When you think of the word “intimacy,” you may assume it means sexual relationships. But while one can boost the other, one doesn’t necessarily include the other. Intimacy on its own involves trust, acceptance, and an emotional connection with another person. Intimate partners care for one another and are unafraid to share thoughts, desires, and vulnerabilities.
In addition to romantic partners, you can have intimate relationships with friends, family members, and other people in your life.
Even without sex, intimacy can provide many physical and mental health benefits. There has to be an evolutionary reason why people maintain paired bonding and intimacy when there is no sex involved. Indeed, we have found that there are biological advantages of being a dyad over an individual.
Does Intimacy Always Involve Sex? And What’s the Difference?
The lines can get blurred at times, but you can have intimacy without sex and vice versa. Intimacy is more of an emotional connection rather than a physical connection. As relationships increase in duration and partners increase in age, the sexual frequency may decline, but intimacy may increase. But while sex and intimacy are different, they are interrelated, he adds. They go hand in hand. Some partners need to feel loved and cared for to be sexually intimate, and some need to perform sexually to demonstrate that they love and care.
What Are the Different Types of Intimacy?
It’s important to understand that there are four key forms of intimacy:
• Physical, which means being in the same place at the same time and spending quality time together, like on a date night.
• Emotional, which means sharing emotions and thoughts and connecting on a feeling level.
• Sensual, which means physical touch and pleasure and other ways to physically connect that don’t involve intercourse, like hugging and kissing.
• Sexual, which means intercourse or any other form of sex.
Everyone is different, and we all desire these different forms of intimacy to varying degrees in our relationships, he says.
The Health Benefits of Intimacy: Less Stress, Better Sex
Intimacy, in all its forms, has a variety of health benefits for body and mind, experts say. These include:
Intimacy Helps You Reduce Stress and Stay Healthy
Chronic stress can cause a host of health complications, such as insomnia, muscle pain, high blood pressure, cardiac events, a weakened immune system, irritable bowel syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease, among others. When you are in a constant state of fight-or-flight, you use up a lot of necessary nutrients needed to maintain health. Intimacy helps reduce the stress and panic so that your body can replenish itself and maintain a good immune system.
Intimacy Counters Loneliness and Reduces Risk of Mortality
A study linked social isolation with increased morbidity and mortality. Another study found that in addition to higher mortality, loneliness can also impair executive functioning, sleep, and mental and physical well-being.
If you feel complimented, loved, and appreciated, that all contributes to good health. If you feel alone, isolated, stressed, abused, or taken advantage of, that has a negative effect on your health.
Intimacy Fuels a Better Sex Life
While sex isn’t necessary to achieve intimacy, intimacy can often lead to a better sex life, which in itself has health benefits. Your experience of sex will improve because you will be unafraid to express (and receive) what you desire, and willing and open to hear and care for your partner’s needs as well. The trust will allow both of you to grow and try new things that might enhance your relationship.
The Health Benefits of Sexual Intimacy
The act of having sex can lead to many positive changes in the body, such as boosting oxytocin known as the ‘cuddle hormone’. A healthy sex life may also affect your immune system and blood pressure, lessen pain, and help you sleep better. In fact, orgasm alone can reduce blood pressure by releasing oxytocin. It has a calming effect that can last a few days. Sex is also a form of exercise which in itself has many health benefits.
Intimacy Can Benefit Your Mental Health
When you’re intimate with another person, you get a mental boost too. Studies show that men who are deprived of intimacy get angry and women get depressed. Your hormone levels, especially oxytocin, actually change when you touch or are touched by someone, or share an intimate act such as decision-making. If you are connected in a loving relationship, you have more of the happy hormones like dopamine.
Intimacy and Emotional Support Strengthen You
If you are upset about something, you often feel comforted by discussing these issues with a close, empathetic companion or therapist. When you feel supported, you can begin to overcome a certain amount of emotional pain and start the healing process.
Plus, emotional insensitivity can weaken you. If you encounter a lack of empathy or humiliation from someone you trust, it can exacerbate your pain and retraumatise you. You may then withdraw or avoid intimate relationships, which can make depression or anxiety worse.
Online Intimacy: Can You Cultivate Intimacy Virtually?
While many feel that the explosion of online and smartphone technology has limited social intimacy, research shows the opposite. While the internet cannot simulate all aspects of intimate exchanges, there are many ways you can enact certain aspects of intimacy.
A basic definition of intimacy is the sharing of what is personal and private. From this perspective, actual face-to-face contact is not necessarily required to experience a sense of intimacy. While we do know that human touch and other nonverbal cues play a very special role in promoting greater intimacy between individuals, individuals who know each other offline can also easily use the internet for intimate exchanges, which can reinforce their face-to-face contact.
We see this in the context of personal text messages we send to loved ones, where we have a particular way of expressing ourselves with certain individuals, certain phrases or emoticons only the other person fully understands. And of course it’s easy to feel closer to others while keeping in touch via Skype or Facetime.
But a healthy balance of face-to-face interactions alongside online interactions is important. The internet can be a great tool that can promote intimacy in relationships through various applications, but it certainly cannot replace all aspects of human intimacy.
6 Steps to Achieving True Intimacy With Another Person
There are several ways to build trust and achieve intimacy. These include:
• Be honest. Trust is the bedrock for all true intimacy.
• Strive for mutual and considerate communication. When your partner or friend speaks, be fully present, not doing grocery lists in your head or on your phone. When you speak, use declarative sentences that describe your perspective rather than assign blame.
• Remember that intimacy takes time. It’s not something you can download an app for. You have to spend time together, slowly getting to know and feel comfortable with each other.
• Give each other room to breathe. Everyone needs alone time and space to process life. Don’t think if you aren’t together every second that something is wrong.
• Have fun together. Not every encounter has to be intensely meaningful or serious.
• Accept your partner, accept yourself. No one is perfect. You can’t get close to someone if you are negatively judging them or yourself.
Is It Possible to Have Intimacy While Practicing Celibacy and Abstinence?
You don’t have to be in an exclusive relationship to experience intimacy. You can be intimate with your friends, or with multiple sexual partners. If you are in a relationship but are uninterested in or unable to have sex, you can still reap the benefits of intimacy. Sex is a physical act. Intimacy is emotional. For example, men who can’t get an erection after extensive cancer can be intimate both emotionally and physically.
Still Having Trouble Making or Strengthening Connections?
It’s important to remember that there are different forms of intimacy, and people have different needs. For example, in a relationship, one partner may desire a more sexual relationship, while another may crave more emotional intimacy. Everyone defines their own normal, and it’s very rare that people have the same needs.
If you feel like you need more intimacy in your relationship, start by talking to your partner about what might be missing. Then, consider seeing a psychotherapist or a sex therapist. Either one can help you understand the intimacy issues you may be experiencing individually or in your relationship.