Iesha Small

writer, speaker, charity strategist

Exploring society, education, leadership and how to live a meaningful life.

Relationships (the friend-partner axis)

What role do physical and emotional intimacy play in our relationships in real life and remotely?

“Well you only need the light when it’s burning low
Only miss the sun when it’s starts to snow
Only know you love her when you let her go

Only know you’ve been high when you’re feeling low
Only hate the road when you’re missing home
Only know you love her when you let her go

And you let her go.”

-Passenger, Let her go.

A family member was talking to me recently. She’s the kind of person who breathes life into any room as soon as she enters. She usually does salsa dancing once a week and is very tactile. She’s a key worker so is still going to work and she currently lives alone. She explained how weird it was to have no human touch at all. No touch of the arm for human connection while laughing, no tap on the shoulder to get a colleague’s attention, no hug when greeting somebody she got on well with. Nothing.  She explained that she missed the casual intimacy.

She hadn’t known she’d valued it until it was gone.

Self-isolation and relationships

I’ve been having lots of talks and thoughts about relationships recently. Friendships, parental relationships, working relationships, romantic relationships, extended family relationships, relationship with yourself, relationships with familiar strangers.

Self-isolating really focuses your mind on the immediate environment. At its most basic, that’s the physical environment. Is the environment we find ourselves in safe and with the basic things we need to survive? Does it have enough space to live and work in confinement? Is It comfortable and equipped for what is currently an indefinite period of living and working?

Once that’s considered, our environment is heavily shaped by the other people. Their presence, their absence. How we are able to interact with the people we come in contact with both in person and remotely.

Our environment is heavily shaped by the other people. Their presence, their absence. Click To Tweet

The friend- partner axis

A while ago I was thinking about the difference between acquaintances, friends and partners. It occurred to me that what we can often see as binary (friend or partner) is actually more of a spectrum*. Because I’m a geek I decided to try to represent my concept on a graph (because why wouldn’t you?)

Firstly, I thought about physical intimacy, then I realised that obviously emotional intimacy was a factor too.  Hmmmm, but then what about the degree to which your lives were intertwined? A simple spectrum wasn’t going to cut it. It was really a 3D Cartesian axes considering how emotional intimacy, physical intimacy and life entanglement all came into play.

 

I didn’t think this especially odd but I shared it with a friend who, after being intrigued and asking a few questions, pointed out that perhaps most people didn’t see relationships in this way. Originally I was only considering friends and partners but the representation works for a variety of adult interpersonal relationships.

Emotional intimacy, physical intimacy, life entwinement

For me the key question is right now is where do two groups of people fall on this axis?

  • People we find ourselves in lockdown with (this can be either via choice or necessity)
  • People we keep in contact with remotely (via choice or necessity)

 

An example for me would be my spouse, M. High physical intimacy, high emotional intimacy, high life entwinement (high x, high y, high z).

Because of the above I’m feeling pretty happy to be in lockdown with her and the kids. Although there are still other people in my life who I love and miss a great deal.

If I had a different living situation, say with a spouse I’d been about to divorce pre-lockdown but was now forced to stay a little longer with, I might feel differently. On my axes that relationship would maybe be low physical intimacy, low emotional intimacy, high life entwinement (low x, low y, high z).

I’d also feel differently if I had lost my job and now needed to live at home again with my parents who I loved but who I didn’t share much of my thoughts and personal life with. On my axes that relationship might be medium physical intimacy, medium emotional intimacy, medium life entwinement (medium x, medium y, medium z).

 

Why is this an interesting exercise for me? Well because I believe that the quality of our relationships (including that with ourselves) directly affects the quality of our lives.

The quality of our relationships (including that with ourselves) directly affects the quality of our lives. Click To Tweet

I also believe that human beings need intimacy of different types for fulfilled lives, from a community of people who all fulfil different roles in our lives.

 

“Our goal is to bond within a circle of love, of deep and abiding affections that are inclusive rather than exclusive”

bell hooks, Communion.

At a time when certain types of intimacy may not be possible for all of us it’s interesting to consider

  • What the relationships we have now are like
  • What the relationships we had just before lock down were like
  • How we’d like our relationships to be r when life returns to normal to be like (and how we might make that happen).

 

Physical intimacy may be off the menu for some of our important relationships and for other relationships that we may have taken for granted until external events have forced us to change or pause them.  The question going forward is how do we foster or maintain emotional intimacy as well as a sense of being entwined in the lives of the people who are important to us?

Human beings need intimacy of different types for fulfilled lives, from a community of people who all play different roles in our lives. Click To Tweet

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*my thinking here has also been influenced by reading Rewriting the rules by Meg-John Barker.

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If you are interested in the human side of leadership then my book The Unexpected Leader is for you. 

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Relationships (the friend-partner axis)