How Close Is Close?

Posted on September 26th, 2019

We all experience moments of closeness with another person, emotional intimacy, when the usual sense of distance we feel from others at least partially dissolves. That’s what happened to Martha and Dave as they realized one night that they weren’t only dating, they were in a relationship. It was an exhilarating event.

“I want us to be very close,” Martha said, “Just the way we are now.”

“Yes,” Dave agreed, while his mind raced with questions: Would the disaster of his last relationship repeat itself? What would he tell his friends? Was this what he really wanted? He said none of this.

Martha was focused on the feeling of closeness rather than thinking about anything. She had been wanting this for a long time; now she could relax.

Everyone has their own tolerance for closeness. Both Martha and Dave would have said they were very close that night, but they experienced this very differently from each other. Martha moved into it easily, while Dave held the closeness at bay with his thoughts. But that’s what closeness always was for Dave, an experience he corralled with thinking to keep it from overwhelming him. 

Closeness is not proximity. We are all able to walk past strangers without feeling close to them. For closeness to happen, we have to expose our more vulnerable inner selves. Our emotional inner selves are as tender as our bodies, so closeness between people is similar to standing near a fire. If you stand too far away from the fire, no warmth will reach you. Stand closer and you will be warmed, but get too close and you’ll be burned. This is the issue with closeness and people: how to get the warmth we desire without being hurt by the other person, whether accidentally or on purpose.

Just because two people have an ongoing relationship, even a longstanding one, does not necessarily mean they are close. Many people find the vulnerability of closeness threatening. They manage their lives to avoid too much closeness, through criticism, arguing, or just not being around.

Some couples limit their closeness to their sex lives. Some are close only in the context of parenting. Some are only close on vacations, a special situation when almost every couple gets closer than usual. 

There are so many variations of how close we let ourselves become because closeness can never be a settled issue. Except for those who are determined to keep a formal distance from each other, we are always moving closer or letting ourselves get more distance. 

We can’t say which direction Martha and Dave’s new relationship will take. He might withdraw more and more in the face of her open desire for a close connection. She could become worn out from trying to maintain the closeness as he puts up barriers. Or they may begin to talk about and work through their differences, openly building a relationship which is comfortable for both of them—that’s real closeness.

Posted in Marriage and Couples

Please remember, this is a blog. It is not psychotherapy or treatment of any kind and is not a substitute for the individual treatment you can get from going to see a good therapist.