Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

True intimacy elusive in digital age

People look for it in all the wrong places, including social media

Breakfasts probably say more about the state of a marriage than any other meal and no one can serve a plate of bacon and eggs with such eloquent boredom as Meryl Streep. You know her marriage is in trouble the moment the sizzling stops and Tommy Lee Jones looks up from his newspaper just long enough to notice that the plate has been slid contemptuously in front of him. One egg, sunny side up, and a slice of bacon. The daily egg has been the only sunny thing in this household for some years.

In Hope Springs, David Frankel's comedy film about lost romance, Streep and Jones offer a master class in marital dysfunction as Kay and Arnold, the middle-aged couple from Omaha who barely communicate and have not had sex for nearly five years. Their evening routine is that he falls asleep in front of the golf channel, she wakes him and they drift up to sleep in separate rooms.

One night, desperate for the intimacy they once had, she appears on the threshold of his bedroom in her best negligee. "Is there something wrong with your bed?" he asks. She books a flight and drags him to a marriage therapist in Great Hope Springs, Maine. Bernie Feld (Steve Carrell) puts them through a series of exercises, from hugging to an excruciating attempt at oral sex in the back row of a cinema. It is funny, ridiculous and horribly voyeuristic.

One of Kay's "fantasies" is to renew their marriage vows on a beach. Her husband's is to enjoy a threesome with their corgi-owning woman neighbour.

When Kay and Arnold finally achieve "intimacy," a miracle seemingly unrelated to any of the therapist's plonking interventions, they do indeed renew their vows on a beach, she promising to watch more golf and he to buy her presents that aren't household appliances. (The possibility of a threesome is left unresolved.) They dance back to happiness in a feel-good finale that the genre has made all its own.

But achieving real intimacy is rather more complicated than that, as the psychologist Ziyad Marar reveals in a new study of the subject. Streep and Lee Jones may have acted their socks off to supply the subtleties of intimacy that aren't in the script, says Marar, but they are heading for "one of those grisly Valentine's Day faceoffs in a French bistro."

In his provocative book, Intimacy (published by Acumen), Marar warns that we are looking in all the wrong places for this elusive feature of the human condition - and looking too hard. We mistake it for romance and confuse it with love. We deploy it as a coy euphemism for sex. And we actually dilute the possibility of intimacy - the face-to-face language of looks, words and sensations - by a frenetic pursuit of friends through social media. The irony is that while there are nearly a billion people on Facebook, intimacy is in crisis because it is digitally reduced to a state of basic contact.

"There is plenty of sex which is not intimate and plenty of intimacy that has nothing to do with sex," Marar argues. "They are not one and the same thing. You can love someone who doesn't love you back, but intimacy is a two-way thing. There is no such thing as unrequited intimacy."

He defines real intimacy as that world-excluding "moment of feeling uniquely understood," where two people (not necessarily a man and a woman) surrender enough of themselves to arrive at an almost conspiratorial knowledge of one another.

"We don't often achieve it, especially not in marriage, and even when we do, it's not for long. It depends as much on the delicate signals between two beings who are on the same wavelength as on anything that is actually said.

"Sometimes too much talking gets in the way of it."

That's why "anti-social media," as he terms it, can only ever peddle an illusion of intimacy. "A lot of relationships are mediated through screens," he says. "The cult of Facebook is an indication of how much people want to connect, but what they achieve is what sociologists call 'weak ties,' not intimacy. Digital connections don't give you access to the glance, the tone of voice, the clues to the question, am I in tune with you?

"Yes, one can make personal disclosures and be generous-spirited, but what new media don't do is enable the openness to interpretation that real-life encounters afford. All the recipient has of you online is what you choose to present about yourself. It's not conducive to the subtle interplay and it's not quite in real time."

Marar believes we are "analogue creatures despite the digital stream in which we swim." He deplores marketers' counterfeit version of intimacy, insinuating false promise into everything from inglenooks and fake four-posters to honeymoon suppers on an exotic beach, where six other couples are enjoying simultaneously "intimate" moments at tiny tables lined up on the sand.

As for the Valentine's Day romantic meal for two, that is the special toe-curling simulation of intimacy. "Two sittings, in and out, with your rose and your allocated time," he says. "It is the Hallmark Cards version of intimacy. Intimate lighting, intimate looks."

For the subtleties of true intimacy, he turns to Lost in Translation, where Bob, a fading actor (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a young philosophy graduate from Yale, both disoriented and depressed, become deeply attached to one another in a hotel in Tokyo without the relationship turning overtly sexual. It is a brief encounter. With none of the baggage of shared marital history, and no expectations for the future, they are free to bond in a chance way.

Did Kay and Arnold stand a chance of finding the real thing? Maybe just once. When Arnold lost patience with their prescribed hug-in and Kay, bitter and rejected, went to a bar, Marar spotted a moment of possibility. "Allowing a proper row, a proper bust-up, no part of the therapist's plan, is a way most people find to reconnect. Smash it all. Find a way to regroup in a more honest way. But despite Meryl and Tommy's best efforts, the Hallmark Card version of intimacy is unfortunately what the movie is leading us towards."

Marar said there are "perfectly good" relationships that aren't particularly intimate. "But we are a fundamentally social species and there are a lot of people genuinely trying to find a way to reconnect. If we can dare to hope for it, it can be unbelievably redemptive. Sadly, a lot of people have given up."