Sexual vs. Emotional Intimacy: Do You Know The Difference?
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By D. A. Wolf, Featured DM Blogger - August 20, 2014 - Updated December 02, 2016

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Emotional and sexual intimacy can be tricky; they are not absolutes. On the contrary, what we each need in terms of intimacy will vary: my "deep sharing" will not be yours; yours will not be mine.


Sexual contact? We approach the subject often, dissecting its variations, and insisting on its necessity for a healthy relationship. But is sex, even great sex, the same as intimacy? Is sexual intimacy what we're actually after? 

What about other types of connection?

We frequently express a desire to love and be loved, to feel safe in our relationships, to be known and accepted for who we are - hoping to share our dreams and our failings.

Is this the intimacy that we truly desire?

The answers beg for a clear understanding of the types of intimacy that exist between people, how we achieve them, and how they vary.

Understanding Types of Intimacy

So often, we use the term "intimate" in a purely physical context. We refer to a couple as "intimate" in order to express that they are in a sexual relationship. In fact, this is a narrow and somewhat misleading use of the term, and experts tell us there are several types of intimacy:  

  • Intellectual (a rich meeting of the minds)
  • Experiential (closeness in activity such that you are in sync)
  • Sexual (characterized by shared sensual and sexual expression)
  • Emotional (characterized by shared feelings, trust, vulnerability)

For purposes of this discussion, let's talk about sexual and emotional intimacy.

Sexual Intimacy

There are times when we hunger for sexual connection, and the longing is physical. Not only might we yearn for intercourse, but we want the press and presence of another person in all his or her sensual splendor - the tastes, scents, sounds, textures - and naturally, visual aspects enhance the experience.

In sex, we let down barriers, and we permit another person into our most private personal spaces.

Sexual intimacy involves a degree of vulnerability and trust - for some more than others, and in some scenarios more than others. (Have you ever considered why a "quickie" with your clothes on may be "hot" but less intimate than slowly undressing with your partner? Think about it. It's a matter of exposure and vulnerability.)

There are times we want (and engage in) sex, not lovemaking. This may occur with no "attachment" whatsoever, with some affection, or with friendship (friends with benefits). As adults, if we're paying attention, we understand the nuances of sharing parts - not hearts.

Emotional Intimacy

There are times when we seek an emotional bond - being accepted for ourselves, loved for ourselves, sharing our happiness or for that matter, tough times. We crave that state of being that is all about closeness, trust, and comfort. We want a special connection with another person at a deep emotional level.

Psychology Today describes emotional intimacy as closeness that requires:

"... a high level of transparency and openness. This involves a degree of vulnerability that can feel uncomfortable or anxiety-producing to many of us."

When achieved in a relationship, emotional intimacy may act as:

"... a formula for enhanced emotional well-being, and physical health as well..."

Note that emotional intimacy does not require physical affection, though certainly for most of us it is enhanced by something as simple as a kiss on the cheek or holding a hand. 

Communication: Essential to Emotional Intimacy

We can be married to a person for years and never achieve emotional intimacy - keeping in mind that intimacy isn't a "destination" but rather, an experience or set of feelings. Communication is an essential ingredient in emotional intimacy, but we often communicate superficially about family life, as we:  

  • talk about the work day
  • discuss domestic duties
  • strategize over money and schedules
  • organize events around exes and kids. 

We also use humor, sarcasm, and activities to fill up our time together. Intentionally or not, we may "deflect and protect" in order to avoid the very vulnerability and transparency that we need to thrive as a couple.

The Importance of Vulnerability

As Psychology Today points out, the vulnerability involved in emotional intimacy is anxiety-producing to many. One way to alleviate that anxiety is by allowing enough time to pass so trust is well established. Still, vulnerability is very disorienting when we're out of practice.

DM Happy Couple Laughing in Bed.jpgWhile many of us may feel that sex is relationship glue from which communication (and intimacy) will flow, others may deem emotional intimacy the prerequisite to a fulfilling sex life.

And what if that sort of vulnerability is a No Go? What if your partner is unwilling or unable to communicate in a deeply personal way? Does that make him withholding or simply more comfortable with revealing less? Even if the sex is fabulous, will an unsatisfying degree of emotional intimacy leave you languishing? 

We may be paired with a partner who doesn't provide the confidences that we want or need, much less the acceptance of ours. The resulting void is a lack of intimacy that is often the impetus for an emotional affair, and this in turn, may lead to infidelity.

We Each Experience Intimacy Differently

Emotional and sexual intimacy can be tricky; they are not absolutes. On the contrary, what we each need in terms of intimacy will vary: my "deep sharing" will not be yours; yours will not be mine.

Likewise, our comfort level with sexual and emotional intimacy will change over time and evolve according to partner or circumstances. 

Consider, for example, the divorced woman who has spent 20 years with one man, now her ex-husband. To say the least, the very thought of getting naked with a new lover could be anxiety-inducing. So she may opt for establishing a foundation of mutual, emotional intimacy before sexual activity of any sort. Or, she may intentionally choose the detachment of a hookup rather than putting her heart on the line.

In my opinion, neither is superior; we should choose what works for us, knowing that our choices will evolve over time.

Passion, Love, Sex, and Connection

Some men and women are content to keep sex at arm's length from their emotional core, which keeps their lives "less complicated." I know single mothers who explicitly operate in this fashion, given that dealing with an ex, raising kids, and holding down a job can make for an emotional overload as it is! 

Others crave a convergence of sexuality and a profound degree of trust, transparency, agreement, and connection - the very definition of emotional intimacy - which is highly dependent on both time and communication.

But passion is not predicated on emotional intimacy, just as emotional intimacy does not require physical contact. And love can take place at an emotional remove - or for that matter at a sexual remove. Love, sex, connection - these are a matter of the optimal mix that is comfortable and satisfying for both individuals participating in the relationship. 


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