Longing for Intimacy? Foster Interpersonal Safety First

A sense of interpersonal safety is a prerequisite for intimacy.

While popular notions of love and sex are goal-driven, i.e. commitment and penetration, a nuanced view offers so many more possibilities for enriching one’s own and one’s partner’s lives. If the “goal” is intimacy – and intimacy is where all possibilities begin – then the progression would look like this:

Safety > Attunement > Connection > Vulnerability > Intimacy


For those seeking new romantic partners, or wishing to deepen their relationships with their current partners, intimacy, then, is a prerequisite for further emotional and sexual closeness. By looking at ways individuals contribute to creating a sense of interpersonal safety with others – and making safety-enhancing adjustments – they can increase the likelihood of fostering intimacy, that profoundly delightful, very human need.

“[E]ven though physical release may be involved, loving sex is a cherishing of each other’s minds, hearts and bodies – the whole person that is our partner.”
– John and Julie Gottman

So, safety first.

What helps create and maintain a sense of interpersonal safety? What harms a sense of safety?

Helps: Self-control as evidenced by courtesy and politeness in speaking and manner.

Hurts: Lack of self-control as evidenced by non sequiturs in speaking and manner that jar social norms or conversations. (“What an interesting conversationalist! But can I count on this person to be stable when the going gets tough?”)

Helps: Self-acceptance as evidenced by statements indicative of self-fairness.

Hurts: Self-judgment belied by self-shaming statements disguised as self-effacement. (“Uh-oh! When will it be my turn to be humiliated by that ‘humility’?”)

Helps: Humor that joins.

Hurts: Humor that separates by criticizing self, others, or institutions. (“Yikes! If they make fun of themselves/others/society, when will it be my turn to be the butt of the joke?!”)

Helps: Transparency, authenticity, clarity.

Hurts: Secretiveness, evasiveness, cleverness. (“Uh-oh! What problems are they hiding that might end up causing me pain?!”)

Helps: Present, mutual, lateral, reciprocal communication.

Hurts: Distractedness vs. attentiveness; “one-up” or “one-down” postures; leaning too far in or too far back; over-use or under-use of “air time.”

Helps: “I-statements.”

Hurts: “You-statements” that define the other person, and “we-statements” that include the other person, without permission.

Helps: Ability to read “closeness” cues and to adjust the dial on congeniality and assertiveness up or down.

Hurts: Insistence on making a point. Choosing “right” on the continuum of “Do you want to be right or do you want to be close?”

Helps: Physical self-care as evidenced by grooming and body morphology.

Hurts: Persistence in unhealthy behavior that endangers the self. (“Wow, they don’t seem to be taking very good care of themselves. I’m pretty independent, but I need help sometimes. Will they be able to care for me when I need a turn?”)

Interpersonal communication styles will vary, of course, but if intimacy is the goal, safety will always matter first.

Art by Caleb Flood

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This post is an excerpt from materials for Love and Sex After 50, a course I’ll be teaching for the Lifelong Learning Institute at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, in February, 2018. More about the course is here.

Last updated 11/18/17

The views expressed are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the positions of my employers, co-workers, clients, family members or friends. This content is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional advice. Consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical and professional advice.

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