NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, December 26, 2020

What's the Difference Between Sexual and Emotional Intimacy?

Many people use the words "intimacy" and "sex" interchangeably. They talk about being intimate when what they really mean is being sexual. But even though there's often a connection between being emotionally intimate and being sexual, these two expressions aren't synonymous, so the purpose of this article is to understand these terms better and understand how differing needs can create problems (see my article: Emotional Vulnerability as a Pathway to Greater Emotional Intimacy).

What's the Difference Between Sex and Intimacy?

What is Emotional Intimacy in a Committed Relationship?
Emotional intimacy in a committed relationship occurs when two people can be open, emotionally vulnerable, and experience an emotional connection with one another.  

In addition to sharing their hopes and dreams, two people in an emotionally intimate relationship also share their more vulnerable side--their fears, failures, embarrassing moments, and traumatic experiences.  

To be able to share themselves in this vulnerable way, there must be a high level of trust that these vulnerabilities won't be used against them in an argument or shared inappropriately with others.  

Emotional intimacy doesn't happen overnight.  It develops over time in a committed relationship.  It's a process.  As two people in a relationship get to know one another, they learn to take emotional risks with each other as love and trust develop.  

What's the Difference Between Sex and Intimacy?
For two people, who have access to their emotions, sex often provides a way to connect on a physical as well as a deep emotional level.  However, for people who are mostly cut off from their emotions, sex is primarily a physical act and lacks depth and emotional connection.

This is, of course, a generalization and there are gradations of experience.  But for the purpose of distinguishing sex and intimacy, it's obvious that sex and intimacy aren't the same thing.  

For people who are primarily cut off from their emotions, sex in a relationship can be primarily about lust or it can be a way to relieve stress, anxiety, loneliness or other uncomfortable experiences (see my article: 7 Signs Your Relationship is Based on Lust and Not Love).

Sex can provide a temporary respite from emotional discomfort, but that comfort doesn't last. But when sex is combined with emotional intimacy, two people often experience a deep, loving connection.

This doesn't mean that a loving couple always wants this level of emotional intensity.  There can be times when sex can be more playful or flirtatious or focused on lust.

Intimacy Doesn't Always Involve Sex
Although the combination of sex and emotional intimacy can be powerful, there are many ways to be emotionally intimate that don't always involve sex: Cuddling in front of a fireplace, kissing, sharing deeply personal experiences, and so on, can also be emotionally intimate.

Differences in Comfort With Intimacy
Two people in a relationship can differ in terms of how comfortable each of them feels with various levels of intimacy.  One partner might want deeper and more frequent experiences of emotional intimacy while the other partner might not want such a deep, intimate committed connection (see my articles: Emotional Pursuers and Emotional Distancers).

Over time, this is something that will have to be negotiated between the two people if they are to remain together.

Sex as a Prerequisite for Intimacy vs Intimacy as a Prerequisite for Sex
Whereas some people feel sex is a prerequisite for emotional intimacy, other people need to feel an intimate emotional connection first before they become sexual with their partners.  

There is no right or wrong way involved with either of these needs.  What's important is that each person understand their own wants and needs as well as the wants and needs of their partner, and they work together to satisfy each of their needs.

Problems With Sex or Intimacy in a Relationship
Since two people can have very different ways of connecting sexually and emotionally, misunderstandings often develop.

For example, as mentioned above, if one person needs sex to feel emotionally intimate and the other person needs emotional intimacy to have sex, a couple can get stuck in ongoing conflicts about these issues.

Similarly, conflict can develop if one partner tends to withdraw emotionally when the other partner pursues a deeper emotional connection.

Getting Help in Therapy
The issues mentioned in this article are common problems.

If you and your partner are having problems, you can work through these problems with the help of an experienced psychotherapist (see my article: Emotionally Focused Therapy For Couples (EFT): Are You Reaching For Each Other or Turning Away?).

With the right help, you and your partner can have a more loving and fulfilling relationship.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Therapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.