Intimacy, Intimate Connection, and Sex
I’ve noticed that many people equate intimacy and sex. They might say; “the last time we were intimate” referring to the last time they had a sexual encounter.
Here’s the thing: sex isn’t necessarily intimate. You may have had sex that is the furthest thing from intimacy. You may also have had an intimate connection that had nothing to do with sex.
So what is intimacy?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines intimacy as the “inmost thoughts or feelings; proceeding from, concerning, or affecting one’s inmost self: closely personal.”
Simple yet elusive for many. It is by sharing our innermost thoughts and feelings we can actually be known by another. Like a dog rolling over and showing its belly, we open ourselves up for love— and hurt. And we yearn to be known. Being known and then accepted is where we derive our sense of belonging.
“Can I love someone without being vulnerable? Vulnerability scares me but I want love.”
Intimacy requires vulnerability and presence. It is openness and honesty. It isn’t a performance. Pretending is a big rip-off! Pretending (even to yourself) to be happy, faking orgasms, or feigning interest are all ways you shortchange yourself out of intimate connection and settle for an emptier life. I listened to a lecture recently identifying shyness as a barrier to intimacy. Shyness, insecurity, shame… yes. And the payoff for feeling reticent — and reaching out or allowing someone in anyway— is actually being seen and known by someone. That’s the best.
Sex without Intimacy is fine. Sex with Intimacy is different: richer, deeper.
Some people prefer to have sex that is JUST sex; un-emotional, detached, physically focused. They prefer to bail immediately afterward before their guard lets down, before feelings are noticed by others. For these people, sex that takes place in intimate connection is too close, too feeling, requires too much emotional communication. The thought of that much emotional exposure is a turn-off. It may feel dangerous.
“Hot sex, cold heart.” You may remember the Zipless Fuck from the novel Fear of Flying by Erica Jong: zipless because it comes out of nowhere and ends without expectation of a relationship. There is nothing wrong with a casual sexual encounter. BUT: If it leaves you feeling empty, devalued, or lonelier than before, you may want more intimacy. Casual is not good for everyone.
Friends with Benefits is a casual arrangement. Just sex, but with a friend. The risk of “catching feelings” is real. The physicality of sex can amplify feelings. Friendship feelings were already there, but maybe you didn’t expect to feel so close or care so much. It can get awkward, especially if you aren’t wanting more closeness, or your partner doesn’t reciprocate your feelings.
Entering into intimate connection with another can activate all sorts of things: grasping at our partner and attempting to merge, a feeling of suffocation and the desire to flee, fairytale fantasies of happily ever after, feelings of deep personal unworthiness, idolizing our partner, feelings of entitlement. It may conjure memories of former relationships that didn’t end well. Feelings are messy, uncool. And. Feelings are core to the human experience.
Intimacy in sex can be grand. Glorious! It can touch us in our deepest places. We can feel loved and accepted at the most profound level. And it can open us up to being hurt in our deepest places.
It’s so worth it.
Creating Intimacy with yourself, Creating Intimacy with Others
To create intimate sex, start with yourself.
Expand your idea of what intimacy is and who can have it. Let’s start with you. Make a practice of taking inventory of your actual thoughts and feelings, preferences and desires. Sometimes when I ask people “Sexually, relationally, what do you want?” I am met with confused silence. Squirming. Sometimes I am met with a pat answer that came from old beliefs, societal expectations, institutional mores.
Some reasons we pursue sex and relationship might be in search of a feeling state or a particular relationship status. If you are a person who typically fits yourself into other people’s worlds instead of expecting them to fit themselves into yours, you may not know any of this about yourself.
Keep asking the question: what do I want? Stay with it until you have an inkling and build on it. (This might take a while. Be patient.) Maybe start with a specific question about where you find pleasure, like what temperature water you enjoy (hat-tip to Esther Perel); a hot shower or a freezing cold river, a jacuzzi or a flotation tank, a bath or a waterfall. What type of touch do you like? Getting lightly grazed by fingernails, or warm hands firmly squeezing your muscles, or maybe you don’t enjoy being touched at all.
We all have beliefs which stand in the way between expectations and self-knowledge. You may believe you are having the wrong type of orgasm, and the “right” type will be life-changing.
You may believe that is important to have sex frequently because you are married and that’s what married people do. Or maybe your partner expects it and you feel validated when you do that, even if you don’t actually enjoy the sex.
You may come from a family that gets married and stays married, and to not be married would be failure.
Considering beliefs like these and paying attention to the feelings that arise with them is the underpinning of intimacy with your sweet self.
So… how do you be intimate with others? You can selectively practice intimacy with many people in your world. When someone asks you how you are, take a second and give a real response. Maybe you’re tired, or distracted by something that happened yesterday, or excited about your vacation coming up. Maybe you are needing to talk to someone and really glad they asked. Dare to be real.
Try it. Maybe with the clerk in the grocery store, who is a real person.
–Make eye contact with them.
–Ask how they are and LISTEN to their response. Don’t rush it.
–Then thank them.
It’s that simple. Try it with a friend you would welcome knowing better. Try it with a family member. Share with them a truth about yourself. Invite them to share something real with you.
Being honest with yourself
I have worked with people who have discovered they had sex with their partner because they believed they were supposed to. When we took away the directive, they didn’t want sex at all. They were finally intimate with themselves, acknowledging their true desire to NOT be sexual, at least with their partner. How liberating!
I have worked with people who were in a relationship because they believed it was the only valid way to live a life. When they became intimate with themselves and acknowledged their actual desires, They discovered they preferred to be alone. That is freedom.
I have worked with people who seek sex and want relationship because they believe those things will make them happy. I can’t blame them for thinking that, it is our shared fantasy. Culturally we have a bias for being married and for being perceived as sexual: our worth is derived from being wanted.
As my best friend Gwenn says: the trick with relationships is to find the proper distance so you can adore the other. Some people you want to keep really close, others more distant. I add to that: you need the ability to be aware of yourself while in the presence of the other. If you get too close, you can lose your sense of self. Too far away and you lose connection to your partner.
One thing that happened for many people in the pandemic is they became less intimate with the people with whom they were isolating, ironically because they were too close. Instead of feeling more connected, they felt trapped. Many became bored and annoyed with their partner’s constant presence. By being mostly indoors in close quarters, many created distance by ignoring their partner. Successful intimate relationship is always the balance of closeness and separateness. Intimacy is not the absence of “space-between-us,” it is inter-penetration while allowing for privacy.
Dating and Intimacy
In dating, a huge question is ‘what do I reveal and when?’ A chronic illness, a messy divorce, a difficult relationship with substances, children… What you share depends on the type of relationship you are in and/or hoping for.
What makes intimacy scary is the fear of rejection. If you show something of your deepest self to another and they reject you, it hurts more because it’s personal. You’re like the dog having shown its belly and getting bitten. You may need to review what you share and with whom.
With a casual dating relationship, you don’t need to share much. If you are looking to build a more substantive relationship, wait a few dates to share more details once you feel this person deserves to know you. For example, on a sex-only date you may not want to mention you have young children at home, or you have diabetes, or you are in recovery from addiction. Not revealing these important things in a more meaningful relationship will be damaging to your developing intimacy. Once you know you are interested in them and want to develop trust, open that intimate space between you and share something meaningful. Wouldn’t you want to know?
You can do it!
Intimacy is available to you. If you have questions about how to open yourself to more intimacy, email me to set up an appointment.