Axes of Intimacy
Intimacy is the foundation of a healthy relationship, romantic or not. Intimacy is not a given, it is cultivated over a period of time, by those involved. When we speak about intimacy in the context of romantic relationships, it’s different from lust or attraction. In fact the neuroanatomy of intimacy and attraction are different.
One isn’t “better” than the other, but they just have different goals.
So, what is intimacy? Intimacy is that feeling of closeness or connectedness that we feel with another individual. It makes us feel safe, comfortable and free to explore and express ourselves without the fear of judgement from the other person.
Intimacy is critical for all types of close relationships - friends, family, etc.
For the purpose of this newsletter, I’ll stick to discussing intimacy in romantic relationships, particularly marriages. Broadly, there are three axes of intimacy - physical, emotional and intellectual. While the boundaries may vary based on nature and age of the relationship, the same axes apply to most romantic relationships:
1. Physical Intimacy
If you’re having more sex than your friends, you must be winning physical intimacy in your marriage, ain’t that right? That’s how most of us think. Women freely discuss these things with their friends, so at least they have some metric for measuring physical intimacy, but men?
Most men don’t know how much sex their married friends are having, so they only hope that it’s less than themselves. People tend to over index on the frequency of sexual intercourse to measure physical intimacy, but I think it’s a limited view.
The base layer of physical intimacy in a romantic relationship is safety and comfort. Do you feel safe and comfortable with physical touch from your partner and vice-versa, even if it’s as simple as holding hands in the privacy of your home?
It’s the same level of permission you may have given or received in other platonic relationships such as with a parent, sibling, child or a friend in your life. This involves holding hands, cuddling, stroking, hugs, pecks or just occasional pats on the back.
The more comfortable you are with your partner, the more frequently you are likely to engage in such physical display of affection or intimacy.
Once that safety and comfort is well established, you may be able to explore and express more freely, physically speaking. Sex is a vulnerable act (we don’t go around getting naked with everyone), and most people have sex before they feel wholly safe to be vulnerable and accept their partner’s vulnerabilities.
It’s probably also why most people have sex with the lights turned off.
But is it truly physical intimacy if you haven’t spent hours watching and exploring each others’ bodies and truly experienced physical touch? The boundaries for what is acceptable and what is not may vary with individuals and couples, but if you haven’t explored enough, chances are you haven’t discovered your real boundaries either.
The exploration is gradual and continuous over the length of the relationship (or at least until the relevant equipments are working, whichever is earlier). So, if you haven’t begun exploring together freely, it’s never too late to start, even if it’s just holding hands or giving each other a hug everyday.
2. Emotional Intimacy
At a very nascent level, this is what separates a friend from a best friend. It’s that closeness we feel with someone because they understand us like no one else does, they’re the first ones we want to share our deepest darkest secrets and life updates with and they are deeply interested in listening to us and knowing how we feel.
Do you feel excited about sharing everything with your partner in confidence that they’ll never take any part of this conversation out of the room or out of context? Do they listen? Do you feel heard? Do you feel understood? Do they reciprocate your emotions? Are you able to do all of the same for them?
Just like with sexual libido, two individuals in a relationship may have a different appetite and ability to express and reciprocate emotions. Often, this causes a rift in relationships. It’s not just for the lack of trying, it’s also physiological.
Did you know that different parts of the brain gets activated in men and women in response to positive and negative words? So, in essence, we process emotions differently. But do we always now how to maximise emotional expression or reciprocation as a couple? No.
But that’s not grounds for not trying at all. In fact, the level of emotional intimacy two people can achieve is unique to them, and as with physical intimacy, it’s a continuous journey of exploration (assuming the relevant neural equipments are functioning).
3. Intellectual Intimacy
It’s the closeness you feel with someone from discussing views, ideas, etc. It’s the comfort that you share with someone to fearlessly voice your thoughts, opinions and intellect. This is the stuff that sapiosexuals thrive on.
If physical intimacy is a connection with the yoni and the phallus, emotional connection with hearts, then intellectual intimacy is the connection between brains.
You don’t need to always concur with each others’ views, as long as these exchanges are resulting in enriching conversations, learning and growth. The key ingredient for developing this sort of intimacy in a couple is not a match of IQs, but curiosity.
Curiosity about the world and curiosity about each other.
In a marriage, it’s as important to see ourselves as two individuals, as it is to see ourselves as a couple. When each of us remains intellectually curious and sharp, we can build intellectual intimacy together with our independent world views.
Intellectual intimacy can result in expanding the gamut of experiences you share as a couple, which can result in greater physical and emotional intimacy as well. An off-shoot of intellectual intimacy is also spiritual intimacy, which is beyond logic and cognition. It’s a result of shared values or beliefs, and goes beyond theism.
Last weekend, my husband and I went on a wildlife safari in a rainforest. We didn’t spot any wild animals, we both just sat in the jeep quietly daydreaming while being driven around the jungle. We were both at peace (unlike our daughter who was immensely bored and annoyed for not getting her money’s worth of wildlife).
Somehow, sharing that experience together brought us close, even if it was just momentarily - not physically or emotionally, but I’ll say spiritually.
There are other forms of intimacy depending on what you deem important in your life, but whatever your individual axes of intimacy are, I strongly believe that you can’t overcompensate on one axes to make up for the lack of intimacy on another.
They are all independent variables that influence the health of a relationship, and you need to necessarily have “passing marks” (this can vary for each couple) to build and sustain a healthy relationship. You may or may not end up getting full marks (whatever that means) along every axis, but that must not stop you from trying.
As I’ve said many times before, no one person can make or break a relationship. If two people do not come together to repair a relationship at the same time, this will build resentment in your partner who is trying, and chances are that they’ll be less likely to work with you when you are finally ready to be intimate.
But if neither one of you is even trying, that’s really when the relationship needs rescue, or may be that’s the end?
What I’m reading/ writing/ watching/ listening to:
Is monogamy natural: An interesting perspective on why we marry and why we cheat. I’ve been discussing a lot about modern marriages and what they mean to us today, it’s been interesting to hear different perspectives on this.
Paradox of Intimacy: Beautiful articulation of striking a balance between independence and interdependence.
The sans and naans in Japan: I recently wrote about my travel experiences in Japan on my personal substack. I realise every time I write about one of my travel experiences, the thing I miss most about these places is the food.
Shapely Gal song: Cool with That by Syn Cole and Golden Age