Getting to intimate

There were a few, but the most powerful moment in Derren Brown’s Sacrifice was this one. Synopsis: Phil, the Average Joe construction worker with a prejudice against immigrants, is being persuaded by Derren Brown to make a sacrifice for the sake of a stranger. After Derren Brown reveals Phil’s genetic heritage—itself a mish-mash from around the world—Phil is put face to face with a stranger and told to hold eye contact with him for four minutes. Phil attempts it, and watching him fall apart during the effort is heart-wrenching. It is almost as if you can see his assumptions and his beliefs, things which he has used to bear so much weight for so long, crumple.

The ability of intense and sustained eye contact to generate empathy is, as Derren Brown says in the prelude to the above moment, based on psychological research. That of Arthur Aron. Specifically, The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness. But why is it so powerful?

In Impro, Keith Johnstone says that:

“People will travel a long way to visit a ‘view’. The essential element of a good view is distance, and preferably with nothing human in the immediate foreground. When we stand on a hill and look across miles of emptiness at the mountains, we are experiencing the pleasure of having our space flow out unhindered. As people come in sight of a view, it’s normal for their posture to improve and for them to breathe better. You can see people remarking on the freshness of the air, and taking deep breaths, although it’s the same air as it was just below the brow of the hill.”

Intense and sustained eye contact is the opposite of standing upon a hill and gazing out over a magnificent vista. When someone is sat a foot away from us our “space” is most definitely hindered, and not in the same way as it is when we take a busy train or navigate down a crowded street. Johnstone continues:

“Approach distances are related to space. If I approach someone on open moorland I have to raise an arm and shout ‘excuse me’ as soon as I’m within shouting distance. In a crowded street I can actually brush against people without having to interact.”

The difference is related to motion—or its absence—and to the dissipation of focus. In a crowded street, our “space” is impeded, but there are brief intermissions that make up its continual opening and closing. When we sit down opposite another person and hold eye contact, with no table to separate us, with no coffee cup or dinner plate or activity to act as a barrier to connection, and no reason to turn aside and orient ourselves in a different direction, our “space” has no option but to be utterly absorbed by the person opposite. To flow into them.

three spaces 2

This leaves me with another question, though. Unhindered, intense, sustained eye contact generates empathy for a stranger. But I suspect it also generates greater intimacy when undertaken with someone we already know well. And it is this last I want to focus on. I want to know: are there any other shortcuts to intimacy?


Perhaps, but a few things must be handled first.

For true empathy and intimacy to come about there must be a flattening. A transition to a non-hierarchical relationship. This means that each person is appreciated on the level of being not on the level of acts (read more about this in The Courage to Be Disliked). The continuation of a hierarchical relationship negates the possibility of empathy and intimacy. Consider that in such a situation one person has to be higher and one person has to be lower. The person looking down considers themselves superior to the person looking up, and vice versa. In such a scenario, differences, fear and desire are what dominate. And that’s not exactly conducive to intimacy.

Next, there must be a devaluation of words. Traditional relationships—ones that occur in meatspace, not cyberspace—are mostly non-verbal, and the currency they accumulate and reckon their worth in is non-verbal, too. Think of the person who is closest to you. Now think of a stressful or traumatic time which that person helped you endure. When you picture it, do you recall what that person said to you? The exact words they used to coax you around or through the episode? I suspect you don’t, and I certainly don’t when I undertake the same exercise. But I do recall the fact that they were there for me—their presence is the thing that mattered then and matters now.

Now, with a flattened relationship and an understanding of the value of non-words, we can begin to accumulate intimacy. And the way that is done is via the tails of existence, via the good, the bad, and the weird.

With the passage of time comes good, bad and weird experiences. Typically, these experiences are spread out so that they are intermittent. But if we are seeking greater intimacy then they must be clustered closer together. Only a psychopath would willingly create bad experiences in order to gain more intimacy, so that’s off the table as a shortcut. Which leaves the good and the weird. But keep in mind that good and weird experiences can be absolute or relative.

An absolute good experience is defined by its scarcity—winning a world championship is an absolute good because so few people can ever experience it. Similarly, an absolute weird experience is so because of its novelty. The first person to successfully fly over the Atlantic got a taste of the absolute weird. So, sure, strive for absolute goodness and weirdness that is experienced with another, but know that they are not a safe bet and take a lot of time, effort, preparation and luck.

A surer bet is the pursuit of relative good and weird. Relative good and weird revolve around personal reference points and, ultimately, perception. For example, many people have been skydiving. I haven’t. But if I was to go with the woman I love, one, it would shift the benchmarks on my future “good” and “weird” experiences, second, it would shift the benchmarks on her future “good” and “weird” experiences, and third, the shift would be experienced together and so result in a greater intimacy between us.


The above is mostly academic. There are not many people who go out of their way to promote the growth of intimacy in their relationship and attempt to find shortcuts to reach it—although they do exist. So here’s another way to look at the accumulation of intimacy in a relationship.

A couple of years ago, after reading a lot of self-improvement books and blogs, I performed a distillation. I’d been reading about learning and mastery and competence and I had ended up with a tangled mess of models, theories and frameworks. I wanted something simpler. I came up with this:

Mastery = Time x Attention x Love / Ego

“Time” is self-explanatory; “attention” represents the quality of perception and analysis hefted upon a skill or ability; “love” is harder to define—ask every poet, ever—so I’ll leave it to your imagination; “ego” is equivalent to self-importance, or the degree of priority given to the preservation of a favourable self-image.

What I liked—and still like—about this formulation is its fluidity. For example, mastery is attainable in a short amount of time providing the quality of attention and love is maximised and ego is minimised. Conversely, mastery will take a long time to achieve if ego is of titanic proportions—no matter the time, attention and love lavished upon a skill or discipline, ego will negate it.

The same can be said for intimacy. Achieving it takes time, achieving it takes attention, achieving it takes love, and its achievement is hindered by ego.