You overheard your co-workers discussing “intimate relationships.” Several single people were saying their “relationships are intimate.” You know they are not married. What thoughts about the nature of those relationships come to mind? I have been researching and studying interpersonal relationships for decades now. My understanding has deepened about intimacy and how it works in relationships, whether romantic or platonic. Over all this time, I have formed hypotheses, tested those hypotheses and have come to different conclusions than I held back then. There are some ideas I used to believe that I now believe were false all along. For example, I used to believe that a relationship described as “intimate” was, by definition, a sexual relationship. I don’t believe that anymore. Furthermore,
- I am now convinced that behaving as if intimacy and sexual activity are one and the same is a sure path to destroying that relationship.
- I am now convinced that healthy, satisfying, sexual intimacy is a by-product of a committed relationship that is continually nurtured by healthy non-sexual intimacy between the parties.
- I am now convinced that there is a wide range of activities that build intimacy, build close connections, between people in friendships and marriages alike.
When staff and leadership of Where Grace Abounds talk about intimacy, we mean much more than sexual expression. Intimacy is available to us in healthy relationship with God and one another.
A wide range of researchers have identified many forms of intimacy. A few of them are:
- Intellectual intimacy: Can you think of times when you have shared with a friend, comparing notes on insights you have gained in a book you read, or from a blogger you follow? Remember the energy that flowed freely between you as you shared your analyses or critiques? And remember how you were warmed by the conversation, especially when your thoughts and opinions seemed to complement one another, or one of your friends’ thoughts fills in a blank space in your own understanding? It actually seemed as if you were both the better for the conversation, like the old adage you were “iron sharpening iron”? That experience is one of intellectual intimacy.
- Emotional intimacy: Other times, sharing between people is less about the thought life, but more about matters of the heart. This is when the conversation turns to sharing hopes and dreams, sorrows and joys, defeats and victories, and crippling fears that trip us up sometimes. When sharing on this level, with responses that carry a message of “you are not alone; I am with you,” when joining one another in that emotion, there sometimes rises up in you a relief beyond measure, There is a sense that joys are increased and sorrows dissipated through the burden sharing that goes on during these conversations. The experience just described is one of emotional intimacy.
- Non-erotic physical intimacy: Babies fail to thrive without nurturing touch; adults, especially single adults, often suffer from too little meaningful touch. (Though touch is often a volatile issue and care must be taken to respect boundaries, it is nonetheless an important need.) All persons can remember when a warm handshake, an affectionate bearhug, a reassuring pat on the shoulder, was recognized as meeting a deep need for connection. When meaningful touch is received without sexual tension, this experience is non-erotic physical intimacy.
- Spiritual intimacy: Does a particular friend come to mind when I describe the joy there is in praying together, sharing insights from Bible Study, discussing how your relationship with God is going these days? There are just some conversations, some worship and prayer experiences, that feed your spirit like none other. And there are some people who more easily fit with your style, your approach to God. Experiences like these with friends describe spiritual intimacy with your friend.
- Sexual intimacy: I use a different symbol to set this category of intimacy apart from the others. It is with the issue of sexuality that my beliefs have changed the most over the last five decades. What I believe thus far:
- Sexual intimacy isn’t a stand-alone category like the others—it is a result, an over-flow, so to speak; it is a by-product of connection within all the other levels and forms of intimacy experienced within a relationship.
- Sexual intimacy is the only form of intimacy that God has set aside for a specific purpose—you could call it sanctified in this sense. I believe God has reserved genital sexual intimacy for marriage. I am convinced that sexual intimacy is intended to be an expression of celebration of the oneness achieved in the marriage.
- In my opinion, this form of intimacy is to be kept within the marriage as a symbol of God’s passionate, exclusive relationship with His church, the Bride of Christ.
Healthy Intimacy: in general, what does it look like?
When intellectual, emotional, non-erotic physical, and spiritual intimacy are found in relationships in sufficient supply, then persons feel connected. Loneliness dissipates. Sexual feelings and thoughts become more manageable and a peaceful self-control becomes possible. When people are practicing true intimacy, they share their lives with each other, talking about joys, dreams and fears and dilemmas – at a level appropriate to the relationship. In real intimacy, there is care for one another that touches the heart without diminishing either person. Full expression of sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage.
Mary is one of the founders of Where Grace Abounds and served as Executive Director from its inception on July, 1986 through March 31st, 2007. She speaks and teaches at churches and conferences across the country. She has also served on several boards of non-profit organizations, is a conference speaker on a variety of topics that include: Intimacy with God, Healthy Sexuality, and leadership development. Currently serving in leadership in her denomination, Mary’s favorite ministry roles are discipleship counseling, group facilitation, and leadership development.
Mary often characterizes herself as “a seeker of Truth” and has a long-standing fascination with human behavior and motivation. Her education consists of lay and discipleship counseling, independent study about the integration of psychology and theology, counseling and human sexuality. She also holds a BS in Human Services and an MA in Psychology from Regis University.
Mary attends a Friends (Quaker) Church.
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