The Difference Between Unconditional Love, Sex, Intimacy, and Compatibility
The Difference Between Unconditional Love, Sex, Intimacy, and Compatibility.
When I was teaching a workshop recently, I made a flippant comment to a client. “Intimacy is not the same as unconditional love, nor is it the same as sex or compatibility.” My client wrinkled her forehead and took me aside later to ask me to expand on these distinctions between unconditional love, sex, intimacy, and compatibility, so I promised to try to write more about the distinctions.
- You can love someone as unconditionally as is humanly possible but have zero intimacy. (Feel into how a spiritually and psychologically healthy mother loves her adult addict child but has to cut off all contact because he is abusive, stealing from her, and refuses to respect boundaries.)
- You can have sex with zero intimacy. (Consider sexual abuse situations or even casual consensual sex with a stranger.)
- You can be personally intimate with someone you have zero sexual attraction to. (You may be deeply close to your best friend or your sibling but feel no erotic charge.)
- You can be transpersonally intimate with someone who you don’t know very well. (You’re exposing your heart and your guts to your therapist or your priest, but neither one of you knows the mundane details of daily life, and you don’t hang out beyond the therapeutic container.)
- You can love someone deeply and feel very close but be utterly incompatible for very practical, grounded reasons.
To have love, sex, and intimacy all with one person- that’s what so many of us crave but don’t actually experience. Not only do we often fail to be truly intimate with our romantic partners and family members; we’re also frequently on the receiving end of subtly or overtly abusive behavior on the part of those who say they love us.
So what is unconditional love? To love unconditionally is to love the way your Wise Self or whatever you call God loves you- without judgment, with total acceptance for you and all your parts, without expectation, and without- by definition- conditions. It is the opposite of what many people mistakenly call love, which is a conditional kind of transactional attachment. “I’ll coddle your wounds if you coddle mine”= codependence. “I’ll raise the kids, tend to the tribe, and have sex with you if you pay the bills, keep us safe and secure, and never leave me” is another common transaction that people mistake as love. While I certainly don’t believe everything in the Bible, I adore this Bible quote as a definition of the kind of transpersonal love that “unconditional love” invites.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. . . “
(New International Version (NIV) 1 Corinthians 13:4–8)
What this definition of unconditional love fails to acknowledge is that actual humans, with all our wounded parts, are not fully capable of this kind of Divine love 100% of the time. It also does not take into account the inherent “spiritual bypassing” built into such a teaching. Unconditional love can be patient and kind, but it can also be fierce in the face of dehumanizing actions or destructive choices. Anger can be a potent way to love- as when the Mama Bear loves the vulnerable little ones so much that she roars in outrage to keep them safe. Sometimes unconditional love of those who might be vulnerable looks gritty, sounds loud, or feels fiery.
In order to unconditionally love others, we also have to have the capacity to unconditionally love all of our “parts,” which may require the fierce love that sacred anger activates in order to protect the parts of ourselves (or others) that have been wounded. For most humans, unconditionally loving both ourselves and others requires not only spiritual practice, but also a great deal of trauma healing work. If we meditate all day long but fail to heal the wounding of all the ways that being in a human body can traumatize us, we will forever grasp at an impossible spiritual ideal and wind up bullying or criticizing our wounded parts- which is SO not unconditionally loving!
While unconditional love may be a lofty aspiration, I sometimes wonder whether it’s even possible for humans. Because part of the human experience is to have childhood wounding and unmet needs, to feel intense emotions, and to be imperfect, perhaps we are bound to lapse in our capacity to sustain unconditional love for ourselves and others whenever our wounded parts act out. Maybe when we leave our bodies, when we stop being a drop of the ocean and return to the ocean itself, we can once again fully give and receive unconditional love as the light of pure consciousness. But for now, let’s give ourselves a break! We can aspire to such love, but let’s be gentle with ourselves and acknowledge how hard it is to be human.
So what about sex? As any person who has been the victim of a #MeToo story can vouch for, sex can happen without unconditional love or intimacy. While any contact between genitals or other sexy parts may feel intimate, rape, one-night stands, booty calls, or emotionally “checked out” sex is usually neither loving nor intimate. It’s a kind of transaction- “I’ll get you off if you get me off” or “I’ll help you Band-aid your feelings of unworthiness if only you’ll ease my loneliness.” While it’s possible (and highly pleasurable) to be sexually involved with someone you deeply love and who shares deep intimacy with you, most people who have a sexual relationship fail to experience the depth of intimacy that I’m about to describe.
Then what is intimacy? Some have described intimacy as “into-me-you-see.” As the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote, “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.” To talk about intimacy is to open ourselves to a depth of not only practical, grounded human closeness but also a deep connection at the spiritual and emotional level. Such intimacy might not have anything to do with sex. It can happen between lovers, but it can also grow between parent and child, siblings, best friends, or asexual spiritual partnerships.
When you are intimate with someone, you know someone else (and they know you) at a deep level, not just the stories, experiences, and mundane or exciting details of their outer world, but the landscape of their soul- their deepest yearnings, their ecstatic, painful, or mundane feelings, their trauma histories, and maybe even the dreams they have at night, their private fantasies, their most tender disappointments, or the thoughts, impulses, or behaviors that they feel most ashamed about. To dare to let yourself be known in this way is a great risk. When someone knows the most vulnerable territory of your inner world, they also have ammunition to hurt you- or worse, abandon you- where it can devastate you the most. For this reason, many people resist opening themselves up to deep intimacy, preferring to employ all sorts of intimacy bypassing strategies, such as emotional detachment, boundaryless enmeshment, sabotaging or leaving a relationship when someone gets too close, addictive behaviors, distracting oneself with other sexual attractions when one romantic partnership becomes too intimate, or attracting unavailable friends or partners who aren’t capable of deep intimacy because of their own traumas.
What about compatibility? Sadly, it’s also true that we can love someone, be attracted to being close to them, and feel emotionally intimate with them, but they might have certain basic incompatibilities with us. If one of you desperately needs to be a parent and the other is rabidly anti-children, it ain’t gonna work. If one of you prefers monogamy and the other is polyamorous, no go. If you’re in therapy, on a healing journey, 12-stepping, or devoted to a spiritual path, and it’s your #1 priority to be close to people who do their personal/psychological/spiritual inner work, and you’re attracting addicts who scoff at self-helpers and have zero interest in therapy, that’s unlikely to work out.
Rather than complaining, overly compromising, or pretzeling yourself into a shape that’s not natural, let the lightbulb moment hit you. “Aha, our competing needs are valid but not compatible.” Create more distance and find the places where you are compatible, appreciating those areas without applying undue pressure on someone else, expecting them to change in ways they don’t wish to change.
People have a tendency to ignore basic incompatibilities. They fall in love and then realize that there are real, nuts and bolts deal breakers in the relationship. Then one or both parties go on a mission to convert or control the other- trying to convince someone that their perfectly valid needs and preferences are not the best choice, pressuring the partner to change when the partner doesn’t want to change. This is a recipe for misery. If you love someone who isn’t a compatible match, bow deeply in respect for someone’s individual preferences, grieve the loss of what could have been, and wish them all the best in going elsewhere to get their needs met.
I think what gets most confusing is that people don’t realize that you can’t love safely, you can’t practice intimacy deeply, and you can’t assess compatibility accurately without clear, caring, flexible, but firm boundaries. If you don’t know where your “Hell yeah” and your “Fuck no” live- in your preferences, in the details of your life, in your passion and your wounds, and in your body- it’s hard to sustain real loving, safe, intimate relationships. If you’re clear on your non-negotiables, then you can be so much freer to negotiate all kinds of other more fluid boundaries that allow for deep, safe, trusting, loving intimacy, whether with a romantic partner, family members, friends, or even close colleagues.
I’ll be teaching a six-week online course about Internal Family Systems-informed boundaries calledHeal Your Wounded Boundaries. We begin October 1 with an online weekend workshop, followed by six online sessions, including my not-yet-published manuscript The Boundaries Handbook. If you register by September 15, Learn more and register here (link)
If you register before September 15, you save $50 on tuition, as well as receiving the recordings for our popular Spiritual Bypassing Recovery 101 online course, which I co-taught with guest faculty Richard Schwartz, Thomas Hubl, Shiloh Sophia, Rebekah Borucki, Karla McLaren, Tosha Silver, and my sister Keli Rankin. If you’re not familiar with the term “spiritual bypassing,” it’s the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our traumas, painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs. This tendency for boundary wounded individuals to flock to spiritual communities is relevant to the intention of the Heal Your Wounded Boundaries program, so we believe taking in the content of Spiritual Bypassing Recovery 101 will be a potent appetizer to the main entree of the course. If you register before September 15, you can learn from and transform with both.
Register and receive your bonuseshere.