unSEXpected: Exploring Forms of Intimacy 

We gather in the kitchen while the party roars outside. There are six of us, including the newly recruited muso that lifts your heels off the ground just with their laugh. It’s only been a couple of months, and it’s nothing serious, and of course you’re just seeing where life takes you, but if you’d ask me, I’d tell you you’ve never looked so in love. We shift as conversations break and blend, all taking our cues in the choreography that is drunken conversation. When they reach out to hold you, you fall in, wanting. The rest of us share goofy looks. And for a breath or two, no one says a thing. All too happy for you, to break the intimacy of this moment.  

By definition, intimacy means ‘close familiarity’. In practice, it’s an effort of connection and attention, built through interactions, requiring trust, vulnerability, openness, and awareness.  

When we crave intimacy, what we crave is connection to others. A palpable reassurance of closeness and attachment.  

But intimacy is more than just establishing close relationships, it’s a necessary exercise for emotional wellness. In the same way that we talk about love languages and how they need to be met, we also have certain thresholds of intimacy that need to be reached regularly for us to feel content.  

Physical proximity doesn’t always align with connection. And, confusingly, sometimes even acts of intimacy don’t necessarily align with connection. Like when you spend an afternoon having a deep and meaningful conversation with someone over the phone, but what you really needed was a cuddle and some physical affection. There are situations where, no matter how intimate an activity sounds on paper, it might not feel very fulfilling in practice because it’s not the kind of connection you truly craved or needed. 

Both in romantic and platonic relationships, lack of, or insufficient, intimacy can cause distress and dissatisfaction, and it’s normally due to a lack of understanding of what is needed, which makes it difficult to know what to ask for. 

To recognise what kind of intimacy we need, we need to understand the different forms of intimacy we can experience. 

Much like the ongoing debate of how many continents there are (let’s not unpack this right now), the internet cannot agree on a set number of forms of intimacy, and systems of understanding them vary.  

With no official qualifications on the matter, and nothing but curiosity, a passion for sexual wellness, an okay internet connection and a lot of trial and error, I have somewhat successfully created an ambitious graph that illustrates the multidimensionality of intimacy. An intersectional model, if you will. (This graph does not cover all the kinds of intimacy that can exist within relationships, but it covers the most commonly discussed).

Now that we’ve visualised intimacy, and just how complex it can be, let’s unpack it.  

Intellectual intimacy is all about establishing a safe space for discussion and curiosity. It’s the comfort that you can share your ideas and perspectives without fear of being judged harshly or misunderstood. When we feel comfortable sharing our thoughts, we’re also more likely to explore different positions and develop new ideas. Intellectual intimacy is key for personal growth within relationships.  

Emotional intimacy focuses on emotional connection, understanding thoughts, feelings and reactions through empathy and respect. Establishing emotional intimacy requires vulnerability and trust. It’s the safety of admitting your feelings with the knowledge you’ll be supported through them.  

Physical intimacy is not all about sex, baby, but it is, for the most part, about touch. This kind of intimacy is the level of comfort you feel being around someone, grazing their hand, touching the small of their back, having a staring contest or cuddling on the couch. It’s a sort of bodily comfort that becomes muscle memory with time.   

Sexual intimacy can be considered a sub-category of physical intimacy and can often be linked to emotional intimacy (depending on the characteristics of your relationship with the person or people you’re sleeping with). Sexual intimacy is not only the act of sex itself, but also the comfort to express needs and desires, try new things, share preferences, and set boundaries. 

Spiritual intimacy may sound strictly religious-based, but it also encompasses a boarder understanding of the meaning of life, code of ethics, moral values, and general practices of living. Spiritual intimacy is the comfort to share your innermost beliefs about the universe and build upon them or unpack them.  

Social intimacy is practised by spending quality time together, generally enjoying shared life experiences. This kind of intimacy can look like a sip-and-paint date or staying in and making dinner. It’s the act of appreciating and enjoying each other’s presence. 

Recreational intimacy can be considered a subcategory of social intimacy since it’s practised through finding hobbies and interests that you can enjoy together.  

Aesthetic intimacy can also be considered a subcategory of social intimacy since it’s practised through sharing the experience of beauty. This could be appreciating sunsets or taking in a spectacular view at the end of a hike. The goal is to appreciate each other’s understanding of beauty. 

Mental intimacy is a broad category of intimacy that generally encompasses the act of ‘minds meeting’. 

Experiential intimacy is a broad category of intimacy that generally encompasses the act of making shared memories.  

Once you’ve gained an understanding of different forms of intimacy, you can begin reflecting on which forms you appreciate the most, and that way you’ll know what to ask for in relationships. 

Forms of intimacy can often overlap, which can make it a little difficult to know exactly which one you enjoyed the most. For example, if you’re trying tantric sex with a partner for the first time, you’re probably going to experience sexual intimacy, emotional intimacy, and experiential intimacy all at once. From this experience, the next time you crave intimacy you might think it’s the physical affection you enjoyed the most, but in reality, it might have been the emotional vulnerability. 

This experience is completely normal, and somewhat easily fixed. All you need to do is reflect on forms of intimacy after you practice them. Grab that mental notebook babe, we’re journaling tonight.  

In my own life I’ve confused forms of intimacy countless times and have been left feeling more alone than how I started. I’ve spent nights trying to mould myself to suit other people’s personalities for a sliver of connection, I’ve spent dates judging myself for not feeling the love people have tried to give me, and I’ve had sex when I just needed a little appreciation. 

I’ve felt lonely not knowing why I couldn’t just connect with people while trying all the things that I thought should have worked.  But I know now that I was trying to solve a puzzle with all the wrong pieces.  

If you’ve also felt in some way ‘broken’ or ‘unlovable’ because you’ve struggled to find the intimacy you crave, let me reassure you: you’re not. You just haven’t found the right pieces yet, but you will. And once you figure out your preferences, you’ll be able to have much more fulfilling interactions with loved ones, knowing exactly what it is you need to ask for. 

Intimacy looks different for everyone. There’s no hard and fast rule about what it should look or feel like. It’s possible to practice activities that sound intimate on paper, but do nothing for you to foster connections in practice. And that’s pretty normal. Intimacy is not just an activity you can tick off, it’s a practice that requires an effort of connection and attention. It might take some time, but I promise it’ll be worth it xx

UnSEXpected is a Glass column dedicated to the things we learn about sex and intimacy through conversations with friends. If you have any unique, funny or interesting stories you’d like to share, please get in touch! It’s the team’s goal to make this column a fun, safe and diverse space.

Konstanz Muller Hering
Konstanz Muller Hering

Konstanz (she/ they) is a Meanjin/Brisbane-based writer and QUT Creative Writing graduate. Konstanz was a Glass editor, and now contributes as an alumni.

Articles: 24

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