Sex and intimacy in intimate relationships

Is sex enough to create intimacy in committed, long-term relationships?

Sex in a long-term relationship is considered important for most people, although many couples are happy enough without it. But is sex enough to meet the intimacy needs of the relationship? What is intimacy and how do we nurture it? These are some of the questions that will be explored in this follow up from a previous article about passionate and compassionate love.

First, let’s begin by defining intimacy. For this article I shall be looking at two components of intimacy - physical intimacy and emotional intimacy.

Physical intimacy

Physical intimacy is not the same as having sex; it can be any showing of affection through touch. For example, eye gazing, hugging, kissing, cuddling, and stroking. Of course, being sexual and indulging in sexual activity is also a big part in promoting physical intimacy.

Emotional intimacy

Emotional intimacy is about truly knowing and understanding your partner. It is also about trust. It requires vulnerability and self-disclosure, a feeling of being known and accepted, supported, and loved; being truly connected and feeling safe and protected, as in a safe base.

Is sex enough to sustain an intimate relationship?

For some people, especially those that identify as having physical touch as their primary love language (Gary Chapman 'The 5 Love Languages'), sex is their way of expressing love. For these people, any form of physical intimacy is sought to feel connected and loved by their partner.

In his book, Chapman goes on to say that people tend to give love in the way that they receive love. But let's imagine that the partner that prefers a physical touch has a quality 'time love language' partner, who is feeling unloved and unappreciated because they had spent such little time together.

I would imagine that physical touch partner’s advances would be rejected by quality time partner, making it seem like a rejection of love. This may make physical touch withdraw and give even less time to quality time. All this will certainly leave the couple feeling disconnected and saddened by the lack of intimacy.

Cate Campbell, in her Relate Guide to Sex and Intimacy (2015), says that "by no means all, but many men believe that a sexual encounter will cure both general and relationship problems".

In general, I have to admit that sex therapists often see a lot of males who believed this to be true. Men tend to be less in touch with their emotions than most (by all means not all) women. When it comes to emotions, I think it may be true to say that most men don't get it. They are more cut off from emotional intimacy and may find it hard to be intimate without sex. Cate describes it as fewer episodes of felt emotional intimacy but more episodes of sexual desire.

So the answer to the question is both yes and no. Sex for one partner may be the only way he knows how to show love, and that’s how they get a sense of feeling connected. On the other hand, the quality time-starved partner might also feel disconnected and would need to connect before any physical intimacy can occur. Or, in other words, he wants sex to connect and she wants to connect to have sex.

Both are seeking intimacy, but are just different in the way they express and feel their emotions.

What is intimacy and why do we need it?

Intimacy takes time to grow and develop in a long-term relationship. It is about establishing trust and building a bond with your partner.

Through living so closely together, partners can get to truly know the other. It requires us to set ourselves bare and be vulnerable, to allow our partner to see us as we truly are. This requires us to face our fears using the other as a support resource, knowing that the person has got our back covered. It is about feeling safe, a sense of belonging and connection. To be intimate is to be accepted and loved for who you are, and accepting the other just how they are.

Intimacy also makes for an appreciation of your differences, and a celebration of each others' uniqueness. Intimacy is about being able to stay emotionally connected even when problem-solving. It allows you not to withhold what we think to stay connected. Intimacy for some is a sense of 'us' as a team tackling life’s sometimes perilous journey.

When we feel intimate, we are more likely to show affection to our partner, building to sexual activity. Sex with a strong emotional connection becomes a shared exercise in giving and receiving pleasure. The benefits to health that intimate relationships develop has been well researched. For example, regular ejaculation is said to lower the risk of prostate cancer. Sexually active people have much higher levels of antibodies and hormones which reduce inflammation and help with healing.

So it would appear that intimacy in the relationship is worth pursuing and nurturing.

How to grow and nurture more intimacy into the relationship

Listed below are five points on how to develop more intimacy;

  • connect to self
  • get to truly know your self
  • do something you never did before as a couple
  • communicate and share
  • just be you

Connect to self

Real intimacy, like love, begins with self. If you can be intimate with yourself, it will make it so much easier for your partner to be intimate with you. Many people struggle with this because of many reasons such as trauma, abuse, and childhood neglect. If you find that you are one of these people, exploring this with a professional may be beneficial. Choosing the right therapist for you will be important.

You will need a therapist that can create a safe space which allows for mutual respect and trust. This relationship with the therapist is indeed intimate, offering an opportunity to learn and grow. Self-care is very important. As well as seeking therapy for the underlying courses, I highly recommend Karin Brauner's 20 self-care habits for some useful tips on ways to care for ourselves.

Get to know yourself

We spend a lot of time and energy on our relationships with others, but the reality is that we are born alone and will probably die alone. It is therefore important to work on the relationship with ourselves. Acceptance of all parts of ourselves is gained through learning about what makes us tick.

Self-knowledge puts you, and not your thoughts, in charge. It promotes independence and self-awareness and makes you the expert of yourself. With this in mind, completing the five love languages quiz (see above) will help you with getting to know yourself better.

Do something new as a couple

Doing something new with your partner has been found to have neurological effects on the brain. New experiences have been found to light up the same areas of the brain as madly in love couples. Take up a dance class; indulge in a mutual hobby; talk and share.

Communicate and share

Take time to reconnect with your partner. Have heartfelt conversations about what you both need, and most importantly express how you are feeling to one another. Sometimes, busy lives make this difficult to find the time. In these situations, there is always time for a quick hug to reconnect.

Just be you

Gaining self-knowledge gives you confidence, and this allows for an understanding that you may not be perfect but you are good enough and lovable.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Pasquale Forcellati PGdip, NCS Accred Relationship and Psychosexual Therapist

2004 I started working for the NHS as a Mental Health Advocate, trained as Psychodynamic Therapist,become a qualified as Couples Counselor in 2010. Went onto to becoming a Sex and Addiction Therapist. My. areas of specialisms are working with couples experiencing issues around
intimacy, and partners recovering from compulsive behavior.… Read more

Written by Pasquale Forcellati PGdip, NCS Accred Relationship and Psychosexual Therapist

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