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Understanding Relationship Intimacy

Relationship intimacy requires emotional vulnerability.

Shutterstock, Fizkes
Shutterstock, Fizkes

If someone says, “My partner and I were intimate with each other last night,” what is your first thought? Most likely, you think that person and their partner had sex the previous evening. But that may or may not be the case.

Confused? If so, you’re not alone. Most individuals and couples seem to think that intimacy always involves sex and that sex always involves intimacy. But that is not in fact the case. Non-intimate sexuality happens all the time—most often via casual hookups, prostitution, pornography, webcam sex. And it is equally possible to have intimacy without sex, even in a long-term romantic relationship. Intimacy and sex are not one and the same.

What Is Relationship Intimacy?

Intimacy occurs when someone takes the risk of being emotionally open and vulnerable with another person. Intimacy is invited into a relationship when someone takes the risk of being more deeply known by another person, and the response to this gesture is curiosity, compassion, and empathy. In this way, two people become closer to one another.

Basically, we invite intimacy when we are willing to be more fully known by sharing ourselves in a way that leaves us vulnerable to the responses of that other person. Without self-disclosure and vulnerability, there can be no intimacy.

Let’s take a quick, simplistic look at how this theory operates.


  • Person A: "Good to see you. I’ve heard from your sister that you’ve been dealing with a lot of difficult issues lately, especially XYZ. How is all that going?”
  • Person B: "Things are going well. I’m feeling much better. Thank you for asking."
  • Person A: "Great. I’m glad to hear it."


  • Person A: "Good to see you. I’ve heard from your sister that you’ve been dealing with a lot of difficult issues lately, especially XYZ. How is that going?"
  • Person B: "I am struggling. It really has been a tough few months. Sometimes I feel hopeful about XYZ, but other times I struggle to make sense of it all."
  • Person A: "I’ve had similar issues myself, and I know how tough it is to deal with this. I’d be happy to talk with you and support you as you work through this."

Which of these scenarios feels like it invites meaningful closeness, and which one feels like it creates distance?

Why Relationship Intimacy Doesn't Happen

Sadly, becoming vulnerable in ways that lead to intimacy can be scary, especially for people who've dealt with early-life trauma, such as neglect, emotional abuse, physical abuse, or sexual abuse. Generally, such individuals learned early in life that if they reach out and ask for help or to get their needs met, they'll be ignored, teased, or even yelled at for making waves.

For people who learned that or a similar message early in life, it is very difficult to be vulnerable as an adult. Such people desperately want and need emotional closeness, but their fear of rejection and ridicule pushes them into silence.

  • Person A wants to say: "I am struggling with XYZ. I really need you to hold my hand and tell me that everything will be OK."
  • Person A doesn't say this, however, because Person A fears that Person B will respond with something like, "Stop whining. Nobody wants to hear about your problems."

Sadly, this scenario is incredibly common, especially in relationships that are already struggling for one reason or another. Both parties desire closeness and connection, but one of them is afraid to become vulnerable in ways that allow the other to support them. So that person never asks to get his or her needs met, and the other person is never able to respond with support, empathy, and other behaviors that create emotional closeness.

More from Robert Weiss Ph.D., LCSW, CSAT
More from Psychology Today