“Intimacy demands the highest risk but yields the richest reward. Intimacy is the driving force which makes the painful grit of life worthwhile. Intimacy is the life-giving beam of light, whereby we discover each other from the inside out, never quite fully, never entirely, but enough to find an exquisite inner oasis that replenishes us on our life’s journey.” ~ Teresa Adams (as cited in Hanna, 1991)

Intimacy is a difficult concept to define as it is possible to have intimate interactions with many people including a partner, family member or friend. Different levels of intimacy may be experienced from person to person such as having intimate interactions between one’s mother compared to one’s partner. As well as this, intimacy may be difficult to define as it is often used interchangeably with having a sexual encounter or having a verbal disclosure with someone (Hanna, 1991). The following describes some already developed definitions of intimate behaviours, intimate experiences and intimate relationships:

Conceptions emphasising intimate interactions: Intimate behaviour

  • Sullivan (1953, p. 246): “clearly formulated adjustments of one’s behaviour to the expressed needs of the other person”.
  • M. Patterson (1976, p.235): “a product of eye contact, distance, smiling and other behaviours”.
  • Fruzetti & Jackson (1990, pp.126-127): “an interaction that is self revealing and/or relationship-focused in its content – one partner does or says something [that] is readily discriminated by the pattern, who responds in a positive, understanding and/or self-revealing way her or himself”.
  • Reis & Shaver (1988, p. 375): “an interpersonal process that involves communication of personal feelings and information to another person who responds warmly and sympathetically. This response validates the first person’s experience”.

Conceptions emphasising intimate interactions: Intimate experience

  • Chelune, Robinson, & Krommor (1984, p. 13): “a subjective appraisal, based upon interactive behaviours that leads to certain relational expectations”.
  • Sexton & Sexton (1982, p.2): “ closeness, love, caring, and affection”.
  • L’Abate & L’Abate (1979, p.178): “the sharing of hurt and of fears of being hurt”.

Conceptions emphasising intimate relationships

  • Sternberg (1986, pp. 120-121): “(a) a desire to promote the welfare of the loved one, (b) experienced happiness with loved one, (c) high regard for the loved one, (d) being able to count on the loved one in times of need, (e) mutual understanding with the loved one, (f) sharing of one’s self and one’s possessions with the loved one, (g) receipt of emotional support from the loved one, (h) giving of emotional support to the loved one, (i) intimate communication with the loved one, and (j) valuing the loved one in one’s life”.
  • Tolstedt & Stokes (1983, p.574): “reflects feelings of closeness and emotional bonding including intensity of liking, moral support and ability to tolerate flaws in the significant other”.
  • S.Gilbert (1976, p.221): “a deep form of acceptance of the other as well as a commitment to the relationship”.
  • Waring (1981, p.34): “a composite of affection. expressiveness. compatibility. cohesion. sexuality. conflict resolution. autonomy. and identity”.
  • Perlman & Fehr (1987, p.16): “the closeness and interdependence of partners, the extent of self-disclosure, and the warmth of affection experienced [within the relationship]”.
    Clinebell & Clinebell (1970, p.1): “the degree of mutual need-satisfaction within the relationship”.

(Source: Prager, K.J. (1995). The Psychology of Intimacy. New York, NY: The Guilford Press)

For the purposes of this post, an intimate interaction may be defined as sharing something that is personal with someone else (Prager, 1995). There are different forms of intimacy. One form of intimacy is cognitive or intellectual intimacy where two people exchange thoughts, share ideas and enjoy similarities and differences between their opinions in an open, secure way. A second form of intimacy is experiential intimacy where people come together and are actively involved in an activity. This can range from doing things as a couple or in a group situation and does not always involve talking or sharing but may just include activities — for example, completing volunteer work at a local hospital together.

A third form of intimacy is emotional intimacy where two people comfortably share their feelings with each other or when they empathise with the feelings of the other person, really trying to understand and being aware of the other person’s emotional side. A fourth form of intimacy is sexual intimacy. This is the stereotypical definition of intimacy that most people are familiar with. However, this form of intimacy includes a broad range of sensuous activity and is much more than just sexual intercourse. It is any form of sensual expression with each other.

Thus far, intimate interactions have been discussed in general terms — however, a definition of the intimacy experienced in a relationship is required. At its basic level, intimacy in a relationship refers to the sharing of different forms of intimate interactions occur on a regular basis. Intimacy with another person can be seen as the:

  • Unmasking of oneself in order to be vulnerable in a trusting, loving, secure relationship;
  • Sense that there is a special, unique, and distinct bond joining two people together;
  • Sense of closeness and proximity or oneness and unity;
  • Sharing of tenderness, caring, and affection;
  • Sharing of secrets, hidden feelings, and private thoughts;
  • Free will offering and receiving of each other;
  • Sense of being in a non-punitive, non-abusive and non-manipulative environment;
  • Mutual respect, recognition, and approval of each other’s need to be a sexual being. In a relationship this shared sexuality ultimately results in loving sexual intercourse.