Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


COVID-19, Social Distancing, and Intimacy

There is a steep price to pay for lost intimacy.

Social distancing rules cast a spotlight on our normal use of social spaces and point to the key role of distances in regulating social interactions.

The Significance of Social Distances

If you pass another pedestrian on a quiet residential street, and they greet you, chances are that you have come within eight feet of each other. This is an important distance in regulating social interactions.

It is as though we carry an invisible envelope of personal space that is “defended.”

Six-foot social distances may not always be enough to prevent infection via respiratory droplets, but the good news is that many social relationships can be conducted just fine at this distance.

That is the good news. The bad news is that all intimate relationships are conducted at distances closer than three feet.

In the closest relationship, that between a parent and infant, they spend much of their time together in close physical contact. Of course, the same is true of courting couples, who are forever holding hands or embracing.

Such intimate relationships allow the transmission of information in other sensory modalities than sight and sound.

Lovers may whisper to each other, and their facial expressions are more salient. In addition, they are affected by body scents that play an important role in sexual attraction, even if we are often largely unaware of this modality. They can feel the warmth of each other's bodies. The same channels of communication are important in the relationship between parents and small children.

With social distancing, we are unlikely to make new friendships. If we do, such friendships are likely to be impoverished. They lack the intimacy that comes only with close social distancing.

Different societies use different social spacing. This affects both how well they are likely to follow distancing guidelines and how disruptive those rules are.

Societal Differences in Social Distance

Interpersonal distances vary from one society to another. These differences are found around the globe. Northern Europeans stand farther apart than southern Europeans, and most Africans stand closer than any Europeans.

Such customary differences are clearly relevant for social distancing measures during the coronavirus crisis. One would expect social distancing to be practiced more effectively in a country like Germany, where social distances are larger than in a place where people talk in greater proximity, as in Italy.

Social distancing would likely be more effective in Germany because it is not asking the population to change their behavior as much. This could help explain why Italy was hit so much harder than Germany, even though both countries have good medical systems.

Large interpersonal distances alone do not protect against infection, however. This is illustrated by Sweden, which refused to close the economy, aiming for herd immunity. Initially, results seemed similar to countries having closed economies. The death rate there recently surged, however, and is higher even than that of the U.S. The Swedes were not protected by their large social distances.

People who stand closer together are perceived as being warmer or more passionate, whereas those who stand far apart come across as being cold and aloof.

These stereotypes may have some justification if you consider that how close people stand affects the intimacy of their interaction. Strangers typically stand many feet from each other, whereas close friends stand at a more intimate distance where they can touch each other.

One implication of this principle is that if we stand close to others, we are likely to have closer relationships with them. In this vein, one of the big problems that hospital workers in Italy had in controlling infections was that relatives of the sick showed up in hospitals in large numbers.

What We Are Losing

Behaviorally, intimate friends now get treated as though they were strangers. This amplifies feelings of isolation and alienation. Medical scientists have long known that social isolation is not only a factor in clinical depression but also makes us more vulnerable to heart disease, cancer, and many other illnesses.

While most of us can cope with the psychological distress associated with distancing, the longer the crisis goes on, the greater the health toll is likely to be.

For most of us, once life goes back to a semblance of normality, the impact will be moderated as we rediscover social activities that bring happiness. For those who have lost family members, friends, or romantic partners, the impact will be more lasting.