Human beings are social creatures. We need the sense of human connection that comes from intimate exchanges – it helps us establish our place in someone’s life, and affirms our value to each other. But what is an intimate exchange, and how do we decide what they mean to us and our adult relationships?
“Intimacy is about seeking or having closeness of some kind with someone. When we’re being intimate with another person, we're letting them - or they’re letting us - get closer by inviting and allowing each other into places beneath the visible surfaces of ourselves,” writes Heather Corinna for Scarleteen. “Healthy intimacy involves intentionally, willingly and safely sharing more private, vulnerable parts of our hearts, minds, bodies or lives with each other, and having others share with us in ways we want and feel comfortable with. Intimacy asks for transparency (being open and honest), vulnerability (letting our guard down), trust, and a means of communicating or connecting.”
In this piece, I want to cover just a few of the many outlets for intimacy we can share with another person. Whether the relationship is romantic, strictly sexual, or decidedly friendly with a side of benefits, it’s important that you consider the intimacies you may share with them – and whether or not you’re maintaining boundaries while meeting each others’ intimacy needs.
Establishing Physical Intimacy Preferences
The first facet of intimacy I want to talk about is physical. While sex may be the first thing to spring to mind – and we will get to that later – I first want to talk about non-sexual physical intimacy. There are many ways to express affection and cultivate closeness through physical interaction, from more overt displays like snuggling up to binge-watch Tuca and Bertie, to subtler ones, like choosing to stand side by side to brush your teeth in the morning.
Even folks who aren’t especially touchy (shout out to my fellow trauma survivors and touch-averse autistic folks!) need an occasional dose of nearness, which doesn’t have to mean being on top of each other. Sometimes, a foot nudge under the table is all it takes!
Why is physical intimacy important? “For one thing, touch is a form of communication. It can reveal everything from your partner’s current mood state to their stress level. In addition, touch stimulates the release of oxytocin, a hormone involved in feelings of bondedness. Touch can therefore bring you closer to your partner both physically and psychologically,” writes Dr Justin Lehmiller for his blog.
Considering the ways you like to express – and are willing to receive – physical intimacy will help you cultivate and maintain a healthy line of nonverbal communication with your partner(s). Here are a few things to consider when mapping out your physical needs:
What kinds of physical affection do you enjoy? Cuddling, nuzzles, handholding, butt smacking – there are so many ways to show affection, and they’re probably not all for you. I like to rough house, and only agree to cuddling with advance notice; my partner loves to get kisses on the neck or be the big spoon (or – as we like to call it with our height differences – the little backpack.) There’s no singularly valid way to be affectionate! There’s also no single meaning behind any particular gesture. Is a hand on your hip casual affection? An indication of desire? A consensual display of possessiveness? A bid for attention? Do you and your partner(s) agree on what these displays mean?
Where do you draw the lines for your personal space bubble, and how flexible is it? Not all physical intimacy is gestures. Sometimes it’s just a general sense of closeness. Sleeping butt to butt, sharing a bottle of water, and driving with a partner(s)’s hand on your thigh are all forms of physical intimacy. How comfortable are you with letting someone in your space, and how accommodating are you able to be if your partner(s) want more or less of a bubble?
Considering Emotional Intimacy
Let’s gather ‘round and talk about our feelings!
Wikipedia defines emotional intimacy as having “a perception of closeness to another that allows sharing of personal feelings, accompanied by expectations of understanding, affirmation, and demonstration of caring.” Which sounds like heavy, serious stuff – but it doesn’t have to be! “Everyone desires a different level of emotional intimacy based on their attachment experiences growing up and what their ‘normal’ was,” psychologist Dr Wyatt Fisher points out to Bustle. Varied – or even initially incompatible – ideas about emotional intimacy are a common culprit in tripping up adult relationships, so it’s something that deserves a lot of thought. Like every other facet of intimacy, compromise is key…
Not sure where to start? Here are some things to consider:
How much of yourself are you willing to share? How much do you want shared in return? Fears, traumas, little joys, hopes for the future… There are countless pieces of you in both the vulnerable and in the mundane. Your growing anxiety about going bald, your ex’s emotional abuse, your love of marathoning Golden Girls, your desire to learn German – how vulnerable do you feel about these different facets of yourself? When setting intimacies boundaries and expectations, it’s important to be honest with yourself about how ready, willing, and able you are to offer someone access to yourself – and how much access you want to your partner(s). If your expectations don’t align, where can you compromise?
What’s your love language? I know, I know, it’s pretty corny! But even just idly discussing so-called “love languages” with your partner(s) can open the door to being honest about your emotional needs – some of which may not have occurred to you! Knowing how you feel best supported and affirmed – and what methods of affirmation your partner(s) are most receptive to – helps ease the uncertainty of communicating feelings.
Bonding and Intellectual Engagement
It amazes me how many couples I’ve met over the years who only have a few mutual interests or shared hobbies. Perhaps it’s my autism talking, but I think engaging with someone intellectually – be it through discussing current events, debating the themes of a movie, or lovingly gossiping about your friends – is one of the best forms of immersive intimacy. Intimacy of all kinds is strengthened by bonding, and what better way to bond than getting into an argument at 2 a.m. about what Hogwarts House Steve Rogers belongs to? (It’s Hufflepuff, by the way.)
“Generally, the couples having common interests have more […] to talk about and share ideas on. [It] keeps them engaged in a conversation that they both love to have,” notes Nabin Paudyal for Lifehack. “In a relationship when both the partners have attraction, interest or love for a common thing, they tend to explore such things [together]. This will not only make the couples content with their relationship but also helps them create unforgettable memories.”
It might seem odd to plan ahead for bonding, but it can be easy to be inadvertently complacent about cultivating shared interests. When considering the ways you might want to share what you love with who you love, here are a few things to ponder:
What are your interests, and how would you like your partner(s) to engage in them? It can be incredibly intimate to share something you love with a partner. Maybe it’s a sports team beloved since childhood, or book series you’re rereading, or a theme park you visit. Maybe it’s playing video games or going on hikes or vlogging. How do you envision your partner interacting with this interest? Sure, you can let your partner steal your Red Sox jersey, but how else can you engage them with your love of sports? Go to games together, get into fantasy baseball, keep up with the players’ social media, read and watch player biographies? What facets of your interest will actually be interesting to your partner(s)? Will sharing them bring you closer? And are you prepared to summon the same investment in interests they have that you initially don’t share or understand?
How would you like to spend time together? Everyone has a different value system when it comes to spending their time. My partner and I spend a lot of time at home being cozy (or almost divorcing over Mario Party), but we also prioritize the occasional adventure, spending Saturdays at theme parks, the beach, or exploring some sun-baked local tourist trap. There’s a lot more nuance to time-spending than “are you an adventurer or a homebody?,” but this question serves as a good jumping-off point for deciding what will bring you closer to your partner(s), and keep you satisfied with each others’ company.
(Re)Defining Sexual Intimacy
While bare bones sex education, movies, and conversations around the watercooler will often funnel sex into a single (cishet) ideal, sex is an entire universe of possibility. When you deconstruct your culturally seeded expectations of sex, you can define it according to what suits you and your partner(s)’s needs and boundaries.
Fellow sex blogger Tessa of Queer Earthling wrote a wonderful piece on finding a new definition of sex for yourself. Her partner Damien is asexual. Describing Damien’s specific experience of asexuality, Tessa wrote, “while [they] enjoy masturbation and mental fantasies, it boils down to the fact that [they] aren’t interested in anything genital-related while someone else is in the room, and [their] sex drive is very low.” Because Tessa is allosexual and has a high sex drive, creating a mutually gratifying sex life took some work. “After nearly seven years together, we’ve ironed [our insecurities] out—and, in the process, built a sex life that we both find satisfying, exploring a non-traditional definition of sex.”
But how do you buck tradition and redefine society’s limited framing of boinking? Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
What sex acts interest you? Maybe you want to stick to phone sex, or only receive and perform oral, or mutually masturbate using matching wand vibrators (race you to the finish!) Maybe you want to take turns and only one person gets off. Maybe you want to fuck but not kiss. Maybe you want to watch your partner(s) with other people and not participate. What specific acts appeal to you (if any), and which ones are you and your partner(s) mutually interested in cobbling together?
What does “sexual satisfaction” mean to you? Try to think about satisfaction outside of orgasms. What kind of contentment can sex give you? A deeper feeling of closeness with your partner(s)? Pleasant physical exhaustion? Renewed wonder of your body and the things it can do for you and others? When sex is over, what do you want to be feeling, and how can you best reach that kind of euphoria?
As heavy as some of this self-reflection may seem, intimacy is an incredibly expansive topic, and your needs and desires surrounding it will likely fluctuate depending on your lifestyle and partner(s). And it’s your partner(s) who will help you iron out the details – after all, their intimacy needs will factor into your own.
“Your future planning, your sex life, how you travel together, how you fight— it's all determined by how well and in what way you communicate as a couple,” Lea Rose Emery points out for Bustle, “Whether it's in the early stages of a relationship or you've been together forever, communication is necessary to maintain and build intimacy as a couple.”
So go head – get a head start on that emotional intimacy and intellectual engagement… by talking about emotional intimacy and intellectual engagement.