Intimacy is one of the main ingredients of a successful, ‘ideal’ relationship along with passion and commitment (Hanna, 1991). Intimacy is a journey — it is not a tangible thing. It takes place over time, is ever-changing and is not stagnant. In fact, any kind of stagnation in a relationship may damage intimacy.

It is important in the counselling process to have an understanding of how intimacy develops in a relationship as well as some of the factors that could potentially be harmful to the development of it. The following factors will be discussed in relation to the development of intimacy including:

  1. Conditions that make it more likely to develop
  2. Gender differences
  3. Individual differences

Conditions for the development of intimacy

There are a number of conditions that are more beneficial to the healthy development of intimacy in a relationship. Intimacy requires time to develop as well as dedication and is a challenging task to not only develop intimacy but to maintain it. Another condition is trust; trust is required to allow each person in the relationship to feel comfortable to self-disclose and be vulnerable with each other (Brown & Brown, 1995).

Trust is defined as the “reliability, fairness, and faith” one has in his or her partner and without a certain level of trust the likelihood of intimate interactions is lessened (Prager, 1995).

Affection is another condition that goes hand in hand with intimacy as there should be a certain amount of positive feelings between the couple for the want or need of intimacy to be present (Prager, 1995). Cohesiveness is another factor that is generally required for intimacy in a relationship.

Cohesiveness refers to the sharing of time and activities in a relationship and for intimacy to occur spending time together is required (Prager). Finally, commitment between the couple is also a condition in which intimacy is more likely to occur (“Intimacy”, 1993).

Gender differences

Intimacy is generally viewed differently by males and females in relationships and this may impact on the development of it in a relationship due to the differing expectations (Brown & Brown, 1995; Prager, 1995). Women are more likely to view emotional intimacy in a relationship as more important whereas men tend to favour sexual intimacy and experiential intimacy.

Women have a heightened propensity to initiate verbal conversations about their feelings than men as well as being more likely to express when their intimacy needs are not being met. Men are more likely to look at how to resolve a problem rather than talk through their feelings about it (Brown & Brown).

Some research has also suggested that men may be less intimate in their relationships due to defining themselves in terms of autonomy and not requiring the level of emotional intimacy that women do (Heller & Wood, 1998). This may be due to the way in which the genders are socialised from a young age.

For example, in the past, men have been taught to be assertive, autonomous, self-confident and to not express intimate feelings. Women on the other hand are taught to maintain the emotional aspects of family life thus enhancing their expression of intimacy (Mackey, Diemer, & O’Brien, 2000).

Individual differences

Individual differences in the relationship may also impact on the development of intimacy. Individual differences include culture, economic and social status, childhood development, and personality factors.

Although the research on intimacy and cultural differences is limited, there is a substantial amount of information on cultural differences that impacts on the functioning of the relationship which could potentially impact on intimacy. The major theme in the literature is that cultural variations lead to differences in expectations and attitudes about relationships (Brown & Brown, 2002).

For example, some cultures may be more likely to discuss and analyse a problem in the relationship whereas others may not be as willing to do this. Due to this type of influence being ingrained from a young age, issues in intimacy may arise if one partner is willing to open up and the other is not.

There may also be differences in gender roles (as previously discussed under gender differences) as well as the relationship with other family members. For example, some cultures are heavily involved in each others lives and as such may “intervene” in a couple’s relationship rather than allowing them to talk to each other about what is happening and resolve the problem on their own (Brown & Brown).

Economic and social status may also have an impact on intimacy in a relationship. One reason for this is when a couple decide to share finances, the couple may have differences in opinion in how they want to spend money. For example, one person in the couple may want to spend the money whereas the other may want to save (Hanna, 1991).

Childhood Development has also been linked to the development of intimacy in relationships. As individuals develop in childhood, they experience intimate relationships with the people around them. This develops ways of behaving in interactions and relationships and may be transferred to intimate relationships later on in life (Prager, 1995).

Personality has also been linked to the level of intimacy developed in a relationship. People that are shy, anxious in social situations, have poor social skills and/or have difficulty trusting people have more trouble forming intimate relationships. Other traits affect the deepening of relationships such as those that use self-monitoring behaviour. There are personality traits that impact the likelihood of an ongoing intimate relationship.

Traits such as self-consciousness increase the level of intimate disclosures therefore increase the ongoing nature of the intimate relationship. Other traits include perspective-taking capacity (ie. how well one accepts another’s perspective), neuroticism, openness to experience, empathy, intimacy motivation, intimacy capacity, and self-esteem also impact on intimacy in the relationship (Prager, 1995).

Another factor relevant to each person is the perceptions of risk by each individual. This is the risk of exposure, being rejected, losing control, or being manipulated or betrayed in intimate exchanges. If an individual perceives a high risk in intimacy, they are less likely to engage in these behaviours and therefore more likely to have lower-quality relationships (Brunell, Pilkington & Webster, 2007).

Overall, the development of intimacy in a relationship may be influenced by many aspects including conditions that make it more likely to develop such as trust and time as well as differences between genders and other individual differences such as personality and perceptions of risk.