A MALE PERSPECTIVE
For many years the word ‘intimacy’ always came with sexual connotations to me, and I never realised the depth and richness intimacy can bring to my relationships with other people. I would have laughed at the suggestion that I could be intimate with a complete stranger and yet that is exactly what can happen.
Intimacy is often described as an emotional closeness in which one feels able to trust and share with another person. Some psychologists make the distinction between emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical intimacy; however, I feel that doing this brings an unnecessary complication to something that is actually much simpler.
We are all innately loving beings with a desire to give as well as to receive love in our relationships with others. Could it be that intimacy relates to the level of openness and transparency with which we interact with others and underlying these interactions is the love we all are?
If this is the case, then intimacy can be as simple as making eye contact with the checkout person at the supermarket and feeling the warmth in their eyes when you do or giving a friend who is struggling a hug to let them know you are there for them. It may be loving text messages shared with your partner during the day, preparing the evening meal or even making the bed together in the morning. These examples show how intimacy can be a natural part of everyday life, so why then do men often have difficulty being intimate with others and sometimes even their partner?
Maybe we need to consider what is being role modelled to boys as they are growing up and how this may affect their relationships as they get older.
When I was growing up boys were influenced by the macho image of the sporting heroes of the time and tended to adopt behaviours role modelled by them. These behaviours, which became synonymous with being a ‘real’ man in New Zealand, glorify stoicism, strength, virility, and dominance. Unfortunately, boys appear to have become victims of society’s expectations of a ‘real man’ in that they usually suppress their feelings in order to fit in with their peers. They adopt a more macho persona, and while the tough, competitive, and uncompromising aspects of this image may help them win games on the sports field, it ignores the very real need males have for emotional connection, love, and intimacy.
I feel that by discouraging boys from expressing their feelings and to be more like their macho role models, we have robbed them of experiencing the love and joy intimacy can bring to a relationship. As a result, it is more acceptable for boys and men to express anger and frustration than to spontaneously show their love and caring for another.
In one study (1) exploring the male perception of intimacy, it was found that it was common for men to not feel comfortable with expressing their feelings. The men in this study saw intimacy as the ability to share at a personal level with another in a manner they would not normally do out of fear of being judged or rejected. They acknowledged that the ‘rules of masculinity’ did not allow for men to show their vulnerability, and this ultimately impeded the process and benefits of intimacy.
There were times when I was growing up that I would hold back from expressing what I was truly feeling or tried to mask how things were for me by giving a ‘macho’ response to fit in with those around me. I had great admiration for those boys who could express their feelings even though they may have been mocked or ridiculed by other boys for doing so.
It has been claimed (2) that men have the same need as women for love and intimacy, but they may channel this need into sexual desire as it is through the intimacy of sex that males feel safe enough to show their vulnerability.
While some men may use sex as an expression of love for their partner, the influence of the macho factor that exists in groups of men and boys has seen sex become a marker of one’s masculinity. An example of this is, when I was at High School, I recall walking past a group of older boys and overheard a challenge being laid down to one of them to not only ask a particular girl out on a date the following weekend but to have sex with her as well. Such insensitive behavior often saw girls being seen as mere trophies in some sort of game with much kudos being gained by the boy for the number of girls he could sleep with.
Using sex in this way demonstrates how it is largely seen for the purely physical act that it is rather than the beautifully intimate connection that it can be.
Another researcher (3) in this area got the men in her study to rate factors which they considered important in a relationship. The men rated love, trust, to feel heard, to be able to share their feelings and feel a deep sense of connection with their partner to be most important to them. The connection they have with their partner was of greater importance to them than having a ‘satisfying sex life’. This is contrary, however, to how men are often portrayed in movies and on TV, leading many to assume men are ‘only after one thing’.
I feel the masculine ideal that many boys grow up aspiring to and which influences the behaviour of most men, only serves as a false façade behind which men hide their true feelings.
Could it be that even though men may seek a relationship in which there is a deeper connection to their partner, their life patterns of withholding their true expression makes it difficult for them to be intimate outside of the bedroom? This was what I experienced with my wife (Anne). We have been married for 31 years and love one another very much but for many years I associated intimacy with physical connection and consequently sex became a measure for how well the relationship was going.
We both felt the need to deepen our relationship when our sons left home. This required a level of honesty and vulnerability with each other about our feelings that I wasn’t used to.
It was through sharing in this manner and supporting one another with making changes to old patterns of behaviour, that we now enjoy a level of love, joy and playfulness in our relationship that was not present when we got married and which I had not thought was possible to have.
From my own lived experience, I now know that true intimacy is much more than physical connection. It is a loving openness with another person that comes free of judgement or expectation. Intimacy gives men the opportunity to communicate their natural tenderness and sensitivity thereby offering a beautiful expansion of what is possible to all their relationships.
1. Patrick,S and Beckenback, J, (2009), ‘Male Perception of Intimacy, A Qualitative Study’. faculty.umlsklaus
2. Watson, LJ, (2017), The Truth about Men and Sex’ pschologytoday.com
3. Kirschner D, (2010) ‘Are Men Really After Only One Thing? Pschologytoday.com