What do you know about intimacy?

Kanisa George  -
Kanisa George -

WHEN ONE thinks about the essentials of an intimate relationship, intimacy and communication often come to mind. Though separate entities, these variables run parallel, working in tandem to achieve and maintain stability in a relationship.

As nuanced as both concepts are, very few of us fully appreciate that intimacy in a romantic relationship goes far beyond the physical realm.

Do we truly grasp the full scope of intimacy in a relationship, or have we narrowed it down to just sex? It’s time to debunk this misconception and delve into the various dimensions of intimacy.

Intimacy, in its true essence, transcends our narrow perception of it being solely about physical affection. While physical or sexual intimacy is a significant aspect, it is not the sole or most profound form. Emotional and creative intimacy, often overlooked, play equally vital roles in fostering deep connections.

American psychologist Robert J Sternberg describes intimacy as feelings of closeness, connectedness and bondedness in loving relationships, including those feelings that give rise to the experience of warmth in a loving relationship.

Contrary to the popular belief that intimacy exists only in romantic/sexual interactions, creating deep and rich personal connections with friends, coworkers and family is more than possible. The more open-minded we are to learning about each other and building connections, the more likely we will make room for intimacy to blossom.

Intimacy, especially in the romantic context, heavily involves learning to trust each other while prioritising each other’s needs. It includes self-disclosure, emotional expression, trust, support, physical expression and a mutual experience of intimacy.

Following Sternberg’s teachings, other essential components of intimacy are the desire to promote the partner’s well-being, being able to rely on each other in times of need, mutual understanding, comfort in sharing personal possessions, giving and receiving emotional support, and intimate communication.

What Sternberg’s and all the other available research shows is that intimacy is far more than just sex. Intimacy can be physical or emotional, intellectual or creative and requires some level of vulnerability for it to exist freely. And once established, couples are bound to experience a sense of fulfilment.

For example, emotionally connected couples (who understand each other’s emotions and respond empathetically) are better equipped to handle stress and manage conflict within the relationship. This form of intimacy allows parties to feel heard, supported and understood.

While we might be quick to accept the benefits of physical intimacy, other forms of intimacy, like emotional and creative intimacy, can promote closeness and combat loneliness and depression. According to the research, this also means that having an extensive social network isn’t nearly as important as having deep, intimate connections, even with only a few people.

In an intimate partner relationship, it is very easy to get carried away with all the bells and whistles that are attached to the glory of sex without paying much attention to not only other forms of intimacy but also other forms of physical intimacy.

Cuddling, holding hands or even being in each other’s presence cultivates a solid desire to remain connected to your partner and can build the relationship outside of sexual desires.

But intimacy isn’t always a two-way street.

Interestingly, for intimacy to flourish, it necessitates a mutual exchange. Both parties must contribute to the relationship, fostering a sense of reciprocity. This mutual give-and-take empowers individuals to take responsibility for nurturing their relationships.

Dr Gloria Lopez-Henriquez, a social worker at the Ackerman Institute for the Family, underscores the profound influence of power dynamics on intimacy. Understanding and being conscious of these dynamics is crucial for partners to respond to intimacy and be open to it.

Dr Lopez-Henriquez believes that intimacy becomes easier to cultivate if a relationship has an equal power dynamic. For instance, romantic relationships where decisions are typically made jointly, and one person doesn’t exert control or has more resources than their partners. When the power dynamic is strained, someone will feel like they are investing far more than they receive.

We may not always be on the same wavelength, and it’s expected that one person in a relationship might, at some point in time, give more than the other. But often, you’ll find that someone may have a fear of intimacy or of getting too close to someone, which can severely impact the longevity of the relationship.

According to Lopez-Henriquez, one reason for this fear may be linked to losing one’s identity. Also, in the rinse-and-repeat culture we’re in, instead of dedicating time to improving relationships and cultivating intimacy, many younger people focus their energy on looking for other potential partners.

“We aren’t all allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, and this lack of vulnerability makes it challenging to sustain relationships when things get difficult.”

To overcome the fear of intimacy, psychologists recommend starting with open communication. By examining your thoughts, attitudes and beliefs on the topic, you can begin to understand and address the root of your fear. If needed, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.

Consider, “What are my views on friendship, and how have my past friendships affected this current belief system?”

“How have my childhood experiences impacted my perception?

This is not an overnight fix, but by engaging in honest dialogue with yourself or a therapist, the solution will be closer to grasp.

Intimacy boils down to how deeply we trust, communicate and make ourselves vulnerable. It’s about allowing a wave of fresh air to move through our system, knowing that with every deep breath we take, we’re making space for positivity to reign, come what may.


"What do you know about intimacy?"

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