- Intimacy refers to feelings of closeness, connectedness, and warmth.
- New research suggests that in a romantic relationship, current feelings of intimacy can predict sexual desire an hour and a half later.
- People can build or strengthen intimacy with a variety of techniques such as making a commitment to spend more quality time together.
Intimacy in a relationship
Before discussing the importance of intimacy in romantic relationships, we first need to define intimacy. To do so, it is helpful to refer to Robert Sternberg’s triangular theory of love, which suggests love has three components: commitment, passion, and emotional intimacy.
- Commitment: Deciding that one loves another; the commitment to maintain the loving relationship.
- Passion: Drives, impulses, and motivations leading to romantic attraction and sex.
- Intimacy: Feelings of connectedness, closeness, and warmth.
Alternatively, we can think of emotional intimacy as emotional investment in one’s romantic partner and the romantic relationship itself.
As an aside, intimacy is important not just to romantic love but also to other forms of love (e.g., companionate love, consummate love) and other types of close relationships (e.g., between close friends, parent and child, siblings).
Intimacy plays a part in sexual relationships too; this will become clear as we explore the findings of the investigation by van Lankveld et al. concerning intimacy as a predictor of sexual desire in romantic relationships.
Investigating the link between intimacy and sexual desire
Sample characteristics: 134 individuals (87 females); mostly Caucasian (96% of men and 89% of women); average age of 42 years; average relationship duration of 15 years (1-47 years range).
Participants were asked to complete a brief questionnaire for 7 days, 10 times a day (in response to a randomly emitted auditory signal from a specialized watch).
In addition, participants completed a diary after waking up and before going to sleep. The diary questions were used to assess sexual desire, intimacy, stress related to daily hassles, and attachment orientation (i.e. anxious attachment and avoidant attachment).
Sexual desire was assessed using the following items (concerning the person’s feelings and motivations at the moment they heard the beep): “I would like to have sex,” “I feel sexually excited,” and “I am open to sexual initiative.”
Intimacy was assessed using the following five items: “Towards my partner I now feel...‘intimacy’, ‘connectedness’, ‘love’, ‘tenderness’, and ‘warmth.’”
Stress related to daily hassles was measured by summing up the scores from these two items (regarding the activity the person was performing at the time): “I would rather do something else,” and “It takes effort to do this.”
Because attachment orientation, such as anxious attachment and avoidant attachment, is considered a fairly stable trait, it was measured only at the beginning of the study. This was done using the Experiences in Close Relationships (ECR) Questionnaire, which comprises 36 items.
- Sample item from the anxious attachment subscale: “I worry a fair amount about losing my partner.”
- Sample statement from the avoidant attachment subscale: “I try to avoid getting too close to my partner.”
Intimacy as a predictor of sexual desire
The results showed:
- Daily hassles and levels of anxious and avoidant attachment did not predict sexual desire.
- The level of intimacy did predict sexual desire an hour and a half later (this was no longer true three hours later).
It is not clear how intimacy increases sexual desire. Specifically, it is uncertain how emotional intimacy can increase passion and sexual desire in romantic relationships in such a short time. But whatever the mechanisms, since the effects lasted a relatively short time (i.e. no longer there three hours later), it seems for intimacy to motivate sexual desire, intimacy needs to be renewed regularly.
Given the importance of intimacy, the next question is how to build intimacy (or strengthen it regularly).
How can couples build intimacy?
Intimacy has multiple components. In his seminal paper, Sternberg noted intimacy concerns the following feelings and behaviors regarding another person:
- Having high regard for the person.
- Happy when together.
- The desire to promote his or her welfare.
- Able to count on him or her in times of need.
- Mutual understanding.
- Sharing one’s possessions and innermost self with him/her.
- Giving and receiving emotional support.
- Intimate communication.
- Valuing him or her in one’s life.
So, if you are experiencing low sexual desire in your romantic relationship, spend a little time thinking about how intimate you feel with your romantic partner: Do you feel understood by your partner? Can you really count on him or her? Do you feel comfortable sharing your innermost thoughts and feelings?
Factors that can negatively affect intimacy include neglecting your partner or the relationship itself, poor communication, violation of trust, and a variety of personal factors (e.g., personal insecurities). Think of a romantic relationship as a living system: If the partners ignore the relationship and become distant and mutually alienated, the relationship can slowly shrivel and die.
Of course, just as alienation does not occur overnight, one cannot build intimacy (or rebuild intimacy) in one sitting either. Building intimacy in a relationship takes time. And one fundamental way to increase intimacy, over time, consists of spending quality time together on a daily basis.
This sounds easy enough, but many couples feel their various activities and duties leave them little time for each other. This means that to make a commitment to spend quality time together, it might be necessary to say no to some personal hobbies and activities or to reduce work commitments. Perhaps the findings from the study reviewed—showing that increased intimacy could increase sexual desire—provide additional motivation for individuals to commit to building intimacy and spend more quality time with their romantic partner.
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