A recent musing on separate vacations and managing long distance relationships was published at the Huffington Post. The comments and conversation were – as always – illuminating.

I wrote the column from the experience of my own marriage. Time apart resulted from my spouse’s career travel, and perhaps a desire to spend time on his own. I was fascinated to hear the stories of other couples whose relationships work well despite physical distance. And yes, that includes the topic of separate vacations.

In carefully considering the subject – and the comments – it’s quickly apparent that what is at risk is intimacy.

Too little face time with your partner?

Then how do you read those all-important body language cues? Where is the jolt of juice from the sound of a voice, the touch of fingertips, the empathetic look, or the simple nod of agreement?

When we spend time apart from our partners, we’d better have excellent communication skills. Even then, without the sensory aspects of affection and sexuality, we lose opportunities for knowing and trusting the other in the most tangible fashion. We also miss out on cementing shared experience as a couple.

Time Talking, Time Touching

Reflecting on my own long distance relationships, one was able to weather the strain of an ocean between us, while a second a few years later was sacrificed on the alter of frequent flyer mileage and, no doubt – more geographically accessible women.

In my first example, the man in question and I spent portions of each day together on video conference. This typically took place at odd hours of the night or morning, but we were able to talk and laugh as if we were in the same room. At times, we even watched television together over our screens. It was an emotionally rich, intimate relationship.

I recall being aware that I was spending more time with him “apart” – technically – than I ever spent when my ex-husband and I were “together” in the same house.

So if a relationship between a man and a woman can flourish with the Atlantic between them, how do we define intimacy? Is physical intimacy a necessity for emotional intimacy, and vice versa?

Sexual Intimacy

My guess is that (most) men would say that sexual intimacy – acts, jobs, or anything else – leads to emotional intimacy (deep sharing, deep caring, etc.).

Women are presumed to claim the opposite – emotions will facilitate sexual intimacy.

So is this “conventional wisdom” true?

Most generalizations and stereotypes have some basis in truth; the preceding declarations seem true, and if we take them as a given (again, generally), we might at least find some clues. Simply stated: Men want sex to get closer; women want to get closer to have sex.

Theoretically, there’s ground for compromise, and for arriving at what both genders seek in a love relationship – a comfortable measure of intimacy.

Definitions of Intimacy

Intimacy is, according to The Free Dictionary:

Marked by close acquaintance, association, or familiarity; relating to or indicative of one’s deepest nature; marked by informality and privacy sums up intimacy more succinctly:

a close, familiar, and usually affectionate or loving personal relationship with another person

Interesting (to me) – physical intimacy is defined as “sensual proximity or touching” [Wiki] which may encompass affection, whereas sexual intimacy becomes both more explicit and harder to pin down – at least, from the numerous articles and references which don’t seem to nail it.

Part of that definitional dilemma may lie in the fact that sexual intimacy involves sexual contact, and that implies emotional intimacy. Yet we all know there’s lovemaking and sex, with a range of experiences in between. This leads us back to issues of familiarity, sharing one’s vulnerabilities and deepest nature, and the fact that hooking up isn’t the same as connecting.

Is this all spaghetti logic, or an impossible tangle of love knots?

Play Time Means Stay Time?

Above I refer to a “comfortable” measure of intimacy. That’s my phrase, in deference to the fact that we are not all capable of (or interested in) the same level of deep emotional sharing.

To some of us, emotional exposure is unsettling and unnecessary. To others, it’s the essence of an intimate relationship. Without it, we feel bereft; we long for that degree of sharing self, and having another share in the same way – exclusively.

I can’t help but think of play – intimate play – and how serious many of us become as we take on adult responsibilities. As life burdens us with jobs and kids and mortgages and worries, don’t we lose our playfulness? Does intimacy depend at least in part on mutual play – wordplay, sports, concocting a new recipe together?

Doesn’t playfulness lead to letting down our guard? Doesn’t that equate to more affection?

Doesn’t affection lead to physical and sexual intimacy?

Must it? Shouldn’t it?

Time Together, Time Apart, Couple Time

And here we are.

I circle back to my own questions about time together and time apart – the balance that individuals may strike together, that change with time and circumstances, but that must serve the couple – and the family. 

When we don’t spend enough time with those we love, we’re back to the business of being together rather than any measure of playfulness – or even simple down time. There’s so much responsible “life” to catch up on, we set everything else aside.

This is something I’m learning. Play is a sort of self-care – and caring for the couple requires time enough to play together.

How Do Our Children Learn Intimacy?

As a parent, I regret that my sons haven’t witnessed emotional intimacy between adults. They saw examples of friendship, of honest communication, and casual dating from time to time. Once or twice, there was a committed relationship.

During my marriage, I remember one of my sons (very young) remarking on the lack of affection between his dad and me. That was a painful moment of revelation. It was a wake-up call, but much too late.

I’d like to think that the way our little family speaks together and laughs together, still recognizing boundaries of parent and child, a model of familial intimacy will offer an example of use in adulthood. I wish it could have been more.

I treasure intimacy, but know it to be rare; to me it means a safe and loving connection built on a foundation of shared values, talking and touching, playful and trusting informality. It is the ability to be one’s true self – without fear.

  • How do you define intimacy?
  • Have you ever discussed it with your partner?
  • If your comfort level with intimacy varies greatly from your partner’s, then what?


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  1. says

    All good stuff to think about, although I don’t think I have any answers. I have one very affectionate child and one who just can’t be bothered…is it nature or nurture?

  2. says

    I believe intimacy comes from vulnerability. And lack of that, sadly, can be sensed even when you’re with someone in the room who chooses to remain closed off.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Agreed, T.

      Just as sad – when the other person is fully aware of your vulnerability, your desire for intimacy, and uses it to take advantage – or squanders the gift which it ought to be considered.

  3. Gretchen says

    Brilliant. I particularly agree with your last paragraph, and with the final comment: intimacy (or emotional connectivity, as I’ve described it to others) is being comfortable enough to be yourself, trusting that the other person will honor that, and protect it, not ignore or betray your trust. No fear, just contentment in the shared intimacy. To play, I’d add simple, daily experiences, getting to know the “deep” as well as the “trite,” and accepting both parts as what makes the whole. T’s comment, and your response, points to how damaging it can be for not only a relationship, but an individual’s well-beng, to have that trust and intimacy belittled or squandered.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Simple daily experiences. So well put, Gretchen. Unfortunately, we all seem so busy trying to get through the day, we either forget that, or don’t make it a priority.

      I’m thinking “out loud” here, now… Looking back on the relationships in my life that worked well – there was play. In my marriage, my spouse sought his playtime elsewhere, for the most part. Very politely, but nonetheless, we didn’t share our play in the simplest sense of the word.

      Love isn’t enough. Two people can love each other (a little, a lot, passionately, in platonic fashion), but so many other factors must be present. And if they aren’t, at the very least, a mutually compatible set of values.

  4. says

    A dear family friend gave a toast when I was getting married. She said we’d be fine, I had a high enough whimsy quotient for both of us. (Luckily for me, my guy brought his own whimsy too.) Play is essential to a good life. Without it, we lose vibrancy.

    I am fine with times of separation, my husband’s job requires it, and I actually enjoy the time to be just for me. But I cannot imagine our relationship without play – without banter and jokes, giggles and silliness.

  5. says

    I believe intimacy comes from really discussing issues and talking about the emotions behind differing points of view. When husband and wives don’t hide from themselves, they have a better chance at achieving intimacy. And sometimes that requires a healthy amount of fighting.

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