September 30, 2009 | Narrative
No More Casual Fridays
intimacy in the time of reality
article by Post- Magazine
This summer a friend introduced me to my new favorite acronym— HALT. It’s borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous and the four letters stand for the four states in which we make our worst decisions: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. I’ve since used this rubric to check myself when I’m on the verge of making all manner of stupid decisions, especially when it comes to assessing my most impulsive, irrational, emotionally-driven decisions of all: the ones about sex.
Often when I’m manifesting a HALT symptom, but mainly when it’s an L or a T, I start feeling like I want some intimacy. Nothing too involved, nothing too serious. Certainly not anything that would rock the boat or disturb anyone’s peace of mind. I want…causal intimacy. The wish for casual intimacy is not to be confused with the desire for a hookup. People pretend that hookups exist in a vacuum. We try to keep our emotions contained, the idea being that hookups are the strictly carnal fulfillments of knee-jerk physical attraction. Casual intimacy implies more than what we think a hookup can offer. Physical intimacy, yes. But also a mutual appreciation that extends beyond the admiration of our partners’ physical appearances. Platonic fellow feeling. In essence, the ability to enjoy each other’s company in other places bedsides bed.
Causal intimacy exists in Limbo, suspended somewhere between the studied nonchalance of a hookup and the burdensome emotional responsibilities of a relationship. We all believe that this state exists, or at least we all want to. How many times has someone told you, “I don’t want anything serious?” Better yet, how many times have you said these words to someone you’re involved with? I’m sure that you meant what you said. But answer me this: after making this pronouncement, how successful were you at keeping your intimacy casual?
Casual intimacy fulfills a fantasy of enrichment without commitment that so many Brown students (yours truly included) hold dear to their hearts. Your casually intimate partner is someone you fool around with, but also someone you hang out with—and it’s not weird. Maybe you even do some things together that would count as dates except for the fact that they lack that essential awkward quality that comes part and parcel with dating.
This is a pretty picture, but I don’t buy it. This vision of casual intimacy is, I think, just a mirage. When it comes to intimacy, there is no such thing as stasis. It is a process that can’t be halted; once you open yourself to someone, feelings start to grow. It’s like yeast. Or a fetus. I believe this especially as it applies to physical intimacy. Nine times out of ten, taking your pants off opens up Pandora’s Box. If you claim that no, you actually don’t feel a thing, I think you’re full of shit. You may have numbed yourself out, but physical closeness and emotional closeness almost always come as a packaged set, and those little beasties you pretended not to see when you first let them out (vulnerability being the most troublesome of them all) get bigger and meaner the longer you ignore their existence.
I really wish that casual intimacy did exist. It would make forlorn Friday nights so much nicer. I wouldn’t feel so panicked whenever I consider taking the plunge into a new romantic escapade. And whenever I told someone, “I don’t want anything serious” I’d continue to feel that way long after I take off my clothes.
I wrote this column mainly based on the belief that there is no such thing as a free sexual lunch. Casual intimacy as I described it above is as imaginary as the Easter Bunny. And yet—
It is possible to be intimate without becoming emotionally entangled. But it’s also a lot of work. It means staying present for the process unfolding for you and your partner. It demands that you honor each other’s boundaries and desires. It requires quite a lot of communication. And most important of all, it necessitates that you go into the experience prepared to let it go when it’s over.
Engaging with healthy casual intimacy takes a tremendous amount of maturity and thoughtful awareness. Ironically, it’s not very casual at all. If you’re up to the challenge of staying open and detached at the same time, I think there is another option.
We can be like Joel at the end of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Accept that in becoming intimate we’re letting someone in. Accept that we will inevitably encounter angst and pain because of it. And rather than freaking out at that prospect, we can jump in. Ditch the fantasy of casual intimacy on the shore. It may feel abandoned, but at least we won’t be alone.