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What the World Needs Now is Intimacy

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By Patricia Bruininks

I do not like this man. I must get to know him better.

Abraham Lincoln

Robert Sternberg, past president of the American Psychological Association, has developed a theory of interpersonal relationships called the Triangular Theory of Love.  In this theory, the three vertices of the triangle represent three components of love: intimacy, passion, and commitment.  Different types of love are identified by the strength of each component.  If only intimacy exists, then you like and want to be near another person.  If only passion exists, you are infatuated with that person.  If there is only commitment, you may be determined to stay connected to the other person, even if the “feeling” of love is absent. Combinations of these components make up different types of love.  For example, romantic love includes intimacy and passion, but not commitment; companionate love, often experienced by couples who have been together for a long time, consists of intimacy and commitment but not passion.

Interestingly, the same components that make up love can also be seen in hate.  The only difference is that instead of intimacy being at the top of the triangle, we find negation of intimacy.  This isn’t just a lack of intimacy; it is intentionally seeking distance instead of closeness.  There is a deliberate refusal to be intimate with the person.  This could be based on past experiences with a person.  Or maybe you’ve been taught that a person of a particular race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, or political persuasion does not warrant intimacy. In any case, negation of intimacy means you are not making an effort to know the person but rather are intentionally avoiding any interaction with them.  Whereas intimacy leads to feelings of liking and closeness, negation of intimacy can lead to feelings of repulsion and disgust.

Passion and commitment still make up the other two vertices, but because there is now no intention of having a relationship with the person, these take on a different tone.  Passion still contains the strong physiological sensations associated with emotion, but instead of infatuation, one experiences anger or fear.  And instead of being determined to remain involved with another person, the commitment component is characterized by thoughts of devaluation and feelings of contempt. 

We Focus on Consumption

We are a culture that focuses on consumption over relationships, and this makes this negation of intimacy more insidious. One of the things we consume on a regular basis is news. However, we no longer consume the same news; facts and truth are highlighted and massaged in ways that fit with our personal belief systems.  The 24-hour news cycle constantly peppers us with the wrongdoings of the “other.”  As consumers of news and social media, we might find ourselves taking a break from work or escaping the everyday malaise of life by going online in search of something that serves as temporary entertainment.  Maybe we are looking for an opportunity to be morally outraged; surely there is some mention of what the “other” did that is morally reprehensible enough to warrant a post or tweet of our own.  Let’s face it: few things are as immediately satisfying as righteous indignation.

The problem is that all this time spent familiarizing ourselves with current events is done in a vacuum that not only leaves out the other, it devalues and dehumanizes them.  If we no longer see the other as truly human, we will have no need to consider their perspective or listen to their arguments.

It is easier to see someone as less human, whose beliefs and arguments are less worthy of consideration, when there is no intimacy.  And when we don’t know someone, we come to fear them; this becomes a downward spiral.   Henri Nouwen states, “Fear makes us move away from each other to a ‘safe’ distance,  or move toward each other to a ‘safe’ closeness , but fear does not create the space where true intimacy can exist”. 

The Distance Between Us

As our culture has grown materially and technologically, the distance between us has also grown.  Our online world increasingly provides ways to avoid face-to-face interaction, while our increased anonymity allows us to wound one another from a place of fear and often without personal consequence. Not knowing a person makes perspective-taking more difficult and lashing out easier; not only is it more difficult to understand the other’s argument, there is no motivation to try.

The good news is that we don’t have to be stuck in our current predicament.  Sternberg points out that love changes over time; romantic love eventually becomes consummate love, or it may disappear, moving outside the triangle altogether.  The same can happen to hate: by working toward intimacy, and thus removing the top vertex of hate completely, the valence of passion and commitment can change back towards that of love.

Of course, this is not easy or natural. Meaningfully interacting with those for whom we feel disgust and contempt requires courage to overcome the risk of rejection by the other.  Remembering that everyone is a child of God can be difficult.  But by looking at the other as such, we can come to know our commonalities as well as the other’s unique strengths.  Only by attempting to see the other as worthy as ourselves can we get to a place of taking their perspective, gaining insight into the experiences that have shaped them and their accompanying beliefs.

Learning to see negation of intimacy — or dislike of the other — as a call to move toward rather than away from is what Lincoln implied when he said, “I do not like this man; I must get to know him better.” Resisting the temptation to devalue the other, even when his or her beliefs seem “off the wall” goes against every natural inclination we have as human beings.  After all, love is not just a feeling; it is an intentional act, one that we must practice if we are to have true community with one another.

Join SpokaneFāVS for A Coffee Talk on “Building Community By Dialoguing Through Differences” at 10 a.m., Feb. 1 at the FāVS Center, 5115 S. Freya. Bruininks is a panelist.

About Patricia Bruininks

Patty Bruininks grew up in northeast Tennessee. She left the South to attend college in Michigan and graduated from Hope College. She pursued her doctoral work in social psychology at the University of Oregon, becoming a lifelong Ducks fan. Before moving to Spokane, she taught for five years at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. Now at Whitworth, she teaches courses on the psychology of poverty and consumerism as well as a course on love and forgiveness. She also studies and conducts research on the emotion of hope. Dr. B (as her students call her) is married to Mr. B (Jim); she has two grown sons, two daughters-in-law, one granddaughter, and a rescue dog. Her hobbies include camping, photography, and spinning. She is in her 13th year at Whitworth University as a Professor of Psychology.

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