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Mutual Understanding in Intimacy

I think an intimate relationship is constituted by four feelings: mutual understanding, mutual liking, mutual respect, and mutual admiration. Here I share some of my own thoughts about one aspect of intimacy: mutual understanding.
Intimacy is one of the three components of relationships in the Triangular Model of Love proposed by psychologist Daniel Sternberg.

I think an intimate relationship is constituted by four feelings: mutual understanding, mutual liking, mutual respect, and mutual admiration. Here I share some of my own thoughts about one aspect of intimacy: mutual understanding.

Your verbal and non-verbal interactions with your partner may lead you to have the experience of intimacy. A core component of intimate experience is the feeling of being visible, understood, and known by your partner.

To help you better understand this point, I want to share Psychologist Nathaniel Branden's refections on intimacy. In his book, The Psychology of Self-Esteem, Branden wrote about an experience he had with his wire-haired fox terrier, “Muttnik”:

“We were jabbing at and boxing with each other in mock ferociousness; what I found delightful and fascinating was the extent to which Muttnik appeared to grasp the playfulness of my intention: she was snarling and snapping and striking back while being unfailingly gentle in a manner that projected total, fearless trust. The event was not unusual; it is one with which most dog-owners are familiar. But a question suddenly occurred to me, of a kind I had never asked myself before: Why am I having such an enjoyable time? What is the nature and source of my pleasure? . . .

“When I identified the answer, I called it "the Muttnik principle" because of the circumstances under which it was discovered. Now let us consider the nature of this principle.

“My particular feeling of pleasure in playing with Muttnik contained a particular kind of self-awareness, and this was the key to understanding my reaction. The self-awareness came from the nature of the "feedback" Muttnik was providing. From the moment that I began to "box," she responded in a playful manner; she conveyed no sign of feeling threatened; she projected an attitude of trust and pleasurable excitement. Were I to push or jab at an inanimate object, it would react in a purely mechanical way; it would not be responding to me; there could be no possibility of it grasping the meaning of my actions, of apprehending my intentions, and of guiding its behavior accordingly. It could not react to my psychology, i.e., to my mental state. Such communication and response is possible only among conscious entities. The effect of Muttnik's behavior was to make me feel seen, to make me feel psychologically visible (at least, to some extent). Muttnik was responding to me, not as to a mechanical object, but as to a person.”

The dog’s response, writes Branden, was "objectively appropriate, i.e., consonant with my view of myself and of what I was conveying to her." Branden observes that we experience ourselves as a process over time; our "self-concept" evolves as "a cluster of images and abstract perspectives." The act of being perceived by other living entities enables us to have "the fullest possible experience of the reality and objectivity of that person, of [the] self." Through Muttnik's responses to him, Branden was able to see reflected an aspect of his own personality--playfulness.

“This, then, is the root of man's desire for companionship and love: the desire to perceive himself as an entity in reality--to experience the perspective of objectivity--through and by means of the reactions and responses of other human beings.

“The principle involved ("the Muttnik principle")--let us call it "the Visibility principle"--may be summarized as follows: Man desires and needs the experience of self-awareness that results from perceiving his self as an objective existent and he is able to achieve this experience through interaction with the consciousness of other living entities.”

Now to grasp this point just imagine being with the one you love and experiencing a warm feeling of intimacy unfolding during an interaction--where you are the “I”:

. . . I want you to understand me . . .

. . . And I express that to you . . .

. . . So you start paying attention to me . . .

. . . And looking at me and listening to me . . .

. . . So I express what is on my mind . . . something personal . . . and private . . .

. . . And you look at me and listen to me with undivided attention . . .

. . . And you express your understanding of what is on my mind . . .

. . . And I look at you and listen to you with undivided attention . . .

. . . And I feel seen by you and heard by you . . .

. . . And I feel understood by you . . .

. . . And I feel drawn closer to you . . .

. . . And I really like that feeling . . .

. . . And then you sense that I feel this way . . .

. . . And knowing that makes you feel drawn closer, too . . .

At its best, this feeling of being understood, known, and visible is mutual. Imagine the feeling of intimacy continuing to unfold this way:

. . . You want me to understand you, too . . .

. . . And you express that to me . . .

. . . So I start paying attention to you . . .

. . . And looking at you and listening to you . . .

. . . So you express what is on your mind . . . something personal . . . and private . . .

. . . And I look at you and listen to you with undivided attention . . .

. . . And I express my understanding of what is on your mind . . .

. . . And you look at me and listen to me with undivided attention . . .

. . . And you feel seen by me and heard by me . . .

. . . And you feel understood by me . . .

. . . And you feel drawn closer to me . . .

. . . And you really like that feeling . . .

. . . And then I sense that you feel this way . . .

. . . And knowing that makes me feel drawn closer, too . . .

(Perhaps the deepening feeling of mutual understanding morphs into physical intimacy.)

. . . And I want to touch you . . . and you sense that I want to touch you . . . and you do want me to touch you . . . and I sense that you want me to touch you . . .

. . . And you want to touch me, too . . . and I sense that you want to touch me . . . and I want you to touch me . . . and you sense that I want you to touch me . . .

. . . And we start touching each other . . . And we feel close to each other . . . and we both really like that . . . and we both express that to each other . . . and knowing that about each other makes us both feel very good . . .

And now you both are psychologically and physically naked. Without pretense. Nothing to hide. What is private is now open. What is personal is now shared. You feel visible. You feel heard. You feel vulnerable yet trusting and trusted. You feel understood. You feel known. You feel touched by the other’s mind and body. You feel accepted--no, wait--more than just accepted: Wholeheartedly embraced.


That is my best take at describing the experience of mutual understanding during an intimate interaction.









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