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The power of fleeting intimacy

Sophie Mackintosh

March 26th, 2022

Conventional wisdom holds that true intimacy exists only between those with a deep bond. But interactions with people we've just met can deeply affect us.

What does it mean to share an act of closeness with someone that you’ve only just met or might never see again? I don’t just mean one-night stands, but also brief acts of kindness or communion. The person in a club bathroom who listens or lends you their mascara, the deep conversation with someone you’ll never see again while waiting in a queue, the unexpected kiss, even the smile of a person passing you in the street. 

There is a particular thrill to these interactions, a weightlessness. Little beautiful moments can add up to a larger whole. I think of them (cheesily) like stars in a dark sky, pinpricks that become a constellation. Connecting to other people connects us to ourselves; it makes us feel seen and witnessed and known. It doesn’t have to be forever. Some of the most fleeting intimacies can be the most intense, because without the pressure of thinking about the future, we can give more of ourselves than we might otherwise. Embracing this means embracing a sort of impermanence, too, which can be hard to accept. Not everything lasts, even if it feels good at the time. Sometimes to draw something out is to diminish it, rather than to keep something as a perfect snapshot, a distillation of exactly what was needed in that moment. All intimacy is a spectrum and all of it has something to offer or teach us, even the ones which on inspection might seem to vanish or become too flimsy.

There is a social phenomenon called the ‘stranger on a train’ phenomenon, where you can be more likely to reveal things to someone if the chances of seeing them again are remote. There is a necessary vulnerability in sharing things, in getting to know someone. It is not always a process that can be rushed (the ‘onion theory’ of social penetration even gives a pattern of progression for this – from small talk, to beginning to share the inner self, to the ‘affective’ and ‘stable’ stages of what we generally call friendship.) But if we don’t feel that we will see that person again, we can throw caution to the wind and be vulnerable in a way we normally are not. We can show our true selves, for better or for worse. And it feels good to show people who we are and to have who we are accepted or valued; to experience the rush of sharing something with someone else without thinking about what the future might hold.

Everybody wants connection and yet to ask for it, to find it, can feel terrifying. Fleeting intimacy can be a way into connection that does not ask too much of you. There is also an amazement in being able to be so close with someone so quickly, as if it alters what we think we know about how connection works at all. Increasingly the narratives around what connection means are being rewritten, as we become both more linked, more lonely, more permissive, more online. We can experience unbelievable intimacy with somebody we have never met physically and feel estranged from somebody we have known a long time. We can rewrite the narrative of one-night stands as sordid and unsatisfying to becoming a shared moment of abandonment between two people, of showing themselves fully – the pleasure and shared experience being the point, rather than the building of anything.

Experiencing fleeting intimacy can even be read as a sign of our own emotional health. To offer intimacy and receive it, we have to be in a certain state, have certain conditions met – such as feeling safe in ourselves in that moment, safe in the situation in that moment, feeling receptive and open and curious. These kinds of situations and mindsets feel positive in themselves; they require warmth and comfort.

Maybe, though, fleeting intimacy can be too easy. It’s easier to share a moment than to build something, to sit through the moments of connection that are less magic but through which a shared friendship, relationship or life are made. There’s an element of recklessness, of danger that gives it a glitter – the pulling of a lottery ball. What will be revealed, about the other person and ourselves? What will happen, in a situation where nothing is known about the other? These can feel like exciting questions. To stick with an intimacy that has lost the sheen of newness, next to the possibilities suggested by a moment, a night, an hour, can feel more difficult.

I like to believe, uncynically, that there are so many fun and interesting and beautiful people, more than we can ever hope to know, and that being open to fleeting intimacy means being open to the world, being open to the myriad ways in which a person can connect with another. It doesn’t have to be forever or even for long; it doesn't have to be significant. It is in the joy of the unexpected, the feeling of being seen without anything necessarily being presumed, a moment without obligation. It’s in the conversation with a stranger you remember for years after, the hand held briefly in a crowd, the person who gives you a tissue and a hug when you're crying in public and then vanishes. It means something and is worth celebrating.

  • Connection