Intimacy is a thing that most people crave, even if they can’t admit it. But defining what intimacy is sometimes challenging in ways that we don’t understand. Being able to answer the question “What is intimacy?” enables you to paint a picture of how you want intimacy to look in your relationships.
It’s not just sex, and it’s not just love. A nuanced definition of what intimacy is helps people to better understand the concept, and we’ve taken a shot at defining intimacy in this post.
WHAT IS INTIMACY GOOD FOR?
Physical intimacy, which may just mean touch, has a lot of benefits. Physical touch is important for helping us to feel connected and calming anxiety. Massaging babies enables them to gain weight – 5 grams per day – more than babies who don’t receive this type of physical touch. And the touch can even reduce hospital stays .
Adults can benefit, too. Hugging may help you fight off colds . Touch between members of a team can even improve their performance throughout the season, according to one study . A pat on the back can even make people more cooperative  despite the fact that it’s not a sign of undying love.
You can show your love, however, through the act of sex, and this is why many people call having sex with their romantic partner making love. More on that here. In fact, some people view having sex as the ultimate act of showing love. After all, what is intimacy good for if not communicating feelings?
Studies have shown that eight different emotions, including fear, anger, happiness and, of course, love, can be communicated via physical touch even when there aren’t visual cues  . No wonder physical touch is one of the five love languages!
There is no shortage of benefits to physical touch thanks in part to a decrease in stress hormones in response to touch and an increase in oxytocin. Oxytocin can boost your mood and make you feel more connected to people, among other benefits.
WHAT IS INTIMACY? IT’S MORE THAN JUST PHYSICAL
A lot of people automatically assume that intimacy means physical touch, especially sex. After all, the Bad Girls Bible tells women how to get as much from their sex lives as possible. But even we recognize that intimacy isn’t just physical.
Intimacy can be mental and emotional with little or no physical component. It’s about being close with someone, developing a rapport and sharing trust. You open up to someone and give them a glimpse into more of you, perhaps all of you, than other people see. You feel safe being vulnerable, and another person returns the favor.
Related: How to Overcome Trust Issues
Intimacy isn’t something we typically experience with strangers, but we do share it with multiple people on a daily basis.
INTIMACY IN EVERY RELATIONSHIP
It’s easy to see how emotional intimacy extends to your romantic partners – a husband or boyfriend – but it doesn’t stop there. People share emotional intimacy with their friends and family, and emotional intimacy might even be necessary for enjoying close, personal relationships. Some people even view their relationship with God as emotionally intimate.
Women are sometimes fortunate that they can experience intimacy with so many people. Society sometimes steers men away from having close relationships with people, including friends, siblings, and even parents. Women are a bit luckier in that regard. Emotional intimacy comes from various sources.
In fact, you might experience different types of intimacy with different people. Your relationship with your mother is different from your relationship with your best friend and certainly different from your relationship with your husband or boyfriend. It’s even smart to develop strong bonds with multiple people to avoid the expectation that your partner should do it all, which is unrealistic and typically leads to frustration.
This is one reason why it’s so important to maintain your autonomy when you’re in a relationship – even a marriage. Keeping your friends and hobbies keeps you interesting to your man and ensures that you don’t become codependent. However, you’ll see that there’s a problem when you become too emotionally intimate with other people if you keep reading.
INAPPROPRIATE EMOTIONAL INTIMACY
If you start to build emotional intimacy with someone, typically another man, who isn’t your man, you might find yourself walking a tricky line between friendship or companionship and emotional cheating. For some people, emotional cheating is more traumatic than physical cheating because feelings are involved.
It isn’t just about pleasure and orgasm. Your partner has developed feelings, built a bond and shared secrets with someone who isn’t you, and that’s incredibly hurtful.
Looking for advice if you’ve cheated on your man? Read this.
DEALING WITH A LACK OF INTIMACY
People desire both kinds of intimacy. They want the physical touch from holding hands with a friend to hugs from family to platonic cuddles with friends as they watch movies. Women often achieve greater non-sexual physical intimacy than men do, but as a woman, you can still feel isolated when there isn’t enough physical intimacy in your life.
You can feel a lack of intimacy even if you’re in a relationship and have sex. This can create distance between your partner and yourself and even cause you to wonder if he only wants you for the sex.
Hey, are you wondering if he’s just using you for sex or some other reason? Find out here.
If you’re feeling distant, you might wonder if you can achieve the intimacy you desire by cheating.
While sex is one type of physical intimacy, experiencing touch that isn’t just leading to sex is important. It’s about knowing that a kiss is just a kiss or a cuddle is just a cuddle. It doesn’t need to lead anywhere and, sometimes, knowing that it doesn’t have to lead anywhere is exactly what encourages you to have sex. Because it’s your choice.
WHEN SEX DOESN’T CREATE INTIMACY
When you crave intimacy, it’s natural to use sex to fill the void, but sometimes it still leaves you feeling empty. Sex may not be the best way to feel intimacy, even if it’s with your partner. So if you have lots of sex but you want to build intimacy, you might focus on cuddling while watching TV before bed or add a few hugs and kisses throughout your day.
Similarly, you don’t want to use sexual intimacy as a way to end a fight if you haven’t actually solved everything. Sex can be a great way to reconnect after a heated argument (Read: The Benefits of Makeup Sex), but if you’re just using sex as a distraction from an issue that remains unresolved, the problem will eventually come back to bite you. Unresolved issues too often lead to resentment, pop up in unrelated arguments and cause relationships to crumble.
This isn’t to say that there is anything wrong with having and enjoying sex because there isn’t. And if all you want is sex and your partner is okay with it, then you don’t need to establish a foundation of emotional intimacy. But when you’ve got that emotional connection with someone, adding physical intimacy in the form of sex can lead to greater satisfaction both with your relationship and the sex.
FOSTERING EMOTIONAL INTIMACY
You may need to make a concerted effort to non-sexual physical intimacy, but it’s also common to struggle with emotional intimacy. This happens for a variety of reasons. Perhaps you still carry baggage from a previous relationship where your boyfriend cheated on you or hurt you in another way.
You may have been taught that you weren’t good enough or worthy of love, so you have trouble letting people in. Maybe you have thoughts or feelings that seem bad or wrong and you struggle to share them with the one person who should know every corner of your soul. As a child, your may have struggled to share with parents or teachers who weren’t interested, so you learned to shutter yourself from the outside world.
There are a plethora of reasons why a person might struggle with emotional intimacy, many of which stem back to prior interactions with others. Without meaning to, you might be “punishing” your man (and yourself by extension) for someone else’s errors.
It takes time to understand that connection is something desirable (even if many relationships end), that you are worthy of intimacy just the way you are and that someone wants to share that with you.
SHOW VULNERABILITY TO SHARE INTIMACY
Once you’re at that point, learning to be vulnerable presents its own risks. You’ll need to be able to trust your partner and yourself. Many people find therapy to be helpful. A professional can help untangle your issues with emotional intimacy. More about that.
If you need just a little help talking about difficult things, why not read our guide to sexual communication? Although the focus is talking about sex, you can use the advice to tackle other tricky conversations.
Remember that it might not be just you who has issues understanding what intimacy is and how to achieve it. Your man may have been discouraged from being emotionally intimate with people in his life. So while he has no issues with sex, he hasn’t quite figured out how to achieve the ideal bond in a relationship. Be patient and loving with him as he learns to share intimacy with you.
What is intimacy? It’s a way to share yourself with other people. Intimacy can take many forms, all of which add up to true human connection. It’s important both to give and receive intimacy, but you get to decide how intimacy looks in specific relationships and whether sexual intimacy or emotional intimacy is more important to you in the moment.