An intimate relationship is an interpersonal relationship that involves physical or emotional intimacy. Physical intimacy is characterized by romantic or passionate sex and attachment, or sexual activity. The term is also sometimes used euphemistically for a sexual relationship. Intimate relationships play a central role in the overall human experience. Humans have a general desire to belong and to love which is usually satisfied within an intimate relationship. Intimate relationships involve physical and sexual attraction between people, liking and loving, romantic feelings and sexual relationships, as well as the seeking of one or more mates and emotional and personal support for the members. Intimate relationships provide a social network for people that provide strong emotional attachments, and fulfill our universal need of belonging and the need to be cared for.
Intimacy generally refers to the feeling of being in a close personal association and belonging together. It is a familiar and very close affective connection with another as a result of a bond that is formed through knowledge and experience of the other. Genuine intimacy in human relationships requires dialogue, transparency, vulnerability and reciprocity. The verb “intimate” means “to state or make known”. The activity of intimating (making known) underpins the meanings of “intimate” when used as a noun and adjective. The noun “intimate” means a person with whom one has a particularly close relationship. This was clarified by Dalton (1959) who discusses how anthropologists and ethnographic researchers access “inside information” from within a particular cultural setting by establishing networks of intimates capable (and willing) to provide information unobtainable through formal channels. The adjective, “intimate” indicates detailed knowledge of a thing or person (e.g., “an intimate knowledge of engineering” and “an intimate relationship between two people”).
In human relationships, the meaning and level of intimacy varies within and between relationships. In anthropological research, intimacy is considered the product of a successful seduction, a process of rapport building that enables parties to confidently disclose previously hidden thoughts and feelings. Intimate conversations become the basis for “confidences” (secret knowledge) that bind people together.
To sustain intimacy for any length of time requires well-developed emotional and interpersonal awareness. Intimacy requires an ability to be both separate and together participants in an intimate relationship. Murray Bowen called this “self-differentiation”. It results in a connection in which there is an emotional range involving both robust conflict, and intense loyalty. Lacking the ability to differentiate oneself from the other is a form of symbiosis, a state that is different from intimacy, even if feelings of closeness are similar.
From a center of self-knowledge and self differentiation, intimate behavior joins family members and close friends as well as those in love. It evolves through reciprocal self-disclosure and candor. Poor skills in developing intimacy can lead to getting too close too quickly; struggling to find the boundary and to sustain connection; being poorly skilled as a friend, rejecting self-disclosure or even rejecting friendships and those who have them. Psychological consequences of intimacy problems are found in adults who have difficultly in forming and maintaining intimate relationships. Individuals often experience the human limitations of their partners, and develop a fear of adverse consequences of disrupted intimate relationships. Studies show that fear of intimacy is negatively related to comfort with emotional closeness and with relationship satisfaction, and positively related to loneliness and trait anxiety.
Types of intimacy
Scholars distinguish between four different forms of intimacy: physical, emotional, cognitive, and experiential. Physical intimacy is sensual proximity or touching, examples include being inside someone’s personal space, holding hands, hugging, kissing, caressing, and other sexual activity. Emotional intimacy, particularly in sexual relationships, typically develops after physical bonds have been established. The emotional connection of “falling in love”, however, has both a biochemical dimension, driven through reactions in the body stimulated by sexual attraction (PEA), and a social dimension driven by “talk” that follows from regular physical closeness or sexual union. Cognitive or intellectual intimacy takes place when two people exchange thoughts, share ideas and enjoy similarities and differences between their opinions. If they can do this in an open and comfortable way, then can become quite intimate in an intellectual area. Experiential intimacy is when two people get together to actively involve themselves with each other, probably saying very little to each other, not sharing any thoughts or many feelings, but being involved in mutual activities with one another. Imagine observing two house painters whose brushstrokes seemed to be playing out a duet on the side of the house. They may be shocked to think that they were engaged in an intimate activity with each other, however from an experiential point of view, they would be very intimately involved.
It is worth distinguishing intimate (communal) relationships from strategic (exchange) relationships. Physical intimacy occurs in the latter but it is governed by a higher-order strategy, of which the other person may not be aware. One example is getting close to someone in order to get something from them or give them something. That “something” might not be offered so freely if it did not appear to be an intimate exchange and if the ultimate strategy had been visible at the outset. Mills and Clark (1982) found that strategic (exchange) relationships are fragile and easily break down when there is any level of disagreement. Emotionally intimate (communal) relationships are much more robust and can survive considerable (and even ongoing) disagreements.
Physical and emotional intimacy
Love is an important factor in physical and emotional intimate relationships. Love is qualitatively and quantitatively different to liking, and the difference is not merely in the presence or absence of sexual attraction. There are two types of love in a relationship; passionate love and companionate love. Companionate love involves diminished potent feelings of attachment, an authentic and enduring bond, a sense of mutual commitment, the profound feeling of mutual caring, feeling proud of a mate’s accomplishment, and the satisfaction that comes from sharing goals and perspective. In contrast, passionate love is marked by infatuation, intense preoccupation with the partner, throes of ecstasy, and feelings of exhilaration that come from being reunited with the partner.
Sleep thou, and I will wind thee in my arms….
So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle gently entwist;
the female ivy so enrings the barky fingers of the elm.
O, how I love thee! How I dote on thee!
– Titania, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 4, Scene 1
Two people who are in an intimate relationship with one another are often called a couple, especially if the members of that couple have placed some degree of permanency to their relationship. These couples often provide the emotional security that is necessary for them to accomplish other tasks, particularly forms of labor or work.