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Sex Without Intimacy/Intimacy Without Sex

Sex and intimacy are distinct for many people.

Jacob Lund/Shutterstock
Source: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

Sex and intimacy, although the words are often used interchangeably, are not the same thing.

Like macaroni without cheese or beans without franks, some people can’t imagine having one without the other and wouldn’t want to. In our 21st century culture, an intimate relationship that contains good sex is the stated ideal. Yet more than 10 percent of committed couples are having sex with each other only rarely, if at all, and yet consider themselves to be in a happy relationship.

Sex is something one can have by oneself or with another person. When with a partner, it can include sexual intercourse or not. Simply put, it is bodily pleasure usually with the aim of orgasm.

Intimacy, on the other hand, is much harder to achieve than simply rubbing body parts. It involves letting yourself be known—your hopes, desires, fears, and foibles—and knowing and accepting another person inside and out. The late Dr. Stan Dale defined intimacy as “into-me-see.”

When satisfying sex and the closeness of intimacy are combined, it can be enormously satisfying. That is what is often conceptualized as "True Love." However, in the same way that a steak or lobster dinner holds no appeal to a vegetarian, such an intense relationship is unappealing and often unobtainable to a certain percentage of women and men. Because a person does not want or have such a combination of intimacy and gratifying sex, it does not mean that they have to do without both. Achieving one is often an accomplishment.

Sexually, there is a great range of relationships possible between lifelong monogamous commitment and an anonymous 2-minute coupling in the bushes. Some people enjoy the excitement and variety of casual sex, or the friendly dependability of an ongoing, no-strings sexual relationship, or an intense but brief romantic affair. Whether or not they also have an intimate relationship or more than one elsewhere is immaterial to them.

Many couples live together for years in intimate and chaste compatibility. They are happy, or they want to honor their vows; they think seeking an outside partner would feel wrong or simply be too much trouble. Many do not want to end their relationship for other reasons, such as habit or fear of the unknown. There are many explanations people give themselves for staying in a sexless relationship, happily or not. Whatever they say to explain it, there they are and remain.

I often hear clients in my counseling office tell me that sex without a commitment would be totally unsatisfactory to them or that if they didn’t have a satisfactory sex life within a committed relationship, they would leave. That might be true for the individual speaking at that time, but it is also extremely likely that circumstances might change a person's mind when they are in the situation, and the concept is more than theoretical. I see many more of those—people feeling stuck in a sexless relationship, or people, in or out of a relationship, longing for intimacy.

So if you are in a situation wherein you are not getting what you want, in terms of sexual satisfaction or intimate connection, there may be other possibilities open to you. When it comes to how an individual or a couple get their emotional and sexual needs met, there are far more than 50 shades of gray.

More from Isadora Alman MFT, CST
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