Hell may be other people, but so is heaven


Are you afraid of intimacy and, if so, is there something wrong with you? Yes, you are probably afraid of intimacy and no, there is nothing wrong with you, according to Ziyad Marar in his new book, Intimacy.

Not only is it normal to fear intimacy but in the age of therapy and of what he calls “anti-social media”, intimacy is increasingly hard to find, he argues. Marar, who brings an engaging blend of philosophy and psychology to his work, has written two previous books, The Happiness Paradox and Deception.

“I’m interested in the tensions and contradictions that come with trying to live well in modern Western society,” he says. “Intimacy seems to be the best lens of all to shed light on how we live with each other, especially the ambivalent need we have for each other. Sartre said ‘hell is other people’, but so is heaven.”

Intimacy is a risky business involving, as it does, two people knowing both the good and the bad about each other and sharing their frailties as well as their strengths.

“Intimacy has something of a shared and forgiving sense of frailty,” he says. But sharing your frailties brings with it the danger of rejection. “We know on some level that you can only be intimate with someone who has the power to hurt you,” he says. “And a shot at intimacy that falls wide leads to those peculiarly human pains of humiliation and shame.”

That forgiving sense of frailty

And yet we continue to hope for intimacy. “We make no sense without our audiences, and the social animal needs others in order to live well. For human beings that feeling of being known, that shared and forgiving sense of frailty, is redemptive in a way that nothing else can be.” Intimacy “can offer safety, trust and the feeling of being uniquely understood: the opposite of isolation”.

He agrees that the couple sitting side by side in the pub who appear to have nothing to say to each other after years of marriage just might have more intimacy through their knowledge and acceptance of mutual frailty than the young lovers at the next table who see each other as perfect.

The cover illustration, Room in New York, 1932, by Edward Hopper, shows a man sitting at a table reading a newspaper while a woman, seated opposite, turns away to finger the keys of a piano. Before reading Marar’s book, I would have assumed that this was a relationship gone cold. After reading it I can make no assumptions about their degree of intimacy because I do not know what they know and accept about each other.

Intimacy may be much desired and prized but the dark side, the scary side, is undeniable because it involves exposing our frailties as well as our strengths to another, the response is not subject to our control and could hurt. “The fear of rejection, ridicule or humiliation is the undertow of the hope for intimacy.”

And our therapy culture, he argues, doesn’t help. While promoting self expression and authenticity, it “encourages us to take control rather than to yield to our vulnerability and helplessness.”

He might well have added that in therapy itself, the “client” is expected to display his or her vulnerabilities to the therapist but the therapist is expected to remain a closed book to the client in most respects. This is not an intimate relationship.

The anti-social media

We live in an age of non-intimate connection: software programs and apps are updated continuously to allow us to “share” our doings with our “friends”. But far from promoting intimacy, Marar argues, our always-connected, online culture undermines this most yearned-for relationship.

“Our digital culture praises connection and our therapeutic culture encourages it and yet both undermine intimacy in various ways,” he says.

“What I call anti-social media, while encouraging one billion people to join Facebook, is a highly conventionalised and controlled mechanism for creating weak ties. Digital connections don’t allow for the the real-time knowingness of vulnerable, emotional exchange that is necessary for intimacy.”

Marar’s book flows like an extended and very well-written essay. He offers a fresh and fascinating look at intimacy – and it is liberating to know that we all fear intimacy as well as long for it.

He doesn’t shout and he doesn’t offer easy prescriptions. When it comes to intimacy you have to take the risk along with the desired closeness – but it’s worth it. “I’m not saying there is a safe path to intimacy, but I suppose I’m saying it is worth the pain. I think there is a line from Samuel Johnson to the effect, “It is better to have trusted and been betrayed than never to have trusted at all.”

Intimacy is published by Acumen

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