Liz Kearney talks to the author of a book who says we spend too much time on superficial relationships in the digital age
The plane journey was long, but the stranger in the window seat beside me had turned out to be a surprisingly entertaining travelling companion.
He'd a long list of festering family secrets to tell me about, and he seemed more than happy to share them with me to make the journey pass more quickly.
I had my own list of complaints: we discussed, in no particular order, the sadness I felt over a rapidly disintegrating romantic relationship, my guilt over the sudden end of a long-term friendship, and my anxiety over the uncertain future I faced when the plane finally touched down in Dublin.
Our conversation was peppered with the kind of intimate revelations you'd find in meandering, coffee-fuelled chats with the oldest of friends, or in the warm haze of a new romance.
As we nattered comfortably away, I realised I'd told this bespectacled stranger things I hadn't told anyone else. Yet I didn't even know his surname. And we weren't even drunk.
The plane encounter was unexpected, but far from unique. Most people have, on occasion, found themselves knee-deep in mutual revelations with someone they've only just met. Films like Before Sunrise and Lost in Translation dwell on their strange power.
So just what are the magic ingredients for intimacy, and why is it sometimes found with strangers instead of the people we know best? That's the question writer Ziyad Marar poses in his thought-provoking book Intimacy (published by Abacus).
Marar argues that despite our modern obsession with the idea – bookshops teem with self-help books designed to help us achieve it, genuine intimacy is increasingly elusive in the digital age. It's not our fault, says Marar: popular psychology hammers home the message that the most important relationship we will have is with ourselves, which leaves little space for the intense focus on someone else which true intimacy demands.
And when we're not busy navel-gazing, we're tending to what sociologists call 'weak ties': the thousands of superficial connections we make on Facebook and Twitter.
This week, the Catholic marriage advisory agency Accord said that our increasing obsession with social meda is the fastest growing threat to couples' relationships.
But despite all these barriers, real intimacy, Marar argues, is essential to our wellbeing and we must pursue it.
"We crave it because it promises to fulfil a deep need we have for being known and knowing in return," he writes.
The son of an Irish mother and Jordanian father, Marar lives in London. His day job is in academic publishing, but he has a background in psychology and philosophy.
"I'm interested in the art of living well, and I thought intimacy was a classic example of the paradoxes involved in the art of living well today," he tells me. "We are ambivalent towards other people; we deeply need each other but at the same time, we are almost scared of each other.
"We need other people's recognition, applause, love and affection, and we are terrified that if we aim for those things and don't get them, we might suffer shame and humiliation."
In Marar's version of it, real intimacy has four ingredients: it must be reciprocal, it must be confidential, it must be emotional, and it must be kind – in other words, those involved must know they will not be judged harshly.
Its very complexity makes it elusive, and the 'anti-social media' that Marar is so uncomfortable with make it more so.
"Sometimes you read an email and you can't quite judge the tone of it. But it's different when you can hear and see one another, partly because the person is reading beyond your own PR – they're looking to see what's going on behind the scenes. On the digital scene, we see only the front stage, not what's going on backstage."
Intimacy even proves elusive in the place where you most expect to find it: in a romantic relationship. The frequent moments of deep connection lovers experience when they first meet fall gradually away as the mundanities of day-to-day existence get in the way.
"At the start, when there is so much going on in terms of ongoing discovery and novelty, the number of intimate connections is much higher. But it's harder when familiarity sets in," Marar says.
It's difficult to discuss your deepest hopes and fears when you need to figure out whose turn it is to feed the dog. And because there is so much at stake in a long-term relationship, couples shy away from revelatory emotion in case they tip over the applecart. Which brings us back to why we sometimes find it easier to open up to strangers. With someone who doesn't know anything about you and who you'll probably never see again, you can be brave and say what's in your heart.
Marar's book draws heavily on examples from popular films and books: he praises Lost in Translation, the movie Castaway (who can forget Tom Hanks's love affair with his volleyball Wilson?), and the Irish writer Joseph O'Neill's novel Netherland as good studies of the subject.
"That moment of intimacy – that shared and forgiving sense of frailty – is to be cherished," he writes, "and could yet come to be a fleeting but profound component of a life well lived."
A year after I took that flight, I ran into my plane stranger in a packed Dublin bar. It was difficult to say which of us was more uncomfortable; we knew far too much about one another for people that didn't know one another at all. We were both eager to end the conversation as quickly as we could and scuttle off to opposite sides of the bar.
Which just goes to prove Marar's point: intimacy is high-risk behaviour. So next time you get on a plane, choose your seat very carefully. You might find out more about your neighbour – and yourself – than you bargained for.