THE OFTEN-OVERLOOKED IMPORTANCE OF PHYSICAL INTIMACY
Would it surprise you to know that there are health benefits of holding hands with your partner as you walk down the street, or embracing when you return home at the end of the day? Or setting your hand atop his thigh or behind his neck when you’re the passenger next to him in the car? Do you know it can foster overall wellness — for both of you — to approach unexpectedly when she’s sipping morning coffee at the kitchen table and your hands settle on her shoulders or your arms enfold her from behind? Same for sitting side-by-side on the sofa, legs against or crossing one another’s, as you watch a movie or an episode from your favorite series?
Research evidence tells us that the presence of intimacy in our lives — feeling understood, accepted and cared for — strongly influences our overall physical and emotional well-being.1 Intimacy builds from many sources, including the quality of a partner’s responsiveness during conversation, the presence of empathy, acts of kindness and generosity, plus — and this is often overlooked — the ongoing experience of physical touch.
Touch can strongly transmit a sense of being accepted and cared for — the emotional benefits. Touch also confers physiological benefits. In one study, partners were found to have lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, on days when they enjoyed higher levels of physical touch like hand holding or hugging.2 (High levels of cortisol have been found to increase heart rate and blood pressure.) The researchers believe that it’s the positive emotions stemming from physical touch — feeling content, feeling relaxed, feeling alert — that lead directly to lower cortisol levels. Another study found that when people enjoyed increases in physically intimate behaviors over a number of days, they experienced subsequent decreases in symptoms of physical problems (back/muscle ache, headache, insomnia, upset stomach, rash/skin irritation, and sick/injured.)3 A third study found that regular and repeated physical touch was linked to increased oxytocin (a soothing, well being-promoting hormone), lower cortisol levels for both partners, and lower blood pressure among husbands.4
Touch likely enhances the well-being in all relationships, but may be especially important in long-term relationships where sex has come to play a diminished role. Physical contact of a non-sexual nature — the hugs and squeezes, the handholding, the random touches — can be an effective pathway for maintaining intimacy, with its many benefits.
Intimacy and sex can go hand in hand, but they aren’t one and the same. Learn more about the different types of intimacy.
When you think of the word “intimacy,” you may assume it means sexual relationships. But while one can boost the other, one doesn’t necessarily include the other. Intimacy on its own involves trust, acceptance, and an emotional connection with another person. Intimate partners care for one another and are unafraid to share thoughts, desires, and vulnerabilities.
In addition to romantic partners, you can have intimate relationships with friends, family members, and other people in your life.
Even without sex, intimacy can provide many physical and mental health benefits. “There has to be an evolutionary reason why people maintain paired bonding and intimacy when there is no sex involved. Indeed, we have found that there are biological advantages of being a dyad over an individual,” says Michael Krychman, MD, an obstetrician and gynecologist based in Southern California and also a clinical health professor at the University of California, Irvine.
Does Intimacy Always Involve Sex? And What’s the Difference?
The lines can get blurred at times, but you can have intimacy without sex and vice versa. “Intimacy is more of an emotional connection rather than a physical connection,” explains Dr. Krychman, who is a coauthor of The Sexual Spark. “As relationships increase in duration and [partners increase in] age, the sexual frequency may decline, but intimacy may increase.” But while sex and intimacy are different, they are interrelated, he adds. “They go hand in hand. Some partners need to feel loved and cared for to be [sexually] intimate, and some need to perform sexually to demonstrate that they love and care.”
What Are the Different Types of Intimacy?
It’s important to understand that there are four key forms of intimacy, says Krychman:
:Physical, which means being in the same place at the same time and spending quality time together, like on a date night.
:Emotional, which means sharing emotions and thoughts and connecting on a feeling level.
:Sensual, which means physical touch and pleasure and other ways to physically connect that don’t involve sexual acts, such as hugging and kissing.
:Sexual, which includes vaginal or anal sex, oral sex, and other forms of sexual contact.
:Everyone is different, and we all desire these different forms of intimacy to varying degrees in our relationships, he says.
The Health Benefits of Intimacy: Less Stress, Better Sex
Intimacy, in all its forms, has a variety of health benefits for body and mind, experts say. Here’s a look at some of the different ways that intimacy can improve daily living.
Intimacy Helps You Reduce Stress and Stay Healthy
Chronic stress can cause a host of health complications, such as insomnia, muscle pain, high blood pressure, cardiac events, a weakened immune system, irritable bowel syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease, among others. “When you are in a constant state of fight-or-flight, you use up a lot of necessary nutrients needed to maintain health. Intimacy helps reduce the stress and panic so that your body can replenish itself and maintain a good immune system,” says Barbara D. Bartlik, MD, a psychiatrist and sex therapist who works with Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City.
Intimacy Counters Loneliness and Reduces Risk of Mortality
Social isolation is linked with increased morbidity and mortality, according to one study (1), while another study found that in addition to higher mortality, loneliness can also impair executive functioning, sleep, and mental and physical well-being. (2)
“If you feel complimented, loved, and appreciated, that all contributes to good health. If you feel alone, isolated, stressed, abused, or taken advantage of, that has a negative effect on your health,” explains Dr. Bartlik, who is a coauthor of Integrative Sexual Health.
Intimacy Fuels a Better Sex Life
While sex isn’t necessary to achieve intimacy, intimacy can often lead to a better sex life, which in itself has health benefits. Your experience of sex will improve because you will be unafraid to express (and receive) what you desire, and willing and open to hear and care for your partner’s needs as well. The trust will allow both of you to grow and try new things that might enhance your relationship.
The Health Benefits of Sexual Intimacy
The act of having sex can lead to many positive changes in the body, such as boosting oxytocin (known as the “cuddle hormone”), says Krychman. A healthy sex life may also affect your immune system and blood pressure, lessen pain, and help you sleep better, he adds. In fact, orgasm alone can reduce blood pressure by releasing oxytocin, notes Bartlik. “It has a calming effect that can last a few days,” she explains. Sex is also a form of exercise, notes Krychman, which in itself has many health benefits.
Intimacy Can Benefit Your Mental Health
When you’re intimate with another person, you get a mental boost too. “Studies show that men who are deprived of intimacy get angry and women get depressed. Your hormone levels, especially oxytocin, actually change when you touch or are touched by someone, or share an intimate act such as decision-making,” says Krychman. “If you are connected in a loving relationship, you have more of the happy hormones (like dopamine),” he adds.
Intimacy and Emotional Support Strengthen You
If you are upset about something, you often feel comforted by discussing these issues with a close, empathetic companion or therapist. “When you feel supported, you can begin to overcome a certain amount of emotional pain and start the healing process,” says Krychman.
Plus, emotional insensitivity can weaken you. “If you encounter a lack of empathy or humiliation from someone you trust, it can exacerbate your pain and retraumatize you. You may then withdraw or avoid intimate relationships, which can make depression or anxiety worse,” says Bartlik.
Online Intimacy: Can You Cultivate Intimacy Virtually?
While many feel that the explosion of online and smartphone technology has limited social intimacy, research shows the opposite. (3) While the internet cannot simulate all aspects of intimate exchanges, there are many ways you can enact certain aspects of intimacy, says Anna M. Lomanowska, PhD, the founder and director of the Digital Well-Being Lab who is based in Toronto and who has studied the phenomenon.
“A basic definition of intimacy is the sharing of what is personal and private. From this perspective, actual face-to-face contact is not necessarily required to experience a sense of intimacy,” Dr. Lomanowska says. “While we do know that human touch and other nonverbal cues play a very special role in promoting greater intimacy between individuals, individuals who know each other offline can also easily use the internet for intimate exchanges, which can reinforce their face-to-face contact.
“We see this in the context of personal text messages we send to loved ones, where we have a particular way of expressing ourselves with certain individuals, [certain] phrases or emoticons only the other person fully understands. And of course it’s easy to feel closer to others while keeping in touch via Skype or Facetime,” she says.
But a healthy balance of face-to-face interactions alongside online interactions is important, adds Lomanowska. “In my opinion, the internet can be a great tool that can promote intimacy in relationships through various applications, but it certainly cannot replace all aspects of human intimacy,” she says.