Intimacy: I listen to you, you listen to me

Intimacy can refer to lots of different things, and probably means something different for everyone.

Within psychology, there are many models that aim to capture complex, dynamic social processes that change across time, people and cultures. Theories may seek to explain universal underlying principles, or they may scrap the idea of universality and focus on a specific phenomenon under certain conditions.  What I have found interesting lately, is that something as complex as intimacy can be broken down into a simple, interactional model that helps conceptualise how intimacy is conveyed through communication. This doesn’t mean that the model accounts for every aspect of intimacy, or that it’s ‘real’ or true for everyone. Intimacy also means much more than conversation, for most people. In spite- or perhaps because of- its simplicity, this model resonated with me. I think having something basic as a guiding principle can help us make sense of other, more complex processes at play.

It’s called the interpersonal process model of intimacy (Reis & Patrick, 1996; Reis & Shaver, 1988). This model claims that individuals must feel understood, validated and cared for within intimate relationships, primarily through two communicative processes: self-disclosure and partner-responsiveness. This comes about through an individual disclosing personal information that offers a glimpse of their “inner world” through emotional or vulnerable information, to which the other individual responds. Intimacy is enabled and developed when the listener responds in a way that conveys validation, caring and acceptance, and the speaker feels validated, understood and cared-for in turn. Of course, there are other aspects of intimacy incorporating nonverbal communication and complex, subtle and overt patterns of interaction over time. Intimacy may ebb and wane, or be influenced by people or factors outside of the intimate relationship in question.

The model also acknowledges the underlying processes that shape the way people disclose and respond, and how people develop patterns over time, as shown in the picture at the end of this article. This diagram depicts a single communicative exchange between person A and B, incorporating the internal states of motives, goals, needs and fear, and interpretive filters that influence the interaction. Of course, these underlying factors also have a million sub-components within themselves. We could have thousands more conversations and models about what makes a person feel validated and understood, how motives and fears are expressed, and how that may be different from person to person. Nonetheless, I think this model highlights and simplifies the importance of being honest, being vulnerable, and being a good listener.

How a Psychology Clinic can help

Although it may be difficult, I want to put forth the idea that people can improve on their communicative skills to build intimacy. Being honest and open about yourself is a good way to start, and one place this can be practiced with less potential for judgement, rejection and emotional fall-out is inside the psychology clinic. Learning how to communicate personal information to a receptive listener who isn’t emotionally reliant upon you, may help build those skills in day-to-day life, in relationships where others are emotionally connected to you. Another equally important way of building intimacy, then, is knowing when another person is disclosing personal information, and how to respond in a way that makes them feel heard, and maybe even understood. One way to do this is simply by listening, not offering advice. So often when interacting with people we care about, we want the best for them, so we end up telling them what to do, rather than listening to what they need. Usually we also want the best for ourselves, so we respond in a way that reflects our needs rather than theirs. My challenge to anyone reading this is twofold: practice saying what you really think or feel to someone you’re close to, and leave space for others to do the same.

Giorgia Sala

Provisional Psychologist

Deakin University

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