If you think you can only experience intimacy through sex, you’re missing out. Eyes locking across a table, a reassuring squeeze from your partner, a deep and meaningful conversation with a friend – many of us have daily intimate moments that never get near a bedroom, which is good news for the single, the sex-starved and those of us who just don’t fancy it. Here’s how to increase the intimacy in your life.
Think about what intimacy means to you
“Some people would say to be truly intimate with another means being sexual with them, but that’s a very narrow way of looking at things,” says Ammanda Major, head of service quality and clinical practice at Relate. “Being intimate with someone is understanding them, caring about them, wanting to be there for them. For some people, just having a daily conversation would mean there is some level of intimacy.”
Kate Moyle, a sex therapist, describes intimacy as “that sense of being prioritised, special, cherished”. It is not necessarily dependent on being in a long-term relationship: “You can have an instant, deep connection with someone. It’s about vulnerability, that complete ability to be yourself, warts and all, and for that person to accept you.”
Once you define it for yourself, you may find it is more present in your life than you first thought.
Don’t forget to get physical
“How often do you touch your partner, or do you only touch them when you want to have sex?” asks Major. “How close do you get when you’re talking? Do you do it from the other side of the room? Do you eat together? Eating is a very connecting thing, but do you both sit in front of the telly or on your phones? It’s about trying to find a bit of time when it’s just you and your partner. Those are the things that help you feel connected, and start to build emotional intimacy.”
As a society, non-sexual touch has decreased alongside a decline in sexual activity. Partly this is political – the fear of being accused of sexual harassment or assault may well be behind a decline in touch between colleagues. But we are also distracted. Tiffany Field, a University of Miami School of Medicine professor and director of the Touch Research Institute, is doing a study in airport waiting areas. “There’s no intimate touch among families, and not even verbal connections,” she says. “Everyone’s on their cellphones and they are not talking.”
We know that touch has a range of positive benefits, including stimulating the immune system and reducing stress. Even if we don’t have a partner, having more physical intimacy in our lives can be achieved with a little effort.
Field points to the number of “cuddling” groups and workshops that have cropped up as one way to make a physical connection. “But I would prefer a massage over that. Massaging others, like family members, is therapeutic – the massager gets the same stress relief benefits as the person being massaged, most likely from the stimulation of pressure receptors under the skin.” And don’t underestimate self-touch, she says. “Research has shown that self-massage is very therapeutic. Brush yourself in the shower, or use a tennis ball to rub your limbs anywhere they hurt.”
Swap cuddling for ‘simmering’
Even if you don’t have time to have sex, says the therapist Stephen Snyder, author of Love Worth Making: How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex in a Long-Lasting Relationship, “you still have time to sample the most important part of the sex response cycle – arousal. Arousal is a mental phenomenon, not just physical, and it means being in the moment and getting a little absorbed in your experience of your partner.”
It may only take a minute or two, he says. “Inhale the scent of your partner’s hair, reach inside your partner’s clothes. It warms up the erotic climate in a relationship. The key thing is to recognise that arousal is not a painful state – it doesn’t have to be relieved immediately by having an orgasm.”
He describes these quick snatches of sexualised physical contact as “simmering” and says Brits seem especially interested in the idea. “I think people in the UK are doing too much cuddling, and suffering as a consequence,” he says. According to Snyder, cuddling can help create a secure bond but it can also “deplete erotic energy. I would say if you’re going to do some physical contact with your partner, put some sexual current into it.” Cuddling, he says, is “warm, but it’s not hot”.