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Intimacy Vs Sex

Intimacy vs sex

When I was training to be a therapist, we talked a lot about the importance of intimacy in maintaining relationships of all kinds.  Intimacy—that sense of closeness and attachment to someone else– is the glue that holds people together, even when the relationship is running through a rough patch. Certainly ruptures to that intimacy is what brings people—individuals or in groups of 2 or more—into my office.  Building and maintaining intimacy is a guiding force of the work that I do with the people I serve.

Reconnecting with your spouse

When I first started working, I remember meeting with a couple who were quite serious about repairing their relationship.  My first job out of school was one where I worked primarily with children, so by the time I got back into working with couples, I was really excited to get back to using all those wonderful things I learned in my programme at school.  I was going to give this couple so much help with building and developing intimacy that they were going to be re-connected FOREVER.

With this thought process in mind, you can imagine my confusion when one partner said, “We’re only intimate once every other month.”  How could this be?

What is intimacy?

Intimacy is built through a collection of moments, some short, some long. Intimacy can take the form of that look across the table when a child says something unintentionally funny, or a hand on the small of a back as you pass in the kitchen. Intimacy is being really connected to yourself and your partner in a conversation. How could these things happen only every month, and how could one be so sure that there was only one such moment in that time?  I had regular intimacy in my relationship with my mother who lived 2 time zones away.  And then it struck me—intimacy had become the word we use for sex in polite company (ok, so according to this definition I DID NOT have intimacy with my mother, ever.  Ugh.).  

This is a trap that a lot of couples fall into, I find.  That sexual activity becomes the gold standard for intimacy.  No sex means no intimacy.  And without intimacy, relationship satisfaction goes down the tubes.  True—sex can be a very intimate act.  But as many of us know full well and have probably found out through trial and error, sex is not necessarily an act that brings us that closeness and attachment we may seek.  

What is intimacy?

Intimacy is all about connection

Building intimacy—whether there has been a relationship rupture or not—really involves that idea of connection.  Intimacy is that invisible link between people.  In fact, it is often a break down in that intimacy that leads to cooling in the bedroom.  Some people, over time, decide that they do not want sex without intimacy, and intimacy is often about sharing a lot more than body parts.  

Intimacy is more about sharing moments in time, experiences, and even the day-to-day.  It is intimate—but probably not sexy, and more banal—to decorate a home together, cook a meal together, save for a trip together, or go grocery shopping together.  It is these kinds of everyday acts that build or strengthen the connection between partners.

Don’t get me wrong—sex can help greatly with building intimacy, too.  And it can be really fun.  Sex that builds intimacy doesn’t have to be the rose-petals-on-the-bed-and-gaze-into-each-other’s-eyes kind of sex that gets plugged in popular media.  After all, you can’t get much physically closer to another person in ways other than any kind of sexual activity.  But it isn’t the physical aspect alone that builds that connection.  Though it certainly helps.  

Relationships that stay happy in the long term find a balance between sex and other ways of creating intimacy.

As long as all parties involved are putting some thought and energy into connection in ways that feel good—even if it requires a bit of “boring” work, by times—most relationships can weather any storm.  I have worked with people in relationships that have had incredible ruptures, but the people involved stay together as a result of having a very intimate connection at the base.  They are able to be vulnerable with each other in the easy times as well as in the difficult times.  When the focus has been on staying connected over time, the outcomes tend to be much, much better.

Some important ways to build or maintain intimacy involve regular habits:

  • Have regular routines where you spend time together—maybe it’s going to bed at the same time, or getting up at the same time, or having a regular date night (cheesy, maybe, but grounded in sound logic)
  • Make time for “check-ins” with each other about how each person’s day went what they have coming up, etc.
  • Have some non-sexual physical connections—hold hands, touch a shoulder, hug, snuggle
  • Have joint projects together—they don’t have to be big, but at least sharing a common purpose so you are in it together.

So while sexual activity is one way to be intimate, let’s remember that what we really need in a loving relationship is that feeling of closeness and attachment. Tuning in to your sense of your attachment and how strong (or weak) it is will give you the best sense of what kind of effort you need to put in, in order to make your relationship work. Intimacy doesn’t have to be hard work—it can be a lot of fun, even, if you are open to feeling that feeling of being connected to others.

  VERIFIED EXPERT
Matthew has an experience of over 15 years as a psychologist. He helps individuals, families and couples with problems such as stress, depression, anxiety, addiction, relationship problems and identity issues. He did his bachelor's in Psychology from McGill University in Montreal, QC. He did his master's in Counseling Psychology from Northwestern University in Evanston, IL.
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