Is Intimacy Just Code For Sex?

by | Feb 23, 2022

  “Intimacy” is often used as a code word for sex (admit it, you do it too).
But it’s so much more than that!

Here at Gilly, we’re all about helping you strengthen the intimacy and connection in your relationship. And if we’re going to talk about intimacy, we need to get on the same page about what that means. 

Intimacy describes a whole category of feelings, including closeness, connection, and safety. 

And yes, having sex is one way to foster feelings of intimacy, but it’s far from the only way.

So we’re taking a deep dive into different kinds of intimacy, how they are intertwined and most importantly, what this can mean for your relationship.

Before you get overwhelmed by the length of this piece, you should know — with reference articles like this, it’s the parts you need right now that are likely to stand out. Other parts you might gloss over (it won’t hurt our feelings, we promise!) 

We invite you to bookmark this page and come back to it the next time you need some intimacy inspiration (or sign up for Gilly and let our app help you with that!)

• • 

Intimacy over time

Do you ever get nostalgic over memories from when you and your partner were first dating? Or from a time before kids? Or just the good ol’ days, in general? 

Oh, how easy it was to lose yourself in the moment and let passion take over. Getting turned on, having amazing sex just came so naturally and spontaneously.

The early days of relationship building are often so delicious because we’re actively and intentionally cultivating intimacy. 

And here’s some food for thought: That process begins before we’ve even had sex with someone.

It’s understandable to use our dating days as a reference point for the fun and excitement we want to feel, but it’s not fair to make a direct comparison. While the thrill of early dates stands out in our memories, there’s a lot of hidden work that we tend to forget!

When we’re first dating, it’s not just the relationship with the other person that’s different, it’s our lives, too. Often, life was much simpler, and we had a lot more time to dedicate to intimacy. For example, maybe on Monday you made a date for Friday night. Then you had all week to look forward to it; to text or chat on the phone making plans, and to build anticipation. During that time you’d also clean your house, plan your outfit, prepare a meal, and get in the right headspace. Then, at the end of the date, maybe you fell into bed together. 

Five or ten years later we remember the falling into bed part, but not all the prep work that took place. As lives get busier and more complicated, spending a week preparing for a date night just isn’t feasible. And that’s okay! Because that early form of lust is just one aspect of intimacy. 

When a relationship has had time to build and grow, we have access to forms of intimacy that are difficult to even dream of when we’ve just started dating. 

While it feels temptingly easy to want to get back to how things were, here’s our gentle reminder that “going back” isn’t a helpful (or even feasible?) goal. Instead, use the memories of things that you enjoyed to help map out things you want in the future. Because relationships are always growing and shifting and moving to the next level of intimacy. 

• • 

How can you cultivate more intimacy?

Relationship experts often equate intimacy with attention. They tell couples to look out for the ways their partner is trying to connect, and to avoid missing those opportunities. While this is good advice in theory, time and attention are limited! 

But there’s good news, it’s also possible to cultivate intimacy using small, manageable chunks of time. 

In the now infamous study, The 36 Questions That Lead to Love, the questions themselves get most of the attention. But the final step in that study was maintaining eye contact for two to four minutes. At first read, that may not sound like a lot of time. But as the study showed, when attention is sustained and intense, even two minutes can have a strong impact. 

Luckily, eye gazing isn’t the only way to focus attention on a partner and build connection. 

And spoiler alert:  this is exactly what Gilly was created for — helping couples pay attention to each other (in manageable, bite-sized chunks of time.) 

• • 

Physical intimacy

When thinking about intimacy, we often think of touch. Not just sex, but also hugging, kissing, and cuddling. That’s because all of these activities are strong oxytocin triggers, and oxytocin plays an important role in bonding. 

Simply sharing casual touch — a squeeze of the arm as you pass each other, a meaningful kiss hello or goodbye — can bolster feelings of intimacy and closeness. As Dr. Justin Lehmiller writes for the Kinsey Institute, “Study after study has found that couples who touch each other more tend to be happier. From backrubs to gentle caresses to hand-holding to hugging, the more intimate contact couples have with one another, the more satisfied they tend to be with their relationships.”

Just because the importance of touch often gets emphasized, doesn’t mean there’s one “right” amount of physical intimacy to have in a relationship. In fact, if you’re familiar with the concept of Love Languages, you know that touch is only one of five styles of connection they discuss. (And even narrowing it down to five is an oversimplification.)

Different people need different amounts of touch.
And those needs change over time.

Not just year to year but also day to day. A variety of factors affect how much and what kind of touch someone will be interested. For example, simply being tired can change someone’s relationship to being touched. And I’ve never met a parent who wasn’t tired! 

Hanging out with babies or children can also complicate the relationship with touch. If you’ve spent hours with tiny humans hanging onto you, it’s possible that the last thing you’ll want in your limited downtime is even more touch. 

The only way to navigate these constantly shifting needs is to talk to each other. Let your partner know if you’re feeling like you’ve been touched too much, or if you’re craving additional physical connection. While partners’ can’t meet every need, just having the conversation in an open and vulnerable way builds intimacy. 

Does the idea of these conversations feel overwhelming? Here’s a way to make it a little more manageable.

• •

Try to start over from scratch

Remember at the beginning of this article we talked about using our dating days as inspiration? When we’re getting to know someone we’re also getting to know how they like to be touched. That means finding things out like whether or not someone is ticklish, how hard they want their shoulders squeezed during a massage, and whether scratching their back makes them purr.  

Over time, we start to take for granted that we know what our partners do and don’t like — and that means we start making assumptions rather than asking. 

On top of that, people are often reluctant to speak up when their preferences have changed, because they don’t want to hurt their partner’s feelings.  

These two tendencies can combine to make touch feel more difficult to give or receive.  

That’s where starting from scratch comes in. Try to pretend that you’re still getting to know your partner and you don’t know what they’ll like, or when. Simply ask before you touch. It can be as simple as, “Hey honey, are you in the mood for a hug?” Or if you’re already touching, such as giving a massage, try asking, “Would you like this harder or softer?”

 • • 

Emotional Intimacy

An article about intimacy from Northwestern University states, “Research evidence tells us that the presence of intimacy in our lives — feeling understood, accepted and cared for — strongly influences our overall physical and emotional well-being. Intimacy builds from many sources, including the quality of a partner’s responsiveness during conversation…”

But here’s the thing. Having the kind of conversations that build emotional intimacy requires us to be vulnerable. And vulnerability can be terrifying! 

And here’s the really wild, counterintuitive thing — it can actually be easier to be vulnerable with a stranger, or someone we’re still getting to know, than with someone who’s important in our lives. 

I know! At first glance, it doesn’t make any sense. 

This happens because when we open up to another person and share something vulnerable, there’s a fear of rejection, or of being judged. And while rejection is never fun, it’s a lot easier to manage from a stranger, or from someone we’re still getting to know. The idea of being judged by someone whose opinion really matters to us is much scarier. 

The result of this paradox is that early in relationships it may feel easier to share personal stories, feelings, sexual interests, and other intimacies. But over time, these conversations may become less frequent. 

In a weird way, it’s a good sign. It means your partner’s opinion is very important to you. But it’s also important to bring some of that vulnerability back. 

How can busy couples find a way to bring back the vulnerable side of conversations? 

Just like we talked about with physical touch, you can start by making small changes. 

If you usually answer the question, “How was your day?” with a list of the things you did, we invite you to try adding how you’re feeling. This can help make day-to-day conversations more intimate.

In fact, the more often you can share your feelings, the better. Sharing a feeling allows your partner to respond with empathy. Whereas simply sharing facts can get similarly functional answers. 

Maybe you’ve noticed this pattern?

Sometimes it happens when we just want to be listened to, and instead the other person tries to fix our problems. This impulse is coming from a good place, but it doesn’t always land right if it’s not what we need at the moment. 

Here’s another tool we invite you to try: be clear about the kind of feedback you’re looking for. For example, you could say, “I’ve had a rough day and I just want to vent about it and get some empathy.” Or, “I’m having a problem and I’d appreciate it if you could brainstorm solutions with me.” Understanding the difference between practical or emotional support can take a lot of the frustration out of trying to connect, and can lead to more intimate conversations. 

And — you’ve guessed it — the Gilly app can also help you have more intimate, vulnerable conversations 😉

• • 

Novelty and shared experiences

Going on exotic vacations together can be a fantastic shared experience that helps build intimacy, but for most people, vacations are few and far between. The good news is that you don’t need to travel to an island paradise to have a shared experience! 

Try focusing on shared projects that aren’t too time consuming, or can be spread over a long period. This could mean working on a crossword together a few minutes at a time, solving the day’s Wordle before bed, or having a jigsaw puzzle laid out on a table that you can take breaks to work on. Even a spontaneous midday trip to run errands or pick up a coffee together while the kids are in school counts! 

You can also find new skills to build together. Maybe learning a language through an app and spending five minutes a day practicing your conversation skills, or watching YouTube videos before bed to help plan a household renovation or spring garden project. 

And to answer your question, yes, watching a show together also counts as a shared experience. Not only is the time spent together valuable, but a shared experience gives you something to talk about. When time is too limited to settle in for an interruption-free Netflix binge (ha! We can dream, right?), consider listening to the same podcast during the day on your own, and then sharing your thoughts about it when you do have a few moments together. 

• • 

Sexual intimacy

Congratulations on reading this far! Yes, now we’re going to talk about sex. 

By now, hopefully we’ve shown that there are many valuable ways to build intimacy other than sexual connection. Even so, sex is an important element of intimacy for many people. 

Remember our friend oxytocin from the physical intimacy section above? Numerous studies have shown that sex is a good way to get a big dose. “Sexual relationships are linked to oxytocin release. In humans, the peak of oxytocin seems to coincide with orgasm.”

If you’re hoping to increase your sexual intimacy, focusing on deepening other forms of intimacy can help.

When physical and emotional intimacy are present, it can be easier to connect with feelings of sexual intimacy, too. That’s because for many couples, arousal comes more easily when feelings of trust and safety are present. 

Unfortunately, the reverse can also be true. When couples are having less sex, other forms of physical intimacy sometimes fall away. Unless you’re a unicorn couple (ahem, congratulations), this “dip” is a common occurrence for many couples with kids.

It’s a shame that we don’t have more opportunities to talk openly about sex, because lack of information can leave people feeling lost or confused when their body’s reactions change — or when their partner’s body changes. But these fluctuations are normal, natural, and common.  

We said it above but it’s worth saying again — sex isn’t the only form of intimacy that counts! Even the Kinsey Institute article we quoted made sure to emphasize this point, “Certainly, sexual touch is important, too, but non-sexual physical contact appears to have unique benefits.” 

All of the communication techniques we outlined above for casual touch apply for sexual touch, too. And that kind of slow-down can be especially helpful if sex is feeling tricky.  

Even pioneering sex researchers Masters and Johnson focused on the importance non-sexual, non-goal-oriented touch when they developed their sensate focus technique, “The idea behind sensate focus is that it allows the couple to relax and be mindful of the sensual touching experience, without being weighed down by preconceived ideas of what ‘should’ happen.” 

• • 

Expand your definition of sex

Another game changer when it comes to sexual intimacy is simply having a more flexible and inclusive definition of sex. 

Our brains and our bodies simply aren’t always on the same page. It’s possible to want sexual intimacy at times when penetrative sex simply isn’t a good fit. (No pun intended.) 

On these occasions, think about other ways to engage in sexuality and sensuality. There are countless ways to give and receive pleasure such as exchanging sensual messages, engaging in mutual masturbation, or using hands, mouths, or toys on each other. 

Having more options and activities on the menu may make it easier to engage in sexual or sensual play more often. 

 • • 

Can a relationship survive without intimacy?

We see how often this question gets googled so we know this is a common fear. 

The short answer? No, a relationship can’t survive without intimacy. But remember!! We’ve just spent a few thousand words exploring different forms of intimacy. And we’ve still barely scratched the surface. 

For a relationship to last, partners need to feel a sense of intimacy and closeness. They need to feel connected to their partner. They need to feel seen and understood. 

But we have a pretty good idea of what people really mean when they’re googling this question: they’re wondering if a relationship can survive without sex

Another short answer? Yes, a relationship can survive without sex. 

Okay, okay. We’re not mind readers, but we’re pretty sure we can guess what some people might be thinking right now. 

But it FEELS like I’ll die without sex.” 

Emily Nagoski talks at length about these feelings in her fabulous book, Come As You Are. But here’s the short version: sex isn’t, scientifically speaking, a drive. Meaning, we won’t actually die without sex (even when it feels like it), as we would without food, water, or sufficient shelter. 

But that fact doesn’t change the feelings. And the feelings matter.  

This is a huge part of why Gilly was created — to help couples navigate, and talk about, these feelings.  

To sum up: 

  • There are lots of forms of intimacy
  • Intimacy doesn’t have to include sex
  • But sex can also be great

There are plenty of reasons a relationship might be sexless for a while. (Ahem, childbirth.) And many couples go through these phases. As uncomfortable, frustrating, or even scary as it might be when it’s happening, we hope it’s a relief to know you’re not alone.  

Studies even show that spending periods of time without having sex doesn’t necessarily diminish the intensity of the relationship. 

We know this topic can feel complicated or sensitive. And that it can feel tricky to navigate different levels of sexual desire in a relationship. 

But don’t lose hope! This is exactly what we’re here to help with. We’ve got lots of tools and tips for you, and we’ll be covering many of them in our next blog post — and even more are available on the app. 

• • 

Sounds great, but now what do I do with all this information!

We get it. This was A LOT. Intimacy is a big subject and we want to provide you with complete and accurate information. 

But we also know how limited your time is. That’s why our app focuses on quick and meaningful ways to build or maintain intimacy in your relationship. In just minutes, you can use Gilly to explore playful and powerful exercises & games created by experts, curated to help you and your partner connect, play and love. 

The Gilly app is now in Beta.


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