Alcohol and drug abuse is the source of many problems for those who are engaged in addictive behaviours. One of the earliest casualties from substance abuse will be intimacy. It is very difficult for people to abuse mind-altering substances on a regular basis and maintain healthy relationships. As a person falls deeper and deeper into addiction, it will completely take over their life and there will be little room for anyone else. As people become more disconnected from their true feelings and needs, due to suppression by substances, they become less able to communicate them in their relationships, which in turn become more superficial and less gratifying.
Human beings are biologically wired for connection with others. Lack of connection to others results in feelings of shame, anxiety, loneliness and depression. It is the ability to be emotionally intimate that allows us to feel the deep connections that bring us joy, happiness and a sense of belonging. A number of prominent researchers now believe that addiction is the result of an inability to form attachment relationships, and if recovery from substance use is to be sustainable, then relationships in your life need to be addressed.True emotional intimacy can be defined as sharing your inner most thoughts / feelings / needs and being vulnerable enough to be truly seen and accepted for who you are. It is not about sex though often people use sex as a substitute for intimacy. Building intimacy is a dynamic process that goes through a number of stagesPeople who are able to maintain healthy relationships will be able to achieve intimacy on all levels. Addiction prevents people from accessing their true feelings and needs and therefore prevents the ability to become intimate at the highest level. In addition, the lies /deceit /shame and manipulation that go hand in hand with addiction result in substance abusers often being able to maintain intimacy only at the lowest levels. Read the description of each level below, and think about whether you are comfortable sharing at this level and if not why not? How has your addiction affected your ability to achieve intimacy on each level? Is there anyone in your life that you have true intimacy with? What level of intimacy do you share with the main people in your life?Level One: Safe Communication
Level one is the lowest level of communication. We call it safe because it involves the exchange of facts and information. There are no feelings, opinions or personal vulnerability involved, and therefore no risk of rejection. This is the kind of interaction we have with people we don’t know well. It’s the chitchat we share with the clerk at the grocery store or a stranger at a recovery meeting
Level Two: Others’ Opinions and Beliefs
At level two we start sharing other people’s thoughts, beliefs and opinions. We are beginning to reveal more of ourselves through our associations. We say things like, “My mother always says…” or “One of my favorite authors said…” Such statements test the other person’s reaction to what we’re sharing without offering our own opinions. This is slightly more vulnerable than level one, but because we’re not sharing our own opinions we can distance ourselves from the opinion if we feel threatened by criticism or rejection.
Level Three: Personal Opinions and Beliefs
We start taking small risks at this level because we begin to share our own thoughts, opinions and beliefs. But like the previous level, if we begin feeling too vulnerable, we can say we’ve switched our opinions or changed our mind in order to avoid conflict or pain.
Level Four: My Feelings and Experiences
Sharing feelings and experiences is the next level of vulnerability and intimacy. At this level we talk about our joys, pain, and failures; our mistakes in the past, our dreams, and our goals; what we like or don’t like; and what makes us who we are. This level is more vulnerable because we can’t change how we feel about something or the details of our past or current experiences. If we sense we may be rejected or criticized, all we can do is try to convince others that we’re no longer impacted by our past. We’re no longer that person – we’re different now.
Level Five: My Needs, Emotions and Desires (True intimacy)
Level five is the highest level of intimacy. It is the level where we are known at the deepest core of who we are. Because of that, it is the level that requires the greatest amount of trust. If I can’t trust that you won’t reject me, i’ll never be able to share my deepest self with you. Unlike the other levels, there is no escape at this level. Once I let someone see who I really am, I can no longer convince them otherwise. Communicating at this level means we offer someone the most vulnerable part of ourselves. And my greatest fear is that they could use it against me later. When we share things like, “I’m hurt when you don’t call,” I need to feel respected by you,” or “I want to spend my life with you,” we’re sharing not only our hurts but our desires and needs as well. It’s also the level where we let others see our emotional reaction to things, which isn’t always pretty.
It’s important to understand that true intimacy in a relationship happens over time…not in a day, week or even a month. Think of your best friend…how long did it take before you felt at the highest level of intimacy with them, where you were able to trust them completely, or share your deepest self? It’s the same in romantic relationships…true intimacy develops over time. But another important element is needed for true intimacy…both people in the relationship need to move through the levels together. If I’m sharing at level four with someone (feelings and experiences) but my partner is sharing at level three (opinions and beliefs) we’re not experiencing true intimacy. I may feel closer because I’m sharing at a higher level, but in reality what we have is a false sense of intimacy. In truth, intimacy is measured by the person with the lower level of vulnerability.
Importance of intimacy
Intimacy is vital for connection to others. Before you can be intimate with others you have to be able to be intimate with yourself. This means knowing our true feelings / needs and desires. You cannot share at level five if you don’t know what you feel, need/fear/desire. This is rarely possible in active addiction. Therefore, active addiction will ensure that you will forever feel lonely, isolated, unfulfilled, empty and disconnected. Substance abuse is often a way to numb the feelings that occur through lack of intimacy and also to create a false sense of intimacy by breaking down barriers temporarily. It is not possible to have a healthy fulfilling relationship without intimacy. Intimacy allows a person to grow psychologically / emotionally and spiritually. Without it we stagnate.
Creating more intimacy in your life
- Start to write down your real thoughts and feelings
- Express your real thoughts and feelings to someone you can trust
- Identify unhelpful thoughts that affect your ability to trust / share information
- Learn assertive communication skills that will allow you to state your feelings and needs directly in a non-confrontational way.
- Identify the behaviours you use that prevent intimacy (defensiveness / reactivity / blaming)
- Learn to listen to others completely without interrupting/judging/attacking
- Learn to hear what others have to say about you without reacting
Intimacy can be terrifying, but it is necessary to fill the internal void that substances used to fill. In early recovery, take your time building new relationships and making changes. Until you have started to learn how to regulate your own emotions, intense feelings generated by relationship conflict can trigger strong urges to return to active substance use.