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Intimacy vs. Sex

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

The well-groomed young couple settled into the matching navy, velvet club chairs in my office, and glanced at one another. After a beat, the young woman turned to me, and gingerly proffered:

“We’re here because we need to work on our intimacy.”

“General intimacy, emotional intimacy, or physical intimacy? Or all of the above?” I inquire.

They look at each other, and he replies: “Physical, I think.”

A generic opening to an intake session.

Depending on the vibe I get from the couple, I may offer them some permutation of the following shpiel:

A common colloquial practice within our communities, is to substitute the word “intimacy” for sex or sexual intercourse. It’s understood that many individuals or groups are uncomfortable with the explicitness or connotation of the word “sex,” but there can be some ambiguity with this particular choice of euphemism.

Intimacy is its own word, with its own specific, almost sacred, meaning. It implies closeness, a sense being open, a sequential revealing of one’s inner self to another, fueled by trust, connection, and understanding. There are a number of different relationships which can be characterized, healthily, as intimate, only one of them being sexual in nature. For example, you can have an intimate gathering of old friends, an intimate conversation with a mentor, and feel intimately connected to your family. Intimacy can be deep and serious or playful and easy.

Sexual activity and intercourse, on the other hand, are not necessary always intimate. Some extreme examples are sexual violence, prostitution, or a one night stand with a stranger, which are all very much the opposite of intimate. Even within a loving and/ or committed relationship, not all forms of sexual activity are experienced intimately by either or both parties.  (Nor, do they always necessarily need to be.)

Some couples want to work on general intimacy; they find their lives together to feel more like polite roommate- acquaintances than significant others. Other couples are more connected personally, but they want to improve emotional intimacy, and that aspect of their relationship may or may not be impeding their sexual relationship. And some have trouble in bed with technique or pleasure, but they have achieved a sophisticated level of emotional intimacy. This is why I need to know which form of intimacy is to be their focus. They don’t always have clarity on this themselves, yet, and in that case, part of the work includes trying to determine the answer in session, which will help us formulate clear therapeutic goals. 

I think that one of the problems we tend to have, culturally, is that we expect a lot out of sex right from the get-go. For Orthodox couples who are beginning their sexual relationship on the wedding night, in one fell swoop, that is a tall, sometimes unrealistic, order. We want it to be: immediate, natural, holy, pleasurable, generous, exclusive, exciting, but safe, disinhibited but discreet, recreational but reproductive, and, of course, able to be turned on and off every couple of weeks, and then sustained through a couple of decades worth of pregnancies, night feedings, and parenting the brood.

All this, often right as they are first beginning to really know* each other properly, depending on how extensively they dated, and generally don’t have much experience with technique or even vocabulary.

[*Biblical carnal knowledge shares the identical root with the word for regular knowledge, yediah, but the Torah also has other words for nonintimate sexual engagement.]

Sex, like intimacy, is a skill, a practice that takes time to learn and develop. We understand and expect a learning curve in the interpersonal realm, yet we often have less patience and more fear when it comes to the sexual. Some babies walk and talk at an early age, and some are delayed. Still others are advanced cognitively, but slower with gross motor skills, and others demonstrate the reverse. Likewise, some couples discover sexual chemistry along the same track as their emotional chemistry, whether fast or slow, and others develop them at different paces. And just like some toddlers need a little help and guidance with those vital skills, some couples may need some support along the way, too. But unlike the skills of walking and talking, which are somewhat uniform, there is a lot of complexity and subjectivity in sexual experience, which needs to evolve within each relationship too.

A particularly painful but common scenario, is when one partner is making love, but the other one is simply having sex, and not especially enjoying it, just doing so as sort of a marital chore. Or as one spouse told me said: “He has a much better marriage than I do.”

In terms of physical intimacy, I like to group the needs into two basic sets: instinctive and psychospiritual. The instinctive need is more like a base animal mating appeal, and this could hypothetically be satisfied by any warm body of the desired gender. This is the need for sex. The psychospiritual need is more refined, and it stems from the human desire for mutual intimacy, wanting to give and receive pleasure, to desire and feel desirable, to connect and communicate heartfelt thoughts and feelings through our flesh. This is the need for erotic love.  

There is a palpable difference between having sex and making love, and while a healthy marriage will usually crave the ability for intimate love-making, it’s actually possible for both to feel great.

There can be intimacy without sex, and there can be sex without intimacy, and there can be sexual intimacy. So whether you favor deeply intimate conversation, passionate, connective, lovemaking, or just a spontaneous quickie, it’s wonderful to learn the art of each, over time, and eventually have them all in your relationship toolbox.

I hope that those who read these words and relate, take them as encouragement to be kind and patient with themselves and their spouses, but also to research and reach out for appropriate help if they feel they are struggling in these areas; a little good help can go a very long way. Wishing all my dear readers the precious twin gifts of genuine intimacy as well as great sex.

*Do you wish you had learned more about healthy, spiritually informed sex as a child? Do you want to educate your own family better? Or maybe your own inner child? Take a look at this guide:

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