Conversations: Defining and Expressing Intimacy

By Kiki Zeldes —

The conversation below is excerpted from an online discussion on relationships, identity, and sexuality that took place while compiling the last print edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” You can learn more about the discussion and read bios of the participants.

Jaime: When I want to express love to a partner without saying it, I put the tip of my nose up against his and wiggle my nose. It’s goofy, but it’s an intimate gesture for me because it involves being very close, physically, to the other person, and I don’t do it to a lot of people. I also express intimacy by telling people secrets. Like the mean rumor someone made up about me from high school that I’d rather forget. Or the abusive relationship I was in and how I can’t decide if I want to call it rape.

Madigan: I cannot be sexually or emotionally intimate with someone I don’t feel safe with. Physical touch and emotional honesty are two major parts of expressing intimacy with anyone I care about (romantic or otherwise).

Danielle: To truly laugh with someone—not at them or near them, but with them—requires a certain amount of intimacy. Because laughter, like any emotional expression, requires the safety to express that joy. The trust that your expression won’t be dismissed. The openness and sharing of the moment. It requires an understanding of why the moment is funny, and why the shared experience is important.

Victoria: I think of intimacy as embodied, though not necessarily sexual: These are the friends I hold hands with, give back rubs to, kiss hello and good-bye. And with my partner, when our rhythm is off, when we’re struggling to be open in our conversation or we’re just disconnected because of our schedules or our priorities, I have to reestablish that connection and intimacy before I want to have sex (whereas he always wants to reestablish connection by having sex). So it’s an ongoing conversation in my relationship.

Kali: Intimacy is our inside jokes. It’s the way we can be ridiculous and unself-conscious with each other. It’s being able to sleep soundly when he’s in the same bed with me. It’s when a touch can express love, longing, and desire and still be tender. Intimacy is knowing that I can reveal what a geek I am without worrying that he’ll be turned off. It’s there when we’re curled up together in bed, talking.

Nina: Intimacy is all in the details. It’s more than sex, and it’s more than knowing how to cuddle. It’s being able to read your partner’s face and know exactly what they are feeling before they tell you. It’s knowing the right combination of words to make everything better when their world is falling apart.

Sophia: There are times when my husband and I are in a crowded room full of people and we are feeling a little lost in the crowd. All we have to do is look at each other or lightly touch, and any discomfort with being in a crowd of strangers melts away.

As a nuclear family—as in my husband, children, and I—we are constantly in each other’s personal space, but we learn how to accept each other as individuals through mutual trust and respect. We know about and have dealt with all sorts of personal details about each other. I think family intimacy is essential to a child’s emotional growth and understanding of personal space and boundaries.

Pearl: Words are difficult to find to describe deep intimacy with a partner. It does involve trust and vulnerability, but those exist within my deep friendships. For me, the intimacy I have with my love/partner is cemented by a knowledge of each other grounded in Spirit. It is that which makes me light up when she comes into the room. It settles me with a connecting look in a large crowd. It is a secret that cannot be known by anyone else. It grows over time, it is still full of surprise, it is not always easy.

Judith: One of the interesting things about intimacy is that—whether it’s built slowly or suddenly—it’s almost impossible to unravel (completely) once it’s there. The relationship itself itself may dissolve at some point, but there’s still an almost visceral recognition of that person based on an intimacy that existed at one time. I see this with my parents, who divorced in a messy and painful way a few years back, and struggle with the ways they still feel connected, and I see it in my own life as well. There are people I may never be particularly close to again, with whom I nevertheless feel—and expect I will always feel—an intimate bond. That’s not always easy, either, but it’s important to me. That kind of closeness can transcend a lot.

Cecilia: Intimacy is having no guile, no boundaries. At sixty-three, it is adoring each other’s aging bodies: the too-large stomach, the fallen buttocks, the sagging boobs, the small scrapes that take too long to heal, the urgencies, the aches, the relaxation. It is sharing a bathroom and its functions. It is curling up under your lover’s armpit and crying for no identifiable reason. It is that glorious morning at the beginning of the relationship when, after luscious sex, you stay in bed for hours telling each other all about your previous lovers. It is knowing when it’s time to leave a party because your partner wants to even if you don’t. It is being able to talk about your failures and embarrassments. It is being able to say when you’re proud of yourself. It is being able to pack each other’s suitcases.

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