Friends or More: Is the intimacy you have with a friend different than the intimacy you have with a romantic partner?

Dear Sexpert,

I wonder if you think that the emotional intimacy that you have with a friend versus a romantic partner is substantively different?

–Friends or More?

Dear Friends or More,

Emotional intimacy is a universal component of interpersonal relationships.  We feel a degree of emotional intimacy with our parents, best friends, professors, coaches and significant others.  What distinguishes these relationships from each other is the intensity of emotional intimacy between involved parties.  By emotional intimacy, I specifically mean the “perception of closeness to another that allows sharing of personal feelings, accompanied by expectations of understanding, affirmation, and demonstration of caring.”  Emotional intimacy is highly dependent on trust between individuals. When trust is built between two people, it leads to mutual disclosure of thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Unfiltered sharing of one’s true self undoubtedly leads to feelings of closeness which can be expressed via verbal and nonverbal cues.  For example, emotionally intimate friends may demonstrate their closeness by sharing a recent triumph or offering a physical shoulder to cry on. Because trust can be achieved in the context of any interpersonal relationship, it is natural to question whether the nature of this trust would differ in a platonic versus a romantic relationship.  

Often the word “intimacy” is associated with sexual activity. But there are many types of intimacy, and emotional intimacy can undoubtedly be achieved without sexual intimacy.  However, achieving other types of intimacy within a relationship can strengthen emotional intimacy simultaneously. Types of intimacy include intellectual, experiential, sexual, and emotional.  While both intellectual intimacy (closeness associated with sharing ideas and thoughts), and experiential intimacy (closeness achieved by being involved in mutual activities), can be achieved in platonic and romantic relationships alike, sexual intimacy is unique to romantic relationships.  Since sexual encounters often involve making oneself vulnerable to a partner, they often require an increased degree of trust between partners. Trust and comfort with a romantic partner can come from sexual encounters but can also be built up through sharing expectations and desires, or working out conflicts within the relationship.

For assistance in building trust with your partner or strengthening your emotional intimacy, consider making an appointment for couples counseling (or an individual consultation) at Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS).  They can help couples improve communication, learn conflict resolution skills, and work together to build a healthier relationship. Working with a clinician individually may help you to know what you want or need, and how to communicate that to your partner(s) or in other relationships, romantic or otherwise.  You can also contact Princeton’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources, and Education (SHARE) office if you have concerns about the health of your relationship.

~ The Sexpert