An alternative way of thinking about intimacy that isn’t reliant on bumping genitals or swopping saliva…

Two years ago my best friend and I learned a new form of intimacy. She had just been diagnosed with cancer; I lived in another country but made the promise to be with her for every week following her chemotherapy sessions.

The word ‘intimacy’ is generally associated with sex. In fact, it’s even used as a euphemism for it. Because of this, we often think of intimacy as being reserved for our sexual relationships: they ­are the people we get to know intimately, genitals and all. Except it’s not always ‘all’. Sometimes the only thing we really know about our sexual partners is how they like their genitals touched (and sometimes we don’t even know that). If we do the work in the relationship – you know, the communicating, listening, and understanding-each-other work – we may also get to intimately know their beliefs, their values, and their heart. But it’s not guaranteed. It’s all too easy to assume you know the person who is lying naked beside you and whose body was just joined with yours. But even that depends on whether the sex was a performance – being the person you think they want you to be – or came from a place of true, mutual self-expression.

Yes, sex can be an incredibly intimate act. But what happens when sex is taken off the table?

Not since the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s have we had such an abrupt disruption to our sex lives. (It is worth noting that, although medical advances in the treatment of HIV have been great, nearly a million people die of the virus each year: our sex lives should still be cognisant of the risk.) One of the key differences between the health guidance relating to HIV and that relating to the COVID-19 coronavirus is that we now find ourselves socially isolated from all physical contact: during lockdown, if you don’t already live with a partner, or if you live with a partner who is symptomatic, opportunities for hugging, kissing, and sex, have been taken away.

What does this have to do with my friend and me?

Well, I want to offer you an alternative way of thinking about intimacy and, in doing so, suggest that we use this period of social isolation to deepen our connections in ways that aren’t reliant on bumping genitals or swopping saliva.

I found my best friend when we both nine years old. Only three years later, my family moved away, and we became penpals-by-necessity. Fast forward another ten years and we were living a mere 50 miles apart. But only for a short while: she then moved over 3000 miles away. We continued to stay in touch by letter, and then email, but the gaps in between got longer and our knowledge of each other’s lives became increasingly less current.

By the time she was diagnosed with cancer, the distance between us had narrowed to the present 400 miles: too far for a day trip, and certainly too great a distance to support her through her treatment. So I travelled, for a week at a time, to help with laundry, cooking, and companionship. Suddenly we found ourselves with all this time and no outside distractions. We had shared history from childhood but, now in our forties, we didn’t fully know each other as adults.

Over the next few months, we told each other the stories of our lives from the intervening years. The heartbreaks. The dreams. The moments of despair. And those of renewed hope. We reminisced about our childhoods, and I discovered she remembered so much more about that time than I did and could tell me things about my younger self that I had long forgotten.

Story by story, we became fully-formed characters in our own lives, and in each others.

Also during this time, when she was too ill or too tired to talk, I wrote. The first draft of my memoir – Desire Lines – took shape from an armchair in her lounge, and occasionally a table in a café when we just needed a bit of space from each other. My stories brought me to a deeper place of self-knowing and understanding, as well as giving me practice at being seen by others: one definition of intimacy is “into me, you see”.

By the end of her treatment, there was a new level of intimacy to our friendship. We had seen each other at our lowest (I had a particularly harsh bladder infection during one of my visits; she hadn’t had anyone clear up her vomit since she was a child). But, more importantly, we knew more of the stories that made up the tapestry of each other’s lives.

During this time of COVID-19 and the crucial need for physical distancing, I invite you to share your stories with your loved ones, and to ask them to share theirs with you too. Friends, family, and lovers all have their own stories, and you are one thread that weaves into their tapestry – as they weave into yours.

I know my friend so much better now, but I, like many others, didn’t get to see my mum on Mother’s Day. She’s over 70 and I realise I know so little about her – she’s never told me her stories. My partner and I live together and have 20 years of shared stories, but there is still space to deepen our relationship and to be surprised by facets of her that haven’t featured in our life together. And I have other friends who I cannot currently visit but can call on the phone or video. Once we have each had an opportunity to express our current anxieties and uncertainties about life in the time of coronavirus, there is time for us to talk; time to tell our stories.

An invitation:

Invite someone you know to share a story-telling session with you. Let them know you want to get to know them better and to deepen your knowledge of each other. Ask for their consent to have this kind of conversation, and then take turns at sharing.

If you don’t feel comfortable sharing your stories with another person at this time (because, we are all dealing with the current changes to our lives in our own ways, and intimacy with another may not feel do-able or wanted at this time) you can alternatively deepen your self-intimacy by journaling and writing your stories, for your eyes only.

Some suggested story prompts:

  • What did you most love to do as a child? How does that feature in your life now, if at all? How do you feel about that?

  • Who have you loved? What has that love been like?

  • Ten years ago, what did you think your life would look like now? What’s happened in those intervening years to shape where you are now? Do you have any regrets? What have been the highlights?

  • What is your secret passion in life?

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