Most people think intimacy means always moving closer in relationships, but what I’ve realized over the years is what creates and maintains intimacy is being able to feel and honor what is the right distance between two people – in relationships in general and in particular moments or phases in relationships overall.
I’ve been practicing this in my life for years, but the idea of right distance crystalized one morning when I was dropping my kids off at school. We arrived early, and while we waited for the school to open, we went for a short walk down the block. As we were walking, the sun shifted over the trees and houses, and I paused and turned my face towards it, saying something like, “good morning Father Sun! Thank you so much for shining your warmth down on us.” My son, who was standing next to me, heard me and responded that he wished the sun was closer so we would be warmer. Of course! I thought. That’s the beauty and challenge of right distance—we don’t always get what we want in every moment, but it is what creates life.
If the sun were any closer, life might have never occurred in the first place and if it were any further away—the same story. The earth orbits at exactly the right distance from the sun for life to exist! That there are trees, rivers, fish, birds, elephants, butterflies, and humans is only possible because we’re precisely the right distance from the sun.
This is true in our relationships as well. A lot of beautiful relationship work is about coming closer, and that’s important – we can’t be too far away, or there wouldn’t be any warmth for something to grow. But we also have relationships, or moments in relationships, where we can smother, or kill intimacy by moving too close—just like if the sun were any closer, we would die.
For instance, my ex-husband and I have a sweet and beautiful relationship that I value for so many reasons. And we were neighbors for several years, which was precisely our right distance! If we tried to share a house – even a huge one – or even live on shared property, the beauty in our relationship became eclipsed by tension. But next door neighbors, with separate rental agreements, was perfect. Our family flourished because of right distance. Watch the full video for more specific examples from my life and the lives of my clients.
The answer is not always that we need to be closer, or that there is only one right distance at all times. Like the planets in our solar system, we notice there are natural rhythms and cycles of closeness and farther apart. In many relationships, the right distance will be close, but include moments, or periods, when there is a need for more of an ebb – and it’s essential to allow for this to cultivate real intimacy.
It’s important to acknowledge that certain kinds of distance allow life in relationships. It could be a family member with whom you need to set boundaries to liberate the love in your relationship. This is not a failure, or a lack of love, on anyone’s part – this is acknowledging right distance.
Be willing to acknowledge what brings the most life and love to any relationship.
There’s a practice I teach in some of my workshops, where two people are across the room from each other, and one person has the power to tell the other person whether to move farther away or come closer. Many people default to only asking the other person to move closer, and won’t ask them to move farther away until I insist they try it. Many people end up sharing they felt more intimacy with their partner when they directed them farther away! So often we default to a specific generic base-line ‘intimacy,’ without exploring where the real intimacy lives in each moment.
Most of us have a tendency one way or the other. When anxiety or conflict arises, almost every single one of us will move habitually move either closer or further away, as an unconscious way to attempt to mitigate the anxiety. First, notice your habitual tendency – is it to always move towards? Or is it to chronically create distance? Whichever habit you have, try the other one, or try simply being still and see what happens.
It is in our willingness to explore in these ways, that we can begin to find the real Right Distance in all the relationships in our lives (moment by moment).
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