Intimacy is a cornerstone of a good couple relationship and facilitates the health and well-being of the partners. In an intimate interaction, partners reveal their private selves to one another, sharing parts of themselves that are ordinarily hidden. Ideally, they receive one another's personal revelations with nonjudgmental acceptance and continued interest, attraction, and caring, and validate one another by indicating that they too have had such thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
Intimacy is beneficial for individual health and well-being. Individuals who perceive their spouses to be supportive confidantes are buffered from the pathogenic effects of stress. This buffering effect can be observed with a variety of stressors (e.g., births, illnesses, deaths), and with various stress-related outcomes (e.g., depression, anxiety, illness). In contrast, people whose intimacy needs are not met feel lonelier (Rubenstein and Shaver 1982) and their relationships are more prone to dissolution (Hendrick 1981).
Intimacy is beneficial, but attaining a style of intimate relating that meets both partners' needs is a challenge. Intimacy entails risks: People expose their most vulnerable selves to the other and may not receive a sensitive response. Worse, partners sometimes hurl previously whispered confidences at one another as weapons in a struggle for control. For these reasons and more, partners seek a fine-tuned communication process by which they seek, decline, and regulate intimate contact in their relationship.
There is very little research on conceptions of intimacy internationally. The focus of this entry, therefore, is on North America.
Conceptions of Intimacy
A dilemma for scholars who study intimacy is deciding on the best way to conceptualize it. Conceptions of intimacy usually address one (or more) of three phenomena: intimate interactions, intimate relationships, or intimate experiences. Intimate interactions are communicative exchanges between people. In line with the etymological origins of the word intimacy, most definitions of intimate interaction converge on a notion of sharing the personal (i.e., innermost, private) aspects of the self. Verbal sharing can involve self-disclosure of personal facts, opinions, and beliefs, and the verbalization of feeling and emotion. Nonverbal sharing can include a shared meaningful glance, affectionate touching, or shared expressions of emotion such as tears or laughter, and sexual encounter. Sharing the personal means sharing vulnerable aspects of the self.
Intimate relationships, in contrast, "impl[y] a series of interactions between two individuals known to each other . . ." (Hinde 1981, p. 2). Intimate experiences are the feelings and thoughts people have during, and as a result of, their intimate interactions. Intimate relationships are those in which partners know each other well and who maintain positive, loving feelings towards the partner who they know so well.
Intimate interactions can be characterized on the basis of the behavior, feelings, and thoughts that participants have during and following their interaction. Intimate behavior includes openness and self-disclosure, especially the sharing of personally vulnerable aspects of the self; sensitive, empathic responses to partner openness and vulnerability; communication of positive regard and respect; emotional support; touching and physical affection; and sexual activity. Positive feelings that accompany these intimate behaviors include pleasure, love, gratification, pride, security, comfort, and safety.
Openness and Self-Disclosure
Self-disclosure is a vital component of intimacy, and it is related to greater emotional involvement, fulfillment of needs and relationship satisfaction (Prager and Buhrmester 1998). Self-disclosure facilitates the development of new intimate relationships (Altman and Taylor 1973) and helps to maintain ongoing ones (Haas and Stafford 1998). Although some theorists have suggested that there could be too much self-disclosure in a relationship, there is little evidence that a high degree of intimacy is associated with the presence of relationship problems.
Partners' self-disclosures vary in personalness and in emotional content, and each of these dimensions is positively associated with intimacy. When interaction participants reveal more personal, vulnerable aspects of themselves through self-disclosure, and when they express feelings about what they have disclosed (Lippert and Prager 2001), they perceive their interactions to be more intimate. Self-disclosure is also more intimate when it addresses issues that are immediate to the time and place of the interaction and salient to the discloser and recipient.
The extent to which relationship-partners actively attend and convey interest (Miller and Berg 1984), understanding (Reis and Shaver 1988), and empathy for the other's perspective is partner responsiveness. In Harry Reis and Philip Shaver's (1988) model of intimate interactions, intimacy is a process that begins when one person communicates personally relevant and revealing information to another person, and the second person responds to the speaker in a sensitive manner. According to Reis and Shaver, an interaction is intimate if a discloser perceives that his/her listener conveyed understanding, acceptance, validation, and caring towards the discloser and her/his communication.
Research supports the notion that responsiveness contributes to daily experiences of intimacy in couple relationships, over and above the effects of self-disclosure. In one study of college students, Jean-Paul Laurenceau, Lisa Barret, and Paula R. Pietromonaco (1998) found that self-disclosure was not as intimate when partners were insensitive or unresponsive to that disclosure.
Responsive behavior is both nonverbal and verbal. Intimate nonverbal behaviors are sometimes called involvement behaviors, and they include smiling and maintaining a forward lean, eye contact, and close physical proximity during an interaction. Behaviors such as mutual gaze and forward lean have been associated with positive affect during an interaction and are more visible when partners are romantically involved. Involvement behaviors are critical to people's perceptions of intimacy during interactions (Burgoon et al. 1984).
Communication of Positive Regard
The expression of positive, loving feelings towards one's partner is an important aspect of intimate communication, both as a disclosure and as a response to disclosure (Lippert and Prager 2001). Perceiving one's partner as having a positive view of oneself, especially a partner who knows one very well, helps partners maintain a high self-esteem (Murray, Holmes, and Griffin 2000).
Partners who communicate positive regard to one another may be in a better position to sustain intimacy in their relationship. Work by Sandra Murray and her colleagues (2000) suggests that people determine how much vulnerability they will risk with their partners, in part, on the basis of how positively they believe their partner perceives them. Expressions of positive feelings contribute uniquely to couple-relationship partners' daily experiences of intimacy (Lippert and Prager 2001).
Reassurance and Emotional Support
Some intimate interactions are characterized by emotional support, in which one partner shares a difficulty, and the other offers comfort, reassurance, confidence building, and alternative (i.e., more benign) perspectives for thinking about the problem. Adults who perceive that others, especially their spouses, are available to provide emotional support if and when they need it enjoy many positive outcomes, including better physical and mental health and improved immune functioning.
Effective provision of emotional support is important for a relationship as well as for the individual partner. Partners who are agile providers of emotional support in the early stages of their relationships have less marital distress later on. People can acquire the ability to provide effective emotional support (e.g., Johnson and Greenberg 1994) but its acquisition requires sensitivity to the partner because there is no single means of providing emotional support that is effective for everyone.
Touch and Affectionate Expression
Touches eliminate the space between people, and can intensify experiences of intimacy in verbal communication or stand on their own as intimate behaviors. Stanley E. Jones and Elaine A. Yarbrough (1985) identified three types of touch that nearly always elicited intimate experience in one sample of college students. Inclusion touches, such as legs, knees, or shoulders that touched, conveyed tactile statements of togetherness. Sexual touches involved extended holding and caressing. Affectionate touches covered the widest range of touches, and were neither inclusion nor sexual touches.
Not surprisingly, some touches are more intimate than others. Face touching, for example, is more personal than handshakes, arm touches, or arms around the shoulder or waist. Jones and Yarbrough distinguished between "nonvulnerable" body parts (in the United States, this includes hands, arms, elbows, shoulders, and upper-middle back) and "vulnerable" body parts (all others). Touches on the latter are usually confined to the couple relationship and may, if done in public, signal the couple's level of intimacy ( Jones and Yarbrough 1985). Any touch is more intimate if it is prolonged.
Sexuality is one of the most important types of intimacy couples share. Sexuality involves the sharing of very private, personal aspects of the self— one's nude body, expressing to a partner what feels good, and experiencing an orgasm in the presence of the partner.
Positive experiences with sexual intimacy are associated with relationship success: heterosexual couples who remain married report that their sexual relationships are better after marriage, whereas those who divorce report, in retrospect, that theirs were worse. Although satisfied relationship partners engage in more frequent sexual relations, sex frequency is an imperfect gauge of relationship intimacy. Sexual contact is less frequent in more enduring relationships, when partners are older or less educated, and when relationships are less equitable.
Less frequent sexual contact does not always signal a relationship in trouble. Desire or lack thereof may be an even more significant indicator of a relationship's functioning than coital frequency. Pamela C. Regan (1998) found that sexual desire is more closely associated with feelings of love than sexual behavior in the minds of college students as well. Couples in therapy with sexual desire problems have a poorer prognosis than those whose problems are more centered around lack of shared gratification.
Intimacy and the Couple Relationship
Most writers argue that intimacy is more than a type of interaction. It is also a "detailed knowledge or deep understanding" of the other, acquired over time within the context of a loving relationship (Bargarozzi 1999). Across repeated interactions, relationship partners form general perceptions that reflect the degree to which the relationship is intimate. Over time, these perceptions take on an emergent property that extends beyond the experiences contained within any particular interaction (Chelune, Robison, and Krommor 1984). These perceptions, or intimacy schemas, encapsulate each partner's experience with the other over time, and mediate the impact of individual interactions.
Intimacy schemas, if they represent mostly positive experiences, can result in a back-drop of loving, positive feelings about the partner that buffer the relationship from the inevitable negative emotions that arise. This positive sentiment override (Weiss 1980) can sustain the relationship even when shared intimate experiences are not immediately forthcoming. A similar pattern exists with partners' perceptions of support availability, which persist during times when the partners are not seeking support from one another and, in turn, reliably distinguish between more and less satisfied couples.
Finally, the information gleaned from intimate interactions becomes a base of knowledge and understanding of the partner that goes beyond understanding a particular message or communication. As two people become more intimate, partners come to perceive one another as each perceives her- or himself, yet in a more positive light (Murray, Holmes, and Griffin 2000). When a deeper, richer knowledge of the other is accompanied by acceptance and respect for the partner's interests, preferences, and proclivities, the partners have by definition formed an intimate relationship.
Arthur Aron and colleagues (1991) suggest that increased intimacy leads to the psychological inclusion of the other within the self, so that the boundaries of the self extend to include the other's well-being and her or his desirable and undesirable characteristics. Perhaps as a result of this inclusion, more intimate partners may project themselves onto the other and perceive the other as more similar to themselves than he or she actually is (Ruvolo and Fabin 1999). Ann P. Ruvolo and Lisa A. Fabin argue that it is validating to perceive others as having similar values and characteristics to oneself, especially when it comes to one's intimate partner. Further, through mutual influence, partners may actually become more similar as a result of confiding in and listening to one another. More intimate partners do not necessarily idealize one another, but relative to those who are less intimate, they do tend to see the other as more similar to the self.
Trajectories for Intimacy over Time
All types of long-term couple relationships, regardless of sexual orientation or marital status, have demonstrable declines in frequency of intimate interactions over time. Sexual intimacy declines most precipitously within the first to second years of a relationship (Blumstein and Schwartz 1983). There are documented declines in affectionate expression, in the number of pleasing things partner do for one another, and in the time partners spend in joint leisure activities (Huston, McHale, and Crouter 1986; Kurdek 1995). Possibly, as couples become more secure with one another they no longer need to "touch base" as frequently and may even take each other for granted.
Intimate interactions appear to become less emotionally intense over time, perhaps leading partners to conclude that they are less intimate than they once were. Some writers have argued that emotional intensity is a critical part of intimate experience (e.g., Sternberg 1988) whereas others have argued that it is only the memorable intimate experiences that are emotionally intense (Lippert and Prager 2001). Emotional intensity may signal the newness of intimacy between partners because new relationships are characterized by uncertainty and novelty, each of which add excitement and anxiety to intimate experience. As partners get to know and become increasingly predictable to one another, the emotional intensity of their interactions may wane even though they are still sharing and responding sensitively to one another and are therefore still engaging in intimate interactions (Berscheid 1983).
Intimacy, Vulnerability, and Risk
Relative to the intimate relationship, there are few adult relational contexts in which the possibility of another's rejection is more threatening to the self and in which the possibility of acceptance is more self-affirming. Such stakes seem to necessitate a certain degree of caution. Intimates balance their experiences of closeness with experiences of felt security, and prevent themselves from risking more vulnerability than they can tolerate. Partners' tolerance for the risks of intimacy are related to their level of confidence in their partner's admiration, reciprocated affections, and commitment (Prager 1999). More secure partners may well be willing to risk more.
In established relationships, a climate of safety, which comes from each partner's sensitivity and positive regard of the other, allows partners to continue sharing their vulnerability with one another in intimate interactions. Taking risks—of being hurt, exposed, or made to feel foolish—is an integral part of intimate relating. The result of risk taking in the absence of negative consequences is trust, which fosters further intimacy. Supporting this notion is a study by Paul Robert Appleby, Lynn Carol Miller, and Sadina Rothspan (1999), who found that the most common reason given by gay men for engaging in sexually risky behavior was, ironically, that the behavior demonstrated the love, trust, and commitment shared by the partners.
Individual Differences and Intimacy
Given the inevitable balance of pleasures and risks that intimacy offers, it is not surprising that individual differences exist in the strength of people's intimacy needs and in their tolerance for the anxiety associated with its risks. Some people appear to be content with much less openness, emotional support, sexual contact, and/or affectionate expression than others (Prager 1995). Disagreements and unresolvable conflicts about intimacy create thorny problems in couple relationships.
Dan McAdams's (1988) research on intimacy motivation has supported the notion that some people desire and seek out opportunities for intimate interaction more frequently than others. High intimacy motivation may be an advantage, as individuals high in intimacy motivation experience greater satisfaction in their dating and marital relationships, and provide more social support to their partners (Sanderson and Evans 2001).
Partners whose intimacy needs are compatible are more likely to have their needs met and less likely to encounter conflict. Karen J. Prager and Duane Buhrmester (1998) discovered that partners whose needs are met more frequently have more intimate contact and less conflict. Conversely, people whose partners do not meet their expectations or standards (Vangelisti and Daly 1997) report lower levels of relationship satisfaction. Partners who argue about intimacy-related issues, such as how much each should express to the other about his and her private feelings and thoughts, or how often partners should have sexual relations, report higher levels of marital distress than those who have other kinds of incompatibilities
Research on individual differences in working models of attachment suggests that people's expectations for a secure (or insecure) attachment in a romantic relationship are associated with different levels of tolerance for the risks of intimacy. Couple relationships share many of same characteristics as parent-child relationships when it comes to attachment and may serve a similar function for adults, providing them with a home-base within which they feel secure and giving them a stable base from which to explore new environments and opportunities (Ainsworth 1989).
The quality of attachments varies from one relationship to another, and there is evidence that these variations are due, in part, to different expectations, or working models, that adults bring into their romantic relationships. Working models reflect adults' earlier relationship experiences, with the result that most adults have emotionally charged preconceived notions about how their relationships will turn out (e.g., happy, secure, abandoned, or smothered).
Individual differences in working models of attachment are associated with individual differences in intimacy needs and preferences (e.g., Collins and Read 1990). For example, recent research indicates that people with insecure attachment expectations (i.e., dismissing) appear to have little tolerance for intimacy (Brennan and Morris 1997) and are more likely than others to have multiple, nonexclusive relationships thereby keeping their partners at a distance (Stephan and Bachman 1999). In contrast, secure individuals are more sexually exclusive and least likely to engage in behavior destructive to their relationships. This research, combined with evidence from McAdams's earlier research on intimacy motivation, suggests that individual differences in intimacy-related needs and fears do exist and affect people's behavior. Further, it seems that working models of attachment are systematically associated with these individual differences.
Intimacy and Gender
Every couple relationship exists in a broader context that affects their opportunities for intimacy and the quality of their intimate interactions. Gender is a contextual variable that is both present within the dyad (such as the gender of the partners and the nature of their relationship) while being simultaneously reflected in the broader culture within which the couple lives (i.e., sets of roles and socio-cultural norms).
Intimacy has come to be associated with females and femininity in modern U.S. culture. Women are believed to be "relationship experts," and are encouraged to place more emphasis upon becoming skillful at relating intimately than are men (Steil 1997). Perhaps, as a result, men disclose less and describe themselves as less concerned with meeting emotional intimacy needs than women (Prager 1995). That this is a sociohistorical phenomenon is supported by research showing that men are more open and affectionate with one another in some non-Western cultures than in Western ones (Berman, Murphy-Berman, and Pachauri 1988). Unfortunately, there is a paucity of research on couple intimacy in cultures other than the United States.
Overall sex differences are mitigated in heterosexual romantic relationships where women and men report similar patterns of self-disclosure (e.g., Antill and Cotton 1987). Despite these similarities in women's and men's self-reported disclosure levels with their romantic partners, women are more lonely in their romantic relationships than are men (Rubenstein and Shaver 1982), initiate more separations, and report more problems (Fletcher 1983). Anita L. Vangelisti and John A. Daly (1997) found that women and men have similar standards for their romantic relationships, but that women are more likely to report that their standards are not being met by their partners. Either women's socialization to be relationship experts causes them to be more aware of relationship problems, or women are more effective relationship partners than men are, resulting in men experiencing fewer relationship problems (Steil 1997).
Intimacy Regulation in Couple Relationships
In order to reap the rewards of intimacy without experiencing undo anxiety and rejection, couples look for ways to regulate intimate contact in their relationships. Each couple seeks their own balance between intimate encounter and risk, based on their respective individual intimacy capacities and preferences and on the other strengths of their relationship (Fitzpatrick 1988).
One way that couples regulate the risk of rejection and relationship dissolution is through selective disclosure and withholding of disclosure. Leslie A. Baxter and William W. Wilmot (1985) found that disclosure regarding certain topics (e.g., extra-relationship activity, relationship norms, conflict-inducing topics) was avoided in college student dating relationships because these topics were perceived as threatening to the relationship. Secrecy may also be used to prevent some of intimacy's risks (Finkenauer and Hazam 2000).
Couples also need to regulate intimacy in order to preserve each partner's perception of himor herself as a distinct individual. Because intimacy involves some blurring of individual boundaries in the interest of each knowing the other and maintaining the bond between them, intimate times need to be balanced with time alone or time for separate interests. Intimacy and autonomy may exist in a dialectical tension in relationships, in which neither needs to conflict with the other but both can and must coexist for a relationship to function well (Baxter and Wilmot 1985). In support of this notion, Karlein M. G. Schreurs and Bram P. Buunk (1996) found that, in lesbian relationships, intimacy and autonomy were both positively related to satisfaction. Emotional dependency, in contrast, was not, nor was it positively correlated with autonomy; it was, however, to intimacy. Perhaps intimacy can coexist with either autonomy or emotional dependency, but the highest levels of satisfaction accompany intimacy and autonomy in combination.
See also:Affection; Attachment: Couple Relationships; Communication: Couple Relationships; Communication: Family Relationships; Friendship; Gender; Honeymoon; Infidelity; Love; Marital Sex; Marital Typologies; Relationship Initiation; Relationship Maintenance; Self-Disclosure; Sexual Dysfunction; Sexuality; Trust
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"Intimacy." International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 12, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/intimacy
"Intimacy." International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/intimacy
in·ti·mate1 / ˈintəmit/ • adj. 1. closely acquainted; familiar, close: intimate friends they are on intimate terms. ∎ (of a place or setting) having or creating an informal friendly atmosphere: an intimate little Italian restaurant. ∎ used euphemistically to indicate that a couple is having a sexual relationship: he was sickened by the thought of others having been intimate with her. ∎ involving very close connection: their intimate involvement with their community. 2. private and personal: going into intimate details of his sexual encounters intimate correspondence. ∎ used euphemistically to refer to a person's genitals: touching her in the most intimate places. 3. (of knowledge) detailed; thorough: an intimate knowledge of the software. • n. a very close friend: his circle of intimates. DERIVATIVES: in·ti·mate·ly adv. in·ti·mate2 / ˈintəˌmāt/ • v. [tr.] imply or hint: he had already intimated that he might not be able to continue. ∎ state or make known: Mr. Hutchison has intimated his decision to retire. DERIVATIVES: in·ti·ma·tion / ˌintəˈmāshən/ n.
"intimate." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 12, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/intimate-0
"intimate." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/intimate-0
in·ti·ma·cy / ˈintəməsē/ • n. (pl. -cies) close familiarity or friendship; closeness: the intimacy between a husband and wife. ∎ a private cozy atmosphere: the room had a peaceful sense of intimacy about it. ∎ an intimate act, esp. sexual intercourse. ∎ an intimate remark: here she was sitting swapping intimacies with a stranger. ∎ [in sing.] closeness of observation or knowledge of a subject: he acquired an intimacy with Swahili literature.
"intimacy." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 12, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/intimacy-0
"intimacy." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/intimacy-0
Hence intimacy XVII. So intimate make known formally; indicate indirectly. XVI. f. pp. of late L. intimäre. intimation formal announcement XV; expression by sign XVI. — (O)F. or late L.
"intimate." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 12, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/intimate-1
"intimate." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/intimate-1
"intimacy." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 12, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/intimacy
"intimacy." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/intimacy
"intimate." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 12, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/intimate
"intimate." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/intimate