Kelsey Minnick, Ph.D.
Normalize Platonic Intimacy
Intimacy has many forms. While the cultural connotation of intimacy often gets relegated to "physical" intimacy, there are so many other realms - each unique and tangibly different in their manifestation - that require our attention.
Social intimacy. Intellectual intimacy. Emotional intimacy. Spiritual Intimacy.
Just to name a few...
While each of these styles of intimacy (as well as their communicative roles) could have their own post (and perhaps they will in the future), I want this post to focus less on the categorical descriptions of intimacy on more on the transformative revelation that comes with acknowledging the categories themselves; a multifaceted notion of intimacy requires us to expand our definitions, yes, but it also requires that we expand our allowances for where intimacy can show up, as well. Let me explain...
If you were a student taking one my interpersonal communication courses, at some point I would ask you to do a reflective activity: "Pull out a piece on paper and begin to write down the names of people you feel you can be intimate with." Almost every semester, this statement is met with awkward glances and some skeptical hesitations from my students but they start writing... and then they quickly stop and the questions start flowing.
"Do you mean right now or people from our pasts, too?"
"What if we aren't currently dating anyone?"
"What do you mean by intimacy?"
Their struggle to write a complete list of intimate relationships stems from their limited ideas (and definitions) of intimacy, so we talk about all of the realms of intimacy that can exist. I walk them through social intimacy, that feeling of intrinsic joy and connection which develops through quality time, shared hobbies, and sustained interaction. We look at intellectual intimacy and how human beings can stumble upon deeply profound questions and answers from stimulated and critical conversation. There is the kind of emotional intimacy that can take root when you blend mutual respect with a commitment to sharing your feelings aloud. Spiritual intimacy for when personal ideologies align with shared behaviors and morals, creating a unique space of support and understanding. When I bring up the category of physical intimacy, I'm met with some surprise and trepidation when I tell them that physical intimacy shouldn't be limited to our sexual or even romantic notions of touch and contact but should include any form of touch or contact that allows for comfort and connection.
"But I share some of those things with my sister."
"That describes my relationship with my best friend better than my relationship with my boyfriend."
"Does any relationship have all of those?"
When it comes to understanding intimacy through a comprehensive lens, you cannot rely on just one realm to fully comprehend the role intimacy will play in relational development and maintenance. Further, if you look at intimacy from a lens of communication, you must acknowledge that its manifestations are not prescribed to only certain interpersonal relationships or conversations.
One of the biggest hinderances in platonic interpersonal relationships is that lack of comprehension and acknowledgement. For many individuals, it can be difficult to push past our narrow definitions of intimacy and allow our friends to engage with us in ways that foster deeper connection: vulnerable conversation (emotional intimacy), prioritizing friend-dates (social intimacy), challenging one another and not shying away from conflict (intellectual intimacy), sharing deeper and sometimes taboo beliefs (spiritual intimacy). And the biggest cultural lie that inhibits platonic intimacy? The role of physical touch. All too often, our culture prioritizes a binary way of thinking around relationships (sexual or non-sexual) and it usually lumps physical touch with it. The truth of the matter is that physical touch has always been a platonic engagement and isn't rooted in sexual expression, but rather trust, safety, and comfort (all of which can lead to a consensual and exciting sexual expression, if wanted...).
In friendships between women, which is the focus of this current series, there is no denying that there has been more freedom to engage in platonic touch and physical intimacy at the platonic level than there has been for friendships that exist between men. Damaging ideas around what types of touch are "effeminate" versus "masculine" get conflated with appropriate and inappropriate in certain gendered friendships, completely eliminating an entire realm of expression for half of our population and limiting it for the other half... for no other reason than outdated, homophobic, and prudish taboos. Who do we hug? Whose hands do we hold? What spaces can we move freely without fear of touching or caressing another body? Do we offer physical comfort to our loved ones? Do we make space for their bodies?
Normalize platonic intimacy ON ALL LEVELS. Social, intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and physical. Our communication competency is deeply tied to our willingness to engage in relational exploration; and our ideas of intimacy is a good place to start exploring.