Consent & Emotional Intimacy

Recently, I had a marathon of a lifechat running through to 4am with someone I don’t see often. When I finally curled up to go to bed, I could hardly sleep as my mind raced to process all of the new insights, connections, and questions. Lifechats leave me on a high of sorts that’s impossible to replicate. The next day, I assumed incorrectly that the other person felt the same. As we texted, it became clear that wasn’t the case. They were filled with regret around their answers, wished they had had more time to ask me questions, and generally felt like they answered from a place of feeling overwhelmed rather than a place of safety. It put them in a funk the next day whereas it put me in a place of elation.

I cringe writing this wondering how many I’ve left feeling that way. In the last few years, I’ve had moments of extreme clarity having been called out by others for being too intense, unrelenting, and pointed in my questions. As an extremely conscientious person, this has been a jarring experience and has led me down a path of wondering about consent when it comes to emotional intimacy. I’ve come to realize that no matter how much of a captive and caring audience I might be, it still can result in leaving people in a state of uneasiness, exhaustion, and vulnerability. It can feel unrelenting and scary for some like rising to a challenge they didn’t want and weren’t ready for. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around it all while I have time off work to figure out better strategies for helping those who speak to me always feel safe, heard, and honored properly.

We often talk about consent around sexual intimacy with things like “No Means No”. This doesn’t hold up so nicely when it comes to emotional intimacy. Not wanting to answer one question doesn’t mean all questions are off the table – it might just mean the topic is or simply just that question. To complicate things, emotional intimacy isn’t physical so it’s tough to communicate boundaries as they are invisible. Even stating boundaries can be an act of vulnerability (“I really don’t want to talk about xyz topics” can still be tough to spit out). Placing emotional intimacy alongside physical intimacy for comparison yields interesting insights namely around how much farther we have to go with consent for all forms of intimacy. To me, it boils down to communication and doing one’s part to make that communication easier.

To get to the point, I don’t know how to combat this. I’ve reverted back to an old habit I used to have many years ago of stating clearly early in a conversation, “By the way you don’t have to answer anything I ask. Please don’t feel pressure to and know I’ll fully respect anything that you don’t want to talk about.” I’ve gotten a bit redundant with this even including it midway through a conversation or after a particularly obvious tough question. The trickiest part of emotional intimacy for me is how it can be so one sided. With emotional intimacy, it might just end up with one person “on display” sharing parts of themselves. Add into it, other people are often listening which makes consent across the group even more convoluted.

What’s the right way to go about this? How do we build consent into our conversations? Do we always put the onus on the other person to draw the line or can we find a way to draw the lines together? If I get any sort of grand insight in the coming years of my life, I’ll be sure to share. Right now, I just feel very confused and contemplative about the entire subject. Fortunately, I do feel like I have those where consent and depth are built into our friendships to talk this through with. For now, I want to focus on how I can lower the barrier of entry for others to share their boundaries and consent partially through perhaps modeling that behavior first. Since the majority of the time, I will likely be the party most comfortable with emotional intimacy I can use this to help build consent into the conversation and dynamic by bringing it up first. The tricky part is that there are very few things that feel off limits for me to talk about.

My all or nothing nature and curious mind don’t work to my advantage here but I appreciate the chance to be better. There’s lots of life to live and adapting is a beautiful thing. Even though lifechatting and emotional intimacy are deeply a part of me, that’s not the case for others I meet and in order to keep a wide range of people in my life I must learn to adapt. Some might take mere hours to know and to go deep with. Others might take months or years. Some might not ever be comfortable with me. All of those options are okay and to be respected.

To learning and being better.

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