Creating intimacy can be something of an art, whatever the nature of the relationship.
One of the most important parts of my job as a voice teacher was to create a safe space for my students to be vulnerable and experiment with their voices. An important part of the teacher-student working relationship was establishing trust: that I wouldn’t mock them; that I genuinely believed experimentation was key to the learning process, even when that meant messing up; that I believed in them as individuals and as musicians; that I had been where they were and so could understand; that I would be constructive but kind.
It was a part of my job that I was damn good at. And I think it was a large part of why I was in demand as a teacher.
Everyone’s been talking about the piece in the New York Times about Dr. Aron’s study on falling in love that resulted in a marriage between two of the subjects. The big takeaway from this study seems to be that falling in love is not so much a random happenstance as it is a choice: the choice to be vulnerable with another person, the choice to cultivate intimacy, the choice to give another person the opportunity to see you. Share enough personal information, stare deep into each other’s eyes, and off you go!
My first thought was, this is something people don’t know?
Look at one of the favorite fictional romantic couples, Elizabeth and Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth can’t stand Darcy at the beginning. His first proposal is disastrous because even in the process of making himself vulnerable, he is hiding behind his pride (and failing on the kindness front, as well). He makes himself truly vulnerable only when he takes her admonishments to heart and seriously attempts to address them. And it is when Elizabeth makes herself vulnerable to him in return by revealing the true nature of her family scandal that she begins to actively reciprocate his feelings. It is his reaction to this vulnerability, of continued regard and attempted assistance instead of judgment and reprimand, that seals the deal.
Vulnerability can create intimacy in all sorts of relationships, but romantic relationships can be more complicated because they require a reflection of some kind. As a teacher, I expected my students to treat me with respect and to honor our business arrangement, but beyond that, it was my job to create an effective learning environment for them, not vice versa. Whereas in romantic relationships, at least the ones I’m interested in, trust has to go both ways. Both people have to ultimately choose to be vulnerable. Both people are involved in creating an environment conducive to love and partnership.
Dr. Aron’s experiment simulates, to a certain extent, the process of creating intimacy. After all, what do two people dating often do? Spend time together and talk together. Stare into each other’s eyes and give each other goofy grins. Affirm appreciation of each other. The common wisdom about not going to a movie on the first date (interaction at a movie is minimal) is given for a reason.
But the lab experiment also simplifies things. It gives each person a script, and it demands a certain level of reciprocity. (Both people have to answer each question, so the focus never freezes on only one of the couple.) And because it isn’t presented in the context of dating, there are fewer expectations going along with it, and perhaps less anxiety as well.
In real life, it’s less clean, and the opportunities for intimacy are less well-defined. When we confide in someone and ask for support, we are asking for something, yes, but we are also presenting the other person with an opportunity. And that opportunity will not always be accepted or handled well. But once you’ve ascertained a certain amount of chemistry and interest in another person, one of the big next steps is giving these opportunities, because how somebody responds is very revealing, and can either deepen the relationship or hasten its ending.
Because really, many of us want what I gave my students as a teacher. We want a safe space to be ourselves and share our stories without judgment. We want room to experiment and mess up. We want to be appreciated. We want someone who will listen and do their best to understand. We want someone who is both kind and helpful in a constructive way.
We want to choose to love because an intimacy has been established that is worth the fall.