The discomfort of intimacy
On best friends and becoming closer to people
My brother is the person I’m closest to in the entire world. He knows more about me than anyone else—he’s watched me grow up, has seen me through my best and worst, has heard me talk about everything. He’s also the person I get into the most fights with.
There’s a specific dynamic that comes up every time we have a family trip. Him and I are initially very excited to see each other: all silliness and old inside jokes. But it doesn’t take more than a few days to get on each other’s nerves; I quickly develop a sense of frustration towards him that I never experience with most of my friends.
After one such family trip last year, I sent him these messages:
I usually think of myself as very open to most people. On some level I am. But "open" here typically means: willing to share as much about myself as requested. Willing to answer questions and talk about my emotions. I am open conceptually.
But to what extent am I willing to actually feel an emotion in front of someone? How comfortable am I expressing anger, anxiety, or sadness? How comfortable am I being in front of someone and saying: Look, I’m nervous as shit right now and I’m barely able to hold it together and I have no idea how you could help me.
I think this is what true intimacy is. It’s not just sharing more of your secrets. It’s being willing to feel things in someone else’s presence, being less measured and controlled in your presentation. It’s being honest when you’re upset with your friend instead of venting to someone else. It’s asking your friend to sit with you and hug you for a few minutes when you’re stressed and exhausted. It’s removing more and more of your filters.
When interacting with my brother, I can not only talk about difficult emotions like anger and sadness, but I can feel them in front of him, even feel them towards him. There's few other people I have this with. There’s a psychological safety that comes with having grown up together, being tied by what feels like an unbreakable bond, that almost gives us permission to get into fights, knowing that it won’t be the end of the relationship. ‘Intimacy’ sounds like a nice warm cuddly word, which is hard to reconcile with the reality that being close with someone entails not just deeper love and joy, but deeper everything: deeper anger, deeper hurt, deeper need for validation.
I’ve lost friendships because I’ve been unwilling to get to this point with others. Throughout high school and college I had one best friend after another. Sometimes this was due to circumstance: we might grow up and grow apart, lose shared interests, or move away from each other. But many times it was an implicit resistance on my part to face the difficulties of being so close with someone for so long. The inevitable comparisons and jealousies, the small disagreements spiralling into big fights. It was easier to move on and find someone else instead.
Having a best friend or a sibling is an incredible way of having a mirror up to yourself. What are you like around someone when you've really gotten to know them, when you aren't afraid of how they're gonna judge you, when you're quite sure they're never gonna abandon you? When there's no longer much to discover about them because it feels like you truly know them? What are you like once the conversations aren't deeply fascinating, once there's no longer this excitement of wow we are going from acquaintances to close friends this is so great?
I’ve realized in the past year that I don’t want to keep doing this. I don’t want to keep running from intimacy and conflict, keep jumping from one best friend to another. I want to stop seeing fights with my brother or with anyone else as: this is annoying, I guess we’re just not a good fit for each other.
My brother and I had another trip more recently: he stayed with me for a week in New York. We still had our disagreements, but we addressed conflicts with a new kind of frankness as soon as they arose, being respectful of each other's needs. We both had a sense of curiosity for how much better our relationship could be. We developed new inside jokes, had intellectual debates, were present for each other in our individual struggles. That week ended up being the most at home I'd felt in years. I saw my brother as not just someone I’ve grown up with, but as someone I deeply love for the person he is, someone I view as a best friend.
We all have our limits and boundaries: the points at which it’s no longer worth it to try to mend conflict. Some friendships really do run their course and are best to let go of. But I know now that interpersonal conflict is not something to categorically reject. Sometimes it’s a sign that you’re actually brushing up against the boundaries of your comfort zone, seeing the sensitive points in the scaffold of your personality. Avoiding these sensitive points has been too easy for me, so I'm trying more and more to face them, in baby steps. This will result in some unease, some sadness, sometimes a negative reaction from a friend. But it’s well worth the possibility that lies on the other side: feeling more safe, more connected, more at home.
Thank you to Karen for the phenomenal feedback, as always.