Are sex and intimacy the same, and can you have one without the other? There are differences, and knowing their differences can help improve your relationships.
In romantic relationships, sex and intimacy are often used interchangeably. But there’s a distinct and significant difference between the two.
There’s such a difference between sex and intimacy that they often hinge on partners understanding this distinction when issues arise in relationships.
Knowing the differences between the two can be crucial to fixing, maintaining, and improving the state of your relationship.
What is intimacy?
Too often, people refer to “being intimate” or “their intimate lives” when discussing sex. Although the two can and for true satisfaction should be intertwined, intimacy is something that goes beyond a physical act.
True intimacy involves a level of emotional connection and trust that brings people closer.
An intimate relationship can be deeply personal, allowing each person to be vulnerable with the other. While a physical connection can often be associated with this, intimacy doesn’t need to be physical to exist.
There are three types of intimacy:
- emotional intimacy: a deep feeling of closeness and trust
- physical intimacy: includes touching in a way that enhances feelings of closeness and desire
- sexual intimacy: combines the physical act of sex with emotional closeness and trust
In general, intimacy involves a particular level of closeness.
What is sex?
Discussing sex can be complicated.
Strictly speaking, sex is physical. No matter the form, sex involves the arousal of physical desire and response to a stimulus.
Sex by itself doesn’t necessarily require intimacy.
Some imply intimacy when discussing sex, especially in a relationship. For others, sex can occur in an impersonal and disconnected manner.
In these cases, the definition of intimacy doesn’t apply.
But contrary to what some may believe, sex doesn’t occur without an emotional element, as the development of feelings often accompanies the physical response.
Suggested read: Core questions about sex
Sex vs. intimacy: Are they different or similar?
Understanding the similarities between sex and intimacy can be tricky because it depends on the type of intimacy and the context of the discussion.
While some may assume the similarities are substantial, the truth is sex and intimacy are different.
This is particularly evident when discussing issues in a relationship that require the differences to be recognized to have a productive conversation.
When a couple claims to be having trouble with the “intimate” part of their relationships, a mental health professional may ask clarifying questions to understand better what is meant.
For example, they may ask:
- “Is there a problem with your physical interaction and response to each other?”
- “Is the problem with the trust and connection to each other?”
In long-term romantic relationships, it could be both because one often feeds the other.
But the issue can also be isolated.
For instance, some couples in long-term relationships may have lost the desire to have sex with each other, but that doesn’t mean they’ve lost emotional intimacy.
Other couples may have regular sex but still feel emotionally disconnected.
Other problems, such as body image, an issue both women and men can experience, may unknowingly be playing a part and further complicate why partners may be dissatisfied with their intimate life.
A healthy relationship has to have sex and intimacy to maintain a strong bond and satisfaction.
Can you have one without the other?
The short answer is yes.
A 2018 study suggests that higher levels of intimacy are associated with higher levels of sexual desire in long-term romantic relationships.
You may think that sex and intimacy are too intertwined to exist independently. Yet they can and often do exist independently.
Relationships, after all, exist in various forms.
Close friendships can have platonic emotional intimacy, and casual physical relationships can be based on sexual accessibility and compatibility.
Sex and intimacy can exist without the other, but combining the two creates a stronger bond.
There’s often some range of sex and intimacy in a romantic relationship.
Couples often share at least a mild sense of intimacy to share a life. This supports at least occasional sex.
Occasional sex partners, on the other hand, feel a sense of trust and connection that makes having sex possible.
Suggested read: The fundamentals of sex
How does intimacy affect your mental health?
Emotional connection and closeness to others can be a big part of positive mental health. We crave interaction with trusted individuals and the support of others to help provide stability and perspective in our lives.
This connection, or intimacy, can be with a friend or a romantic partner. Either way, without intimacy, we can experience feelings of loneliness and isolation that can lead to depression.
Does this mean sex is crucial for mental health as well? Yes, but not to the same degree.
A 2018 study noted earlier research about romantic relationship satisfaction and how it can promote feelings of well-being and have a positive effect on mental health.
Experts found that satisfaction with a sexual relationship between couples contributed to this relationship quality.
A 2021 study found that people who were sexually active during the COVID-19 lockdown had less anxiety and depression.
But having sex without intimacy may not have the same benefits.
A healthy relationship will have a balance of intimacy and sex.
Sex and sex with intimacy are not the same, and each fulfills different needs.
Try to see them independently and in the context of how they support each other in your relationship.
If you need additional help, consider reaching out to a mental health professional specializing in marriage and family counseling.