Intimacy at arm’s length

“The arm’s length principle (ALP) is the condition or the fact that the parties to a transaction are independent and on an equal footing”- Wikipedia

I used to think that intimacy meant reducing the space or distance between you and another person until you are enmeshed, completely entangled with one another. I thought that I had no difficulty with intimacy since my two default states of being are either severe delineation of boundaries or complete enmeshment. In my everyday life, when I engage in a friendly conversation with a person and he or she touches my hand or my shoulder or come closer, my immediate reaction is to shrink back. I know that it isn’t helpful and that it alienates others, but I can’t help myself. Even when I know that the other person means well.

Recently I came to realize that, in fact, intimacy is strengthened when you are able to touch another person while maintaining a distance between the other person and you. The space between is not only spatial- it is also a “bodily” state of being. It can be conceived along the spectrum between  aggression or stiffness on the one extreme and complete looseness on the other.

Touching another person while preserving a spatial and bodily distance can establish a strong sense of intimacy. This intimacy can be intimidating and raise suspicion toward the Other:  How can I know that I’m not being judged? That I’m not being ridiculed? The intimacy in this encounter can feel extremely risky. When I feel this tension builds within me, I can destroy intimacy in one of two ways: I can either introduce physical aggression or break the balance between looseness and stiffness.

The fear of being judged or ridiculed can be dealt with by brining an Object to my encounter with the Other, like some sort of achievement, be it intellectual or physical , or a status symbol. With this third object I try to impress the other person, to defuse his or her imagined criticism or manipulate him or her. Having to approach another person, without any “third object” to bring with me, can lead to extreme vulnerability. If only I could become enmeshed with the Other- appropriating him or her- I could escape my state of being vulnerable and defenseless. But this time the Other won’t let me use aggression to break the distance. The Other will use aggression against me- pushing back, recreating the distance between us.

2 thoughts on “Intimacy at arm’s length

  1. Interesting,
    For me, your words echo the notion of MAAI in Japanese martial arts. MAAI is the proper distance between you and your opponent, but it may also be broadly understood as representing the invisible social and psychological space that surrounds us.
    In Aikido, MAAI is very important; the entire engagement is predetermined by the initial MAAI. Maybe it can even be said that the whole martial art , on its thousands of techniques and their variations can be summed up to one principle of maintaining MAAI, as complex physical laws can be derived from one constraint as energy conservation or the law of minimal action.
    I find myself analyzing many social and personal problems with the concept of MAAI. When I hear about problems couples are going through, or tensions people have at work, I sometimes think to myself that it all can be treated and avoided keeping the proper MAAI. But of course, even in its original, ostensibly simple meaning in martial art, MAAI is a shifting, elusive ideal. Certainly, finding it beyond the training ground is even more difficult. But the very idea helps me framing things in the chaos, and encourages me to struggle further towards harmony.

  2. On the possibility on genuinely encountering the other – Maya Maor

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