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.