Why Do You Crave Intimacy?

Why Do You Crave Intimacy?

Why do we enjoy intimacy? Let’s see what science says.

Intimacy can be defined, at its simplest, as the experience of feeling close to another person (Jamieson, 2007). Notice the verbage “feeling close”, not “being close” – as you are probably painfully aware, it is quite possible to be physically close to other people without “feeling” close to them. Intimacy is a felt experience.

Defining intimacy can get confusing because intimacy is a word that some people reserve for references to romantic relationships (calling them “intimate relationships”) and sexual relationships (for example, saying, “they were intimate with each other”). However, the broader definition of intimacy seems to be focused not on sexuality or romance, but on something called self-disclosure (Jamieson, 2007). We become intimate by really knowing each other, and that requires disclosing the most vulnerable and protected parts of ourselves.

This additional aspect of the word intimacy can help us understand why there can be sexual and romantic behaviors and activities that are not intimate, and why there can be purely platonic interactions that are. Have you ever seen a couple out to dinner that does not seem to have anything to say to each other? Or have you heard a friend recount a sexual encounter that seems to have meant little to them? Intimacy is found in the depth of emotional connection more than it is found in any specific acts.

“True love is not a hide and seek game: in true love, both lovers seek each other.”
― Michael Bassey Johnson

Why Is Intimacy Important?

Intimacy is so fundamental to our well-being that it is an entire category in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Maslow, 1943). Once our even more basic needs for food and shelter and for safety and security are met, the next need on the pyramid is that of love and belonging – in other words, intimacy. Being around other people helps us meet our basic needs, but feeling close to those people – feeling attached to them – is in many ways just as important (McAdams, 1989).

Benefits of Intimacy

Intimacy is an essential part of healthy development and well-being. In fact, the ability to form meaningful connections with other people is considered a fundamental need, especially in adolescence and young adulthood (Erikson, 1959). The intimate connections in our lives help us understand who we are, show us how to connect with others, and give us the feeling that we are safe and accepted.

Beyond our personal well-being, the behaviors that create intimacy between people are also associated with happier and more fulfilling relationships (Reis & Shaver, 1988). Perhaps that’s no surprise: if we effectively self-disclose with other trustworthy people, and we respond effectively to their efforts to be intimate, then we are likely to have deep and meaningful relationships. Without this kind of intimacy, most of us would feel lonely, anxious, and without purpose.

Levels of Intimacy

The seven levels of intimacy are a continuum of behaviors that grow increasingly intimate (Kelly, 2005). This is a helpful way of understanding how people develop intimacy because it highlights how intimacy is built gradually and is difficult to force. I will illustrate the seven levels with examples from my many evenings in sports bars:

1. Cliches. Every time I see someone wearing a Red Sox hat, I am tempted to shout, “Yankees suck” – one of the most cliché things one Red Sox fan can say to another.

2. Facts. Conversations during the big game sometimes graduate from talking in cliches to discussing the facts of a certain player’s recent performance.

3. Opinions. If I sense that the other person at the bar is open to conversation, I might offer my opinion on what’s happening on-screen, or ask him his.

4. Hopes and Dreams. I am likely to discuss hopes and dreams with the friend who met me at the bar, not the other patrons.

5. Feelings. When I greet my friend outside the bar, I might say with genuine affection, “I really missed you.”

6. Faults, Fears, and Failures. Sometimes our conversations get so involved that we stop paying attention to the game. At this point, one of us might be describing a recent struggle, or gently pushing the other person to overcome a fear.

7. Legitimate Needs. There are few things more vulnerable than stating a need and asking for it to be met. Not too many of these get discussed while watching football.

Intimacy in a Relationship

Intimacy occurs only in relationships, and generally requires self-disclosure more than anything else. One scholar noted that self-disclosure between two people lowers relationship boundaries between those two people, but it often has the interesting side effect of increasing boundaries between those two individuals and the other people in their lives (Jamieson, 2005).

Indeed, there is something about intimacy in close relationships that makes them distinct from the more regular or everyday interactions we have. Whether a friendship or a romantic relationship, an intimate relationship is made special by our conscious decisions to create intimacy through self-disclosure. We seem to place particular value on relationships that are built on this kind of trust; we see them as better, or purer, than relationships built on convenience or less vulnerable interactions (Giddens, 1992).

In Sum

Hopefully this article has helped you understand your own experiences with intimacy. Trust your intuition about when and with whom you open up. Most people want close relationships and crave intimacy—most people are also at least a little afraid of the vulnerability it takes to build that intimacy. Be gentle, but also brave, with yourself. More fulfilling relationships likely await you.

References

● Erikson, E. H. (1959). Identity and the life cycle: Selected papers [Monograph]. Psychological Issues, 1, 1–171.

● Giddens, A. (1992). The transformation of intimacy: sexuality, love and eroticism in modern societies. Cambridge: Polity Press.

● Jamieson, L. (2005). Boundaries of intimacy. In L. McKie & S. Cunningham-Burley (Eds.), Families in society: boundaries and relationships (pp. 189-206). Policy Press.

● Jamieson, L. (2007). Intimacy. The Blackwell encyclopedia of sociology. Blackwell.

● Kelly, M. (2005). The seven levels of intimacy: The art of loving and the joy of being loved. Simon and Schuster