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A guide to maintaining intimacy in relationships

Despite “intimacy” being a word many of us throw around when talking about relationships, there are a surprising amount of misconceptions about what intimacy – and sexual intimacy specifically – actually means.

Intimacy and sex aren’t the same thing but there are connected. There’s a physical and an emotional closeness in romantic relationships that it’s important to maintain, but when we talk about intimacy, we’re talking about two different types – sexual intimacy and emotional intimacy.

To differentiate between the two types of intimacy and give us some answers, we asked Psychosexual therapist, BBC One’s Sex on the Couch presenter and author of audiobook 12 Steps to Sexual Connection, Lohani Noor for the lowdown.
What is intimacy?

“When people say intimacy, they normally think about sex. And of course, sex is part of intimacy, but it’s only a part – it’s not all of it,” Lohani explains. “Unfortunately, people make sex – or penetrative sex – the main focus of their relationship and of their relational intimacy.

“So they miss out on a lot of this stuff, and actually it’s all the other stuff that informs and feeds your capacity to have relational intimacy, or sexual intimacy. Intimacy is formed out of lots of other things.”
Why is intimacy important?
Although intimacy isn’t sex, many of us need intimacy in our sexual relationships. “You could just go and have sex if you want to, and some people swear that’s all they want and need,” says Lohani. “However, I would argue that simply because we’re human and we are organisms, we need intimacy. You can look through history books and see that isolating people was a form of torture, and very quickly they go mad. The human organism needs skin-to-skin contact, and it needs emotional contact to survive.”Of course, we can just have sex on its own without intimacy. But Lohani says sexual intimacy is something entirely different. “If you nurture the intimacy in your sexual dynamic, and allow yourself to stay very present in the moment and make a real connection with the other person, you’re on the pathway towards spiritualism. Sex leads to magic and there is something incredibly spiritual about sex. If you allow yourself to really, really be present and intimate, and be intimate means show yourself and receive the other.”

How is it different from sex?
So the act of sex itself isn’t the be all and end all of intimacy. What what about touching, kissing and stroking? Does this count as sexual intimacy?

“I prefer to call it sensation play because it shifts the emphasis massively,” Lohani explains. “I’ve pinched that word from the BDSM community, because it’s all about creating sensations or experiences. In BDSM, you agree the scene [you’ll act out] beforehand and to have a safe word, and you know what the limits are. And then you act out the scene, and the scene isn’t penetration focused. It’s focused on having sensation and emotional experiences. And the more you trust your partner, the more you give into that, the better or deeper the experience.

“So when I work with [straight] couples, I try and hold those ideas in my thinking and invite the clients to think about what they want to experience as opposed to whether or not the guy’s getting enough penetrative sex. Penetrative sex can also be important. I’m just saying it’s not the only thing.”

Common intimacy issues
Lohani says there is a major problem with how we’re raised, and that’s that we are not shown how to be honest about how we feel when we are children. “Think back to when you were three or four, and you fell over and your parent came and looked at your knee and said, is it sore? Did it hurt your feelings? In that moment, when your primary caregiver talks to you about feelings, they were containing them for you. So you build an emotional framework and internal reference system for feelings.

“Unfortunately, as a society, we’re not really good at teaching our children about feelings that you can’t see or don’t manifest on the physical. Like emotional pain, sadness, loss, grief, anger, rage, sexual feelings. So often, children grow up into adults, and they’ve got no frame of reference for that stuff. So when they have a strong feeling, like a strong sexual feeling, or a feeling of anger or frustration, it feels they’re almost out of control because they’ve got no reference for it.” And therefore, we don’t know how to manage those emotions.

Fear of intimacy

Why are so many of us afraid to be truly intimate with someone and show vulnerability? “It’s the fear of being shamed and attacked and humiliated,” she explains. “And when we start a relationship, and sometimes years and years into the relationship, we still tend to be feeling our way forward. And we’re still thinking, ‘Will I be accepted or rejected? How do I get my needs met in a way that’s okay and safe?’ And we might decide that the way to do it is in a hostile, aggressive way, because that makes us less vulnerable. But actually, all it does is it stop us from getting what we really want.”

“Again, when you’re little you might think you’ve got a really good strategy for getting your needs met. And you’ll scream until you’re sick. And someone comes and picks you up and it works. It works because it’s acceptable when you’re four. Unfortunately, our parents don’t teach us how to ask for what we want in a more meaningful way. We understand that on a primal level, that’s the strategy for getting what we want. So then when we’re an adult, and in a difficult relationship, and we’re really struggling, we’ve got no reference point and no internal narrative around these difficult emotions, we might decide to act out in a very similar way to how we did before.”

It’s no wonder as adults we can find it so difficult to ask for what we really want. Instead, in relationships we may act out in some irrational way involving shouting or breaking things. “It [feels] easier to do that in the hopes that the other person will say, ‘Oh, I get it, you want me to love you right now.’ But it doesn’t work, does it? Because you’re an adult, and it’s not acceptable.,” she says.

Signs you’re avoiding intimacy
People can avoid intimacy in their sexual dynamic by employing all sorts of avoidance methods, Lohani says.

“They’ll turn the lights out, or never look at each others’ bodies, or never speak about sex, and never be curious. It’s amazing how many people can stay in intimate relationships year in year out and not really ever fully intimately engage sexually,” she explains.

“They cover up the intimacy or avoid the intimacy by having all sorts of strategies, like not communicating what they like what they don’t like in sex, and not guiding their partner. If you want to avoid intimacy with someone, a really good way to do it is to have fast sex and put on a display with performative sex. From the outside, it could look really intimate. But the people are actually using each other for sex as opposed to being in sex together.”

How to improve your intimacy
“If only there were three easy steps,” she says. “The things I’ve listed in my book are things like connection, communication, trust, managing autonomy, interdependence, and codependence as opposed to codependency, their self knowledge, self discovery, sexual self discovery, time, give me permission to go slower, go fast,” she says.

But it’s also important to just experience mutual pleasure from sex. “If you nurture all those things, they will support and enhance your capacity to really be with one another to bring all of this out into the dynamic.”

Commit… but not like that
One of the basic things you need in order to be able to achieve intimacy, is commitment. “It’s a horrible word, isn’t it? It’s so scary. But commitment doesn’t mean forever. And we have to get over that notion that when we make a commitment to somebody or to a process, we’re making it forever. Because we’re actually making it for the moment. So it’s about being committed to being available in the moment,” she says.

You also need to be committed to speaking your truth and to being honest about what’s going on for you/what you’re feeling, too. to saying what’s really going on for you.

Communicate verbally
We can often conflate talking with communicating, but it’s actually more important to talk less and communicate more.

“Learning to communicate, not only authentically – I think that word is probably overused – but learning to say what’s going on for you without making it about the other person. So learning to speak in a way that maintains your integrity and the sense of yourself, but at the same time maintains the integrity of the person you’re speaking to.”

Use ‘I’ statements
It’s a well known piece of advice when communicating with a partner to use “I” statements instead of “you” statements – such as, “I feel like X when X happens” as opposed to “You made me feel like X”.

Lohani explains this is about “being accountable for your own feelings and not making them about the other person.” She adds, “Simply recognising that somebody doesn’t make you mad. They might invite you to feel mad, but it’s an invitation that you can refuse. It’s really taking ownership of what’s going on for you and [communicating that] rather than acting it out. So rather than acting in a crazy way, say, ‘I feel really crazy angry right now’. Just that difference massively changes whether or not your partner can hear you.”

Recognise non-verbal communication
Communication happens in so many different ways. And it’s not just verbal.

“It’s whether you face someone head on, or whether or not your body is tense,”she explains. “Recognise what you are communicating simply in the pace and pitch of your dialogue. So communication is absolutely key, and understanding something about the way you communicate, and the way your partner needs you to communicate and working out negotiating a balance between the two.”

Reference:Story by Emilie Lavinia, Paisley Gilmour: Cosmopolitan UK