Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

When do intimate relationships work?

I raise this question more as a kind of self-reflection than a hard-and-fast recipe of sorts. The latter cannot be supplied by anyone, for the “simple” reason that human beings are very complex creatures. While the interpersonal areas I reflect on below may indeed be important in all intimate relationships (and I do believe that they are), there is therefore absolutely no guarantee that what I have to say about them, based on my personal experience, would apply to all relationships in the same manner. This is because human relationships are overdetermined, that is, in addition to the factors I discuss below, there may be others that interact with these in ways that modify their significance. But judge for yourself.

In brief, the four aspects of intimate relationships that I believe are crucial to such relationships either “working”, or alternatively, not working, are: individual temperament, sexuality, shared interests and “fundamentally” shared values. I used to include the latter under the third one (shared interests), but in a recent conversation a friend of mine, Nyna Amin, convinced me that it should be treated as being a distinct domain relevant to interpersonal relationships, particularly what I call “intimate” ones.

It should be obvious that, by “intimate” I mean relationships that go beyond mere friendship, and are usually “love relationships” of some kind. And there are possibly as many “kinds” as there are such relationships – no two are exactly the same, because when you combine two personalities in an intimate relationship, different aspects of each personality are activated, compared to a different combination of personalities. That explains the existence of the phrase, “body-chemistry”, and expressions using the terms “chemistry”, such as “We generate such good (or bad) chemistry together”.

So, what do these four areas of the kind of experience that only occurs in relationships of intimacy entail? Individual temperament is fairly straightforward, or so it may seem. And yet, when one considers the many temperaments that individuals display, you realise that, although one might generalise by calling some people cheerful, and others depressive, or others manic-depressive (bipolar), these categories do not exhaust the finer differences among individuals. It is well-known that, during the European Renaissance, personalities were classified, on medical grounds, as being either sanguine (if red blood was dominant in your physical system), phlegmatic or indifferent (if phlegm was dominant), choleric (if yellow bile dominated) or melancholy (if black bile dominated). This was known as the theory of the four humours, and it still lives on in many guises, for example in some of the assumptions that homeopathy is based on.

At any rate, one cannot overestimate the importance of temperament, as I know from personal experience. Put a person who is by “nature” introverted, together with an “extrovert”, who (unlike the introvert) socialises easily, and you may have a recipe for disaster, as it were. Even when two people share certain important interests that provide grounds for excellent, mutually satisfying communication, when temperaments do not gel, the common interests are sometimes not sufficient to provide the lasting “glue”.

Sexuality includes more than sex, of course; while I don’t have the space to elaborate here on either psychoanalytical or Foucaultian grounds, suffice it so say that it encompasses everything from your sexual “persona” and your beliefs about sexual as well as gender-differences among people, to your actual preferences, fears and habits when it comes to lovemaking. Lovemaking is not the same as sex, of course. Put it this way: lovemaking usually (although not necessarily) includes sex, but not the other way around. Sex can be an expression of sheer lust (even between people who love each other), but lovemaking includes sexual desire and that “something more” – like a halo around a streetlight in fog, to use a metaphor once used by Virginia Woolfe. Therefore, depending on the overlap between two people’s distinct sexualities (they will never coincide completely), or the divergence between them, the relationship can either flourish or flounder. And here, too, common interests are not sufficient to keep the relationship intact, in my experience.

Then there is the experiential sphere added by my friend Nyna, namely shared values of a “fundamental” kind. These would include your conceptions of loyalty, of politics, religion, personal integrity and importantly (related to this), of justice on a personal as well as collective level. If, at some point in one’s personal history with a lover, or wife, or partner, something happens that suddenly highlights a fundamental divergence in these “core values” (and there are others, besides the ones I mentioned), it could easily have the effect of causing disillusionment about the suitability of the other person for an intimate relationship. I have experienced this in an instance where the other person and I shared important common interests, and yet, when our differences regarding fundamental values emerged, the interests were not sufficient to save the relationship.

This brings me to shared interests, which are, in my estimation, important for intimate relationships to flourish, but – and this is a decisive BUT (as I have already indicated above) – not quite as important as the other three areas of shared experience. And importantly, when I use the term “experience” I don’t have in mind a kind of atomistic notion of experience, as consisting of “observation” in a reductive sense of the term. Human experience must be understood in a way that does justice to its rich multidimensionality, and for this to be the case I would recommend the hermeneutic notion of experience, which one already finds in the work of Aristotle, and is clearly articulated in the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer (particularly in Truth and Method). Experience is there formulated in terms of the “hermeneutic circle”, where, to put it in a nutshell, “cognition is re-cognition” – experience has a circular structure, where later experiences either confirm and enrich, or negate and subvert, earlier ones, but never erase them completely.

Hence, when one shares certain interests, the basis is already there for some good, mutually enriching shared experience. Shared interests enhance an intimate relationship. So why do I regard this as less important than the other three areas? For one thing, it is not a basis for distinguishing between friendship and an intimate personal bond with another person. In fact, shared interests, I believe, are a far more important factor in friendship than in close, intimate relationships. When compared to the other three experiential spheres – temperament, sexuality and fundamental values – it appears to me that, even when there are few “shared interests” (except for the relationship itself, of course), an intimate bond with another person can still survive, even flourish. One can go one’s separate ways, pursuing specific interests (such as intellectual pursuits for the one, and gardening or business pursuits for the other), but “come together” in a bewitching dance in that intimate space that belongs exclusively to the two of you.

It helps, of course, when one does share an interest such as mountaineering, or dancing, which occupies a kind of neutral position with regard to the other interests of the two individuals concerned. This is like that “halo around a streetlamp in the mist” (Woolfe) that I alluded to above. These observations are based on my (very) personal experiences, and they may or may not resonate with those of other people. What I should add, though, is that, if the three domains I regard as being crucial – temperament, sexuality and basic values – function as glue (or perhaps “lubricant” is a better metaphor) for the intimate relationship concerned, such a relationship can be very “good”, that is, fulfilling at many levels.

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