Is There a Difference Between Sex and Intimacy?

Over the years, I have heard many clients refer to “being intimate” when what they are really referring to is sex.  For many people, the word ‘intimacy’ is synonymous with ‘sex’. So often, the term "intimate" is used in a purely sexual context. We refer to a couple as "intimate" in order to convey the idea that they are in a sexual relationship. As a relationship therapist, I am aware that many couples have sex without emotional intimacy. Others have intimate relationships that don't include sex. Still, others are able to develop a combination of emotional and physical intimacy. This poses an interesting question. Is sex, even great sex, the same as intimacy?

What is emotional intimacy?

The term ‘intimacy’ (and I’m referring to emotional intimacy here) is where two persons are willing to express their thoughts and feelings to each other. Deep intimacy requires a high level of transparency and openness. Individuals who engage in this level of connectedness are willing to share their worst failures and mistakes, their most embarrassing moments, their feelings of inadequacy as well as their dreams, visions and hopes for their lives. The ability to reveal oneself fully, honestly and directly in this way is the essence of intimacy.

 The need to be vulnerable

Intimacy, by its very nature, requires us to be vulnerable and this can feel highly uncomfortable or anxiety-provoking to many of us. It means taking a big risk – the risk of rejection. One way to alleviate this anxiety is to remind ourselves that intimacy is not stagnant but rather a process. It develops by allowing enough time to pass so trust is well established.

 Intimacy does not have to involve sex

By now, you would have worked out that intimacy is far more than just sex - it is not just sex. Emotional intimacy does not even require physical contact. Intimacy can thrive in loving friendships and family relationships that don’t include sex. In fact, sex too soon in a relationship can interfere with emotional intimacy.

 Sex as a substitute for intimacy

It is interesting to note that sex is one of the few places where some people will allow themselves to become emotionally vulnerable. People who are cut off from the emotional parts of themselves often seek sex to meet their need for intimacy. In our society, many men have learned, growing up, that the only thing they are supposed to need to be close to a woman is sex. They have no less need for intimacy but it usually gets suppressed and denied.

For many couples, sex then becomes a substitute for intimacy and a defence against closeness. It is no news that sexual problems in a relationship are frequently the by-product of personal and relational conflicts and anxieties.

Individuals have differing comfort levels with intimacy

Emotional intimacy is more complex than what I have discussed here. There are no absolutes as individuals differ in their comfort level with emotional intimacy.  What we each need in terms of intimacy will vary and also change over time and evolve according to our partner or circumstances. 

 Intimacy for couples

When a couple is intimate, the two individuals share their joys, fears, frustrations, sorrows and even anger with each other. Yes, it does mean that difficult feelings are shared too. The challenge is to find ways to do this respectfully. It can be scary at times to let down one’s emotional guard but when trust is developed gradually, it feels safer.

While heart- to- heart conversations might be the way that emotional intimacy develops, sometimes the conversations might not be about anything that is particularly significant. It might just be sharing the stuff of everyday life. At other times, deep intimacy can come even without words.

While many of us may feel that sex is the glue of relationships from which communication (and intimacy) will flow, others may deem emotional intimacy the prerequisite to a fulfilling sex life. Either way, emotional intimacy is an important part of any relationship, with or without sex.