Intimacy – What Is It?

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If sex is the definition of intimacy then brown is the definition of poop.

Perhaps that was a little crass.

If sex is the definition of intimacy then clowns are the definition of fear. (Sorry to anyone if this is true for you.) Intimacy is in the same wheelhouse as closeness, familiarity, and understanding—encompassing much, much more than the physical act of sex, which many confuse for the meaning of intimacy.

What seems to be lost in the evolving hook-up culture and equally popular gossip-centered conversations is the vulnerability needed to share authentic emotions, ideas, and experiences with another person. Intimacy is this exchange of vulnerability, whether it is between friends, family, spouses or bed buddies. The trade is what creates closeness and understanding, and takes several forms.

Emotional intimacy happens when two people feel comfortable sharing feelings with each other. Being able to express yourself freely and empathize with another person allows that relationship to deepen.

Emotional intimacy is rewarding and healthy, yet the vulnerability it takes to get there stops many from reaping the endless benefits of emotional understanding. Fear of rejection is vulnerability’s greatest nemesis. Fear of losing a relationship over our perceived flaws, or fear of becoming lost in a relationship (of being invaded and/or losing oneself), can deprive any type of relationship from emotional connectedness.

Physical intimacy is where our minds go when we think “intimate” yet this form is bigger and smaller than sex. It’s about sharing physical space with your partner and how we bring ourselves into a relationship. Sharing household tasks, sharing a bed, sharing meals and personal health and fitness all fall under the physical intimacy banner.

When transitioning into a live-in romantic relationship, your physical space shifts from “mine” to “ours.” Physical intimacy helps to balance individuality and coupledom—it’s about listening to your rhythms, obeying both of your needs for personal time, and establishing safety and understanding within your shared space.

Sexual intimacy is the stereotypical definition of intimacy we are familiar with but doesn’t seem to be fully appreciated. This form of intimacy is about meeting each other’s sexual needs within the relationship. Do you know what your needs are? Do you know you partner’s? Can you overcome your sense of vulnerability and any associated fears to discuss these needs with your significant other? Sexual intimacy covers a broad range of sensuous activity and can be many things for different people at different times throughout the lifespan. Never assume your partner’s needs match your own.

Experiential intimacy is the intimacy of activity. This happens when people engage in mutual activity together, saying little to nothing to each other, and not sharing any thoughts or feelings.

It may be hard to think of such an activity when many are in the habit of avoiding silence, but opportunities for experiential intimacy are more common than you think. Take a hike! Literally. But share silence and the scenery with others. Or perhaps find yourself in an art class where everyone is sharing the experience of creation. Experiential intimacy is about involving yourself in the activity and feeling an intimacy from this involvement.

Intellectual intimacy is about communication. Two people sharing ideas and exploring their differences and similarities in opinion are being intellectually intimate. Who doesn’t want to know their ideas and values are heard and appreciated? Allowing yourself to engage in the level of mutual respect needed to non-violently share opinion, no matter how varied, accompanied by the willingness to express ideas openly and honestly with another, are the makings of a deeply intimate relationship.

What stops us from achieving intimacy is the fear of doing something that doesn’t always come naturally. We fear the embarrassment and rejection that may follow opening up to a judgemental person—for revealing a sexual need, an emotional truth, or an intellectual opinion, just to have it used against us. Playing to this fear, however, means depriving yourself of relationships deepened by greater understanding and appreciation.

It’s time we give more than a nod to the true meaning of intimacy and open ourselves up to the different ways there are to create a connection with another human being. Be bold. Be brave. Let your freak flag fly and then, communicate it. Share it. Chisel a few bricks off the vulnerability wall and be you. Your partner, family, friend, stranger at the bus stop, let them be them. Intimacy will ensue.