8 Common Myths (and 1 Truth) About Intimacy in Relationships

Can you tell fact from fiction in understanding close relationships?

Posted Jul 05, 2016

Goran Bogicevic/Shutterstock
Source: Goran Bogicevic/Shutterstock

One topic in psychology that permeates the media is intimacy, which seems to trump almost all of our other concerns. Unfortunately, the advice you receive from magazines and televised advice shows may not be very accurate. One magazine article tells you intimacy is all about sex, while another reports that you don’t need to have sex to have intimacy. It’s hard to sift through all of this conflicting material and figure out how you can make your relationship work.

Below I examine the eight most common myths, which all boil down to the one truth.

Myth 1: You need sex to have true intimacy.

Let’s start with the myth that links romantic sex to intimacy. Your relationship with your partner may lack intimacy for many different reasons. You may be over-involved in work, caring for children or others in your family, or just plain tired, so sex is not on your daily or weekly agenda. Or maybe you experience a physiological condition that makes intercourse impossible. Although emotional intimacy is associated with physical intimacy, there are many ways you can physically express your feelings toward your partner. If you don’t believe this, think of the reverse—does sex always involve intimacy? Of course not. Therefore, sexual activity isn’t a necessary condition of emotional intimacy.

Myth 2: You have to give up your personal goals.

People often equate sacrifice with intimacy, but you may find yourself feeling closer to your partner when you both pursue your passions. University of Pittsburgh psychologists Edward Orehek and Amanda Forest (2016) developed what they refer to as a “goal-systemic perspective” on intimacy. According to this view, you’re more satisfied in your relationship when you and your partner feel you can help each other get what you want out of life. It's not sacrifice, but a commitment to seeing that you both achieve your goals, that can keep your relationship vital over time.

Myth 3: You’ve got to do everything together with your partner.

Just as you don’t need to sacrifice your personal goals, you don’t have to be with you partner for 100% of your free time. In true intimacy, each partner feels that there’s a part of him or her that can flourish independently of the relationship. You’ll feel most intimate with your partner when you are secure in your own sense of self. That means giving yourself the time you need to nurture your own identity. Whether it’s an hour or two on the weekend devoted to crafts, sports, or reading, it’s important to nurture the part of yourself that craves expression.

Myth 4: You need to keep your anger and annoyance to yourself.

It’s well known that avoidance is one of the worst forms of conflict resolution in close relationships. By not dealing with the inevitable issues that arise when two people are close, you create barriers that only become more difficult to overcome as time goes on. Avoidance only leads to more avoidance, and before long, you grow apart.

Myth 5: It’s better not to go to bed mad at your partner.

This is a common suggestion in advice columns, but there is a good reason to question its validity. In the heat of an argument, especially late at night when you’re likely to be tired, you may exchange words with your partner that are not well thought-out. It’s true that avoidance is not a good solution either. However, if you're able to get to sleep even though you’re riled up, you and your partner might be in a better frame of mind in the morning, when you can calmly discuss your disagreements over a cup of coffee.

Myth 6: Your partner’s personality is unlikely to change.

The notion that personality is set in stone by the time you reach adulthood (if not before) is one that you commonly hear from the media. Some sources claim that personality is set at birth, or even at the time of conception. There are certain parameters that influence people’s personalities early in life, but recent evidence on adult development shows that people can change. You are perhaps one of the most important influences on your partner’s development. By providing support to a partner who feels insecure, or by helping a partner who’s impulsive to become more reflective, you can promote that developmental process. And, at the same time, your partner influences you. Realizing how important you are to each other may be one of the most critical realizations you can make.

Myth 7: If things are going badly now, they’re bound to improve with time.

The intimacy equation also depends on the work you put into your relationship. Research on the enduring dynamics of long-term relationships shows that good relationships don’t happen on their own by virtue of the passage of the years. If things are going badly now, you’ll have to work to turn them around so that your relationship becomes satisfactory to both of you.

Myth 8: If your parents had a bad relationship, you’re bound to have one, too.

The children of divorced or separated parents may feel a certain inevitability about their own futures. You might think that you shouldn’t make a long-term commitment to a partner because of what happened in your family. Coming from this type of family may make you wary of close relationships, but it’s not inevitable that you will be hampered in your own ability to achieve intimacy. A review of the research by Florida State University’s Ming Cui and colleagues (2016) noted the many factors contributing to relationship outcomes in children of divorced parents. They couldn't identify a single direct pathway linking how well your parents got along to the quality of relationships you have as an adult.

And now...The truth.

Relationships are complex—a fact you don't need me to tell you. So the truth is quite simple: There is no single, all-purpose prescription for maximizing intimacy in your relationship. Because intimacy develops in you, and your partner, over the course of your life, it reflects your personality and experiences, and those of your partner. Once you get past the myths about how best to communicate and work with your partner, finding the true course for your relationship will become a great deal clearer.

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  • Cui, M., Wickrama, K. S., Lorenz, F. O., & Conger, R. D. (2011). Linking parental divorce and marital discord to the timing of emerging adults' marriage and cohabitation. In F. D. Fincham, M. Cui, F. D. Fincham, M. Cui (Eds.), Romantic relationships in emerging adulthood (pp. 123-141). New York, NY, US: Cambridge University Press.
  • Orehek, E., & Forest, A. L. (2016). When people serve as means to goals: Implications of a motivational account of close relationships. Current Directions In Psychological Science, 25(2), 79-84. doi:10.1177/0963721415623536

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016