A lot of people, including therapists, use the words “closeness” and “intimacy” as if they were interchangeable. It’s useful to separate their meanings out.
“Closeness” is all warm and easy and comfortable and friendly. It’s the payoff for being in relationship – the fun stuff. In contrast, “intimacy” (“into-me-see”) is about knowing and being known “warts and all” – this is frequently the hard work part of relationship.
Why is intimacy so often hard work? Well, you can’t have intimacy without vulnerability. So intimacy depends on interactions that are challenging, revealing, effortful and even scary. Closeness is about keeping things sweet so we can easily be in the same space. Intimacy needs to include learning about oneself growing and struggling with the less than ideal aspects of oneself and sharing that with your partner. The growing pains of relationship development!
If you want to keep your partner close then it is tempting to avoid saying the things that you fear will “rock the boat” or push your partner away. It is easier to avoid talking about subjects where there are have differences and about those aspects of oneself that you think your partner will reject or that you don’t like/are ashamed of. If this forms the bulk of the relationship then any closeness you have is going to lack depth, because together you are avoiding really knowing each other.
Couples who avoid conflict are prone to over-doing closeness. We are not saying closeness is bad. It’s the pay-off, remember? But it’s not enough by itself. Focusing on closeness is OK at times (e.g. having a special dinner together) but if this is done too much, a relationship becomes stagnant and/or false.
Couples who fight or bicker are, obviously, less avoidant of upset. Typically they are also seeking closeness but they lack the self-awareness & self-mastery to resolve the issues in a way that builds intimacy. When you aim for closeness by trying to make your partner change, you drive them further away. Both likely to end up feeling frustrated, hurt and misunderstood.
If instead you aim for intimacy, in the sense of sharing what’s really going on for you, a partner isn’t always going to like what you say. They might not even like some things about who you really are. But at least your partner will know what’s going on inside you and have a chance to deal with it. Differences will be out in the open and together you can work through them.
This is not the same as blurting every thought or feeling you have. You still need to use tact and timing, discretion and diplomacy in sharing what’s going on for you. But the more fully you can bring yourself into the relationship, the greater chance you have of feeling accepted and truly loved for who you are. Out of this comes a mature, deep, enduring closeness.