An intimate conversation. An intimate ambiance. An intimate encounter. In each of these references to intimacy, the meaning seductively suggests exclusivity, privacy, vulnerability… Connection, perhaps of a profound nature.
Emotional and sexual intimacy may overlap, but we know they aren’t the same. We also know that to achieve intimacy requires a degree of attention (in environments), attentiveness (in human interactions), and time — particularly when attempting to develop the trust necessary for an intimate emotional bond.
You know the sort of trust I mean.
The kind of trust you place in a knowing look, and it is all the encouragement you need.
The kind of trust you place in the ability to speak your mind when you’re worried or afraid.
The kind of trust you imagine when waking in bed next to the person you love, lingering over coffee in the early hours, and then, perhaps, enjoying an “engaging” start to the workday.
Intimacy Is Best Served by Time
My own long ago marriage?
Sadly, time apart was the result of my spouse’s career travel, and perhaps a desire to spend time on his own. While some couples manage both emotional and physical intimacy well, even across miles, there’s no question that distance poses challenges.
In my experience, when distance or frequent periods of separation are involved, emotional intimacy must be solid to start with, and nurtured by quality communication.
Otherwise, too little face time with your partner spells trouble.
After all, how can 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?
Even with exemplary communication skills, when we spend significant time away from our partners, and when deprived of 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, building history together, and solidifying the sense of being a family unit.
Time Talking, Time Touching
Sure, we are helped along by technology, but that isn’t enough in every case, and depending on your libido, that isn’t enough — period.
Reflecting on my past long distance relationships, one was able to weather the strain of an ocean between us. A second, several years later, was sacrificed on the altar of frequent flyer mileage and, no doubt, more geographically accessible women.
In my first example, the man in question and I made a special effort to Skype every day. 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. And when we were able to get together, our emotional connection enhanced our physical bond.
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. At the time I didn’t fully understand the extent to which emotional unavailability played into our marriage.
So if a relationship between a man and a woman can flourish with the Atlantic between them, how do we define intimacy? Doesn’t that illustrate that even in a romantic context, physical intimacy isn’t a necessity for a profound and loving emotional connection?
Prevailing opinion: Most men would say that sexual intimacy leads to emotional intimacy (deep sharing, deep caring, etc.), while women are presumed to claim the opposite — emotions will facilitate sexual intimacy.
So is this “conventional wisdom” true?
Most generalizations and stereotypes usually have some basis in truth; if we take them as a given (again, generally), we might at least find some clues.
Simply stated: In a relationship, many believe that men want sex to get closer, and women want to get closer to get in the mood for sex.
Still, let’s not forget that both women and men may want sex, with or without the need to feel especially emotionally bonded. Isn’t this the very reason that we note distinctions between sex and lovemaking? Even in a long-term relationship, don’t we generally enjoy both?
Definitions of Intimacy
One of my opening remarks: We know that emotional and sexual intimacy are not the same. But is that true? How many do not understand the distinction?
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
Dictionary.com 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 that 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 to many. Yet we understand, as just mentioned, that there’s lovemaking and there’s 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, and emotional intimacy is all about connecting at a profound, meaningful level.
For many of us, when it comes to a committed relationship of any type, we want both emotional and sexual intimacy with our partners.
Libido Lessons: Play Time Means Stay Time?
There are times when libido takes a dive. Among the reasons for low libido: medical conditions, mental health conditions, medications, pain, stress, hormonal changes, problems in the relationship. All of these can be libido killers.
Some relationships can weather the storm when one partner’s desire takes a tumble. The couple identifies the causes and works together to arrive at an agreeable solution. For some, this is the impossible dream. And for many, without sexual intimacy of some sort, emotional intimacy cannot be retained. And without sexual or emotional intimacy, are you merely living some sort of roommate arrangement?
If both agree that this is fine, and if acceptable accommodations are reached, then there isn’t a problem, wouldn’t you say?
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? Doesn’t intimacy depend at least in part on shared play beyond the bedroom — wordplay, sports play, concocting a new recipe together in the kitchen?
How Much Sexual and Emotional Intimacy Is Enough?
And here we are. Trying to fathom how we can balance all those interminable competing interests for our time. Trying to give our spouses, our significant others, and even our “newest” relationship partners what they need and what we need to create and sustain intimacy. Trying to nurture ourselves enough to have something to give, and to act on what we need to take.
But how do we know how much? One “deep” conversation per week? Per month?
One date night per week when we don’t talk kids or politics, but we talk about “us?”
Sex once a week? Twice a day? Lovemaking on vacation? Is there a magic formula for each couple?
An “adequate” measure of intimacy is not a fixed, definable, or static set of elements that we can easily define. It’s important to remember that we’re raising families, juggling jobs, and managing health conditions. Moreover, 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, opening our deepest selves to another is the essence of an intimate relationship. Without it, we feel bereft; we long for that degree of sharing, of seeing and being seen, of trust in the knowledge that our vulnerabilty will never be betrayed. And we hope that a partner will appreciate and share in the same way — exclusively.
Moments and Commitments
When we aren’t married or in a committed relationship, we may still crave moments of both emotional and sexual connection. Naturally, we can seek them out, hope to find them, and thoroughly enjoy their satisfactions though we may be well aware of their limitations.
As for our spouses and partners, we come to understand that when we don’t spend enough time with those we love, when we don’t invest emotion and devotion in each other, when there is insufficient touch — and for many, this involves a mix of affectionate and sexual contact — intimacy falters.
We may begin to put up walls, making it harder to reach each other.
If both in the couple wish to do so, we can work together to eliminate the obstacles to emotional and sexual intimacy. We can work together to bring those walls down.
And if not, we may look elsewhere for someone with whom we can talk at a profound level and without fear, with whom we can establish trust and caring, and with whom we can ignite that special spark… The kind that leads to a passionate morning kiss, to lingering over coffee, and to starting the day with a reminder of how important it is to stay connected.
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