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Intensity or Intimacy? The 'Tortoise and the Hare' of Relationships

Updated: Apr 1

This week, 'Therapy Begins with T(ea)' steeps on the important difference between intensity and intimacy & offers a body based check-in to identify the distinction using your nervous system.

intensity v intimacy attachment styles anxious attachment

Therapy Begins with T(ea) is a weekly newsletter based on the themes that come up in my sessions as a therapist who specializes in conflict & attachment styles in romantic relationships, imposter syndrome, and our psychological relationships with money. Each week consists of a 'steep' in thought reflection, an accompanying body based check-in, and tea card intentions for the week to come. Its intended use is for educational purposes only and is not a replacement for individualized medical or mental health treatment.

'Steep' in Thought (3-5 min)

Intensity or intimacy?

Electricity, passion, butterflies, sparks -- all things we want to feel in romance, right? That rush of feel-good hormones helps attachment grow (and that’s a good thing!), but sometimes we get too caught up in the intensity that our attachment forms faster than our actual connection to the other person. And we end up confusing intensity for intimacy.

Intensity, in this case, is closeness without the space (and remember: fulfilling, reciprocal, secure relationships come from a balance of closeness and space). When we don’t give ourselves enough time to grow close gradually, we take on the mentality of ‘this is my person’ rather than ‘let me learn who this person is.’ When conflict happens, we get triggered because they contradict the idealized version of whoever we want ‘our person’ to be — and that feels destabilizing. We yearn for that intense closeness again & chase after it instead of using the conflict to figure out if, and how, we are compatible.

Intensity without Intimacy is Attachment without connection

Confusing intensity with intimacy can happen in established relationships too, not just in early dating. This plays out in aggressive cycles of fighting and making up, feeling ‘addicted’ to someone that you ‘can’t stop going back to,’ or intense anxiety & anguish when separated. It happens when we compare our partner to the idealized role we have in our head instead of engaging with who is in front of us.

Intimacy, on the other hand, isn’t threatened by space; in fact, it welcomes it. It’s a mutual feeling of closeness & connectedness that comes from the experience of sharing your authentic self with another person and being accepted for it. Intimacy is a buildable, cozy slow burn, as opposed to the fierce, ephemeral flame of intensity, and it stays within us even when we’re not physically with our partner.

Still cherish the magic of romance, but remember that intensity without intimacy is attachment without connection. Try out this week’s full body check-in below to discern the difference by how they show up in our bodies.

Full Body Check-In (2-4 min)

In slow, out slower, repeat. Feel your body expand as you breathe in through the nose. Feel it relax as you release the breath. And then cycle through again. Let this be the only thing you focus on in this moment. In slow, out slower, repeat. Stay here as long as you‘d like.

Intensity is felt when our sympathetic nervous system is activated -- but instead of feeling anxious, we feel exhilarated. As you breathe in, invite a memory of when you‘ve felt that intensity towards someone -- notice what happens in your body. We often feel intensity as a stark, almost overwhelming sensation in the chest and in the stomach (i.e. ‘butterflies’).

Now, invite a memory or image that you associate with intimacy. Affection & comfort, kinship, closeness. Notice the changes in your body. What do you feel?

Intimacy is felt when our parasympathetic nervous system is activated -- we relax because we feel safe, secure, and understood. Intimacy is a gentler, but still powerful sensation -- housed deep in the gut or spread throughout the body as a sense of ease.

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