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Emotional Intimacy or Sexual Intimacy: Chicken or the Egg?

Do couples need to have sex to enhance their emotional intimacy? Or is it possible to grow closer emotionally without getting physical?

emotional intimacy

As old as I am now, I can only count the times I’ve ever been emotionally intimate with someone on my left thumb. A few years ago, I thought it was just me. Maybe I didn’t have the capacity to invest a large part of my heart to anyone. But I soon realized many people around me built emotional intimacy with their partners, and some succeeded at it, but others failed at it.

Physical intimacy vs emotional intimacy

I wondered why this was working for them, and my questions led me to think the answer was sex. Most of the couples I knew were indeed physically intimate with their partners. So, I assumed that was why they became emotionally intimate as well.

Fast forward to me snorting out my soda when a friend told me she was marrying the guy she was sleeping with. Not her boyfriend. But the guy she simply screwed around with. I did not expect that. I soon saw she and this guy truly loved each other. So, did sex help push them to become extremely in love and ready to tie the knot?

I still searched for an answer when another friend announced her intent to marry as well. They dated for more than a year. But they still hadn’t had sex. I don’t presume to know what goes on between them during private moments, but looking at them and hearing how my friend raves about her boyfriend solidifies the fact they are truly emotionally intimate. Even without having slept together.

So, it all boils down to the ancient question. Which came first? The chicken or the egg? Emotional intimacy or physical intimacy? [Read: 13 weird, unique ways to build intimacy as a couple]

Do you need to have physical intimacy before emotional intimacy?

I’ve only presented two cases, whether you choose to believe them is up to you. But it seems to me that the answer is no. You don’t need physical intimacy, but it sure does help. I turned to those who know best.

Paul Dunion, a licensed professional counselor, says emotional intimacy is something we crave from the moment we are born. It is not something that happens immediately once we are old enough to understand the concept. Rather, a skill needing practice and perfected over time.

Physical intimacy, on the other hand, is a different type of intimacy altogether. Although it goes hand-in-hand with emotional intimacy, both exist without the other. The only difference is physical intimacy won’t last without emotional intimacy. [Read: What keeps the relationship intact when romance dies?]

Whether you become physically intimate with your partner or not, you still need to work on building emotional intimacy in order for your relationship to thrive for the long term. In the end, physical intimacy is not necessary to build emotional intimacy. But emotional intimacy is necessary to fulfill the needs of people who want to be physically intimate for a long time.

How can couples build emotional intimacy without sex?

This question may seem like it’s targeted to people who don’t want to have sex with their partners yet. It also applies to people who are already physically intimate with their partners. Even if you feel like you are in the peak of your relationship, you benefit more from emotional intimacy rather than focusing solely on the physical aspects. [Read: 15 fun and really intimate things you can do as a couple]

#1 Be emotionally intimate with yourself first. Emotional intimacy is about opening up and appreciating the one receiving your attention, which is why it is possible to express love and acceptance for yourself as well.

The way to accomplish this—being mindful of how you perceive yourself. If you do not appreciate yourself or if you constantly find fault in yourself, you end up manifesting this as a feeling of emptiness or lack of emotional intimacy for your partner. This feeling reflects on your partner and they, in turn, process your negative feelings toward yourself as their own. [Read: 6 reasons to love yourself first before falling in love]

#2 Be as vulnerable as possible. Once you decide to fully trust your partner, this means you need to show them everything about yourself. Sex does make up a huge part of expressing vulnerability. But being emotionally vulnerable can be more powerful.

Some parts of your life can be expressed at your own discretion, but for the most part, open yourself up to your partner more in terms of how you feel and what you need from them. By doing so, your partner feels more comfortable doing the same. You’ll finally start to build more emotional intimacy. [Read: Wear your heart on your sleeve: 12 reasons to be open]

#3 Get proper counseling. Most professional therapists advise sex is not the only answer to issues about emotional intimacy. Emotions are more involved than physical reactions, and a counselor helps you distinguish between the two. They also teach you how to customize your experience when it comes to building emotional intimacy. You don’t need to set a regular appointment with them as well.

James V. Cordova from Clark’s University Center for Couples says people who check in with their therapists from time to time about emotional health were more likely to experience an increase in emotional intimacy with their partners.

#4 Express your emotional needs. If your partner does not know what you need, how can they provide it? Although physical intimacy is a primal need, emotional intimacy is an essential need. The problem here, most people don’t know how to properly express to their partners what they want and need the most. [Read: 16 non-sexual touches to feel connected and loved]

Researchers think the best way to do this comes through baby steps. You don’t have to dump all your requests in one sitting. You express one request and see how your partner resolves it. Apart from that, your partner tells you about their own needs as well. [Read: The 9 unspoken relationship rules couples need to follow]

#5 Be as understanding as you want your partner to be. One of the biggest hindrances in a relationship is arguments. Some couples like you to think a little alone time in the bedroom fixes things, but that’s technically a manipulation of existing emotions. Anger and resentment cannot be resolved by sex, which is why you need to opt for the more engaging route, which is conflict resolution.

Conflict resolution remains a big part of building emotional intimacy. If your partner trusts you to do the right thing and make the right decisions, they follow suit and act in a way that’s best for your relationship. Admitting and fixing mistakes is the first step. The next step is to kiss and make up, and finally have more emotional intimacy so you can proceed to physical intimacy *we’re talking about make-up sex*.

[Read: From crush to companion: the 12 stages of intimacy]

Are you ready to start working on you and your partner’s emotional intimacy without resorting to physical intimacy? Tell us how it works out for you in the comments below.

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Danielle Anne
Those who can’t do, teach. I can neither do nor teach as well as others, but I can try. Aside from being a writer, I am also a physical therapist. My dream is...
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