There Are Ways to Build Intimacy Without Sex
- Although the two are often assumed to go hand in hand, intimacy and sex are not the same thing.
- Intimacy covers all aspects of a relationship—physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual.
- Learning all parts of intimacy is important to developing and maintaining healthy relationships.
Language and the way it evolves are fascinating things to study. Even from the viewpoint of a layperson, noticing how certain words and phrases and the ideas they represent change meaning over time can tell you a lot about the society you live in. Consider the word intimacy. It's one of those words that can mean almost anything.
For some men, intimacy is what happens when you get naked with someone and spend your classic five to seven minutes in heaven. In terms of making a truly intimate connection, though, this arrangement is rarely satisfactory for a partner, a relationship and, ultimately, themselves (even if they may not know it).
We will explore what intimacy is, how it fits in with sex but isn't totally composed of sex, and some other ways to explore intimacy with your partner.
What is intimacy?
One problem with how some people grapple with intimacy in the modern Western world—especially guys hoping to learn how to be intimate in ways other than sex—is that the term itself has been hijacked.
"Social norms and the media have defined 'intimacy' in such a way that we get these goofy terms like 'intimate products' or 'intimate wear,'" said Jillian Amodio, L.M.S.W., a social worker with Waypoint Wellness Center with multiple locations in Maryland. "People throw this term around because they're afraid of the word 'sex.'
"But intimacy doesn't mean sex. It means close, familiar relationships and vulnerability—a trusted form of expressing care, compassion, concern and interest. Intimacy is not necessarily equated with sexual desire."
Sex can be one component of an intimate relationship, but sex alone is a limiting way to view it. It helps to think of sexual intimacy as just one small piece of physical intimacy, one of the four pillars of intimacy. These pillars include the following:
- Physical intimacy
- Intellectual intimacy
- Spiritual intimacy
- Emotional intimacy
"Spiritual intimacy doesn't always mean you're sharing the same religious views—but who are you at your core, as a soulful being?" Amodio said. "Then emotional intimacy is where lots of people get hung up because that's where true vulnerability comes in: being open about our feelings.
"If we're not vulnerable with our thoughts and ideas, we're not really being open with who we are as a person. We don't really fall in love with someone's body—we fall in love with their mind. We fall in love with their spirit."
You'll notice the word "vulnerability" comes up a lot in these conversations. It's a key concept to understanding how sex fits in with intimacy. While it's tempting to define sex itself as a form of intimacy, that's not always the case for everyone every time they have sex.
"Sex can certainly be intimate, but sex can also not be intimate," said Caleb Birkhoff, L.M.F.T., a marriage and family therapist in San Francisco. "True intimacy doesn't have to exist in a sexual context. I think in a lot of relationships, a lot of people think because they're having sex, they're being intimate, but in actuality, they might be very guarded."
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How did we develop the idea that sex equals intimacy?
It may sound like some pale copy of the old "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" talk, but men can get the short end of the stick regarding emotional literacy. Some guys are allowed to cry when their team loses, but that's it.
These norms can leave men in a place where the first person they need to learn to get intimate with is themselves.
"In Western culture, men are often socialized out of some of those more vulnerable, softer emotional states," Birkhoff said. "We've been taught we're allowed to be happy, and we're allowed to be angry. So that gooey part where we might say, 'I would be hurt if this thing happened,' or 'I'm sad, or anxious or worried,' we often just don't have the language for it."
When guys are considering other ways to develop intimacy with their partners apart from sex, it might be helpful to think about what got you to an intimate connection with your partner in the first place.
"What's missing, sometimes, is that people aren't tending to the ecosystem that creates sex and sexiness and closeness and feeling desire," Birkhoff said. "Things like feeling emotionally safe, being cared for, being vulnerable, feeling validated—the flirting, courting stuff that people are great at in the beginning of a relationship."
We sometimes have different ideas about what constitutes intimacy.
"If one person thinks intimacy is having sex once a week and the other person thinks intimacy is asking me about my day and drawing me a bath and helping me cook dinner, of course they're not going to be happy because no one is getting what they need," Amodio said.
How can you build intimacy without sex?
There are four concrete ways to go about building intimacy that don't include sex: communicate, listen, be vulnerable and practice patience.
Communication is always the first bullet point in relationship talk, but it is important to discuss intimacy. Call it the first step in making yourself vulnerable: Ask what your partner's idea of intimacy is and lay out your own.
Actively listening, giving your full attention and respecting your partner's needs are key.
Start practicing being vulnerable a little bit at a time.
"Be open and honest in your communication and talk through your needs in a way that's not accusatory: 'I feel that in order for our relationship to be healthy, I need this,'" Amodio said.
As you both try to develop these intimate communication skills, remember this may be new territory.
"Just because you tell your partner your needs doesn't mean they're going to be able to overnight give you what you ask for," Amodio said.
The bottom line
Intimacy is an important, wide-ranging subject that deserves careful exploration with your partner and perhaps with a therapist. Being vulnerable doesn't necessarily equate to being hurt or risking getting hurt.
Be patient with yourself and your partner as you stretch your wings together.