives through this process.

I am really learning to be intimate with myself, as intimacy with another depends on that.

I am becoming intimate with my body. Sensing what it is trying to tell me, learning to listen to all the emotions it has stored up for so many years. Intimate with my emotions, learning they are coded messages from the past, not prescriptions for the future. Learning intimacy with my mind, noting the patterns of thought that automatically click into place and what triggers them.

All this opens up the space for intimacy with my soul. What gives my life purpose and meaning? Can I learn to hear that voice above all the others?

I’ll be sure to post updates on this journey.

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