Many of us assume that when it comes to sex, intimacy and pleasure go hand-in-hand.
Often, they do—pleasurable sex can feel even better when we’re having it with someone we have an intimate relationship with. And an intimate relationship can become even deeper when we share sexual pleasure.
But intimacy and pleasure aren’t always connected, and it might surprise you to learn about how well an intimate relationship can function without pleasure, or how well a relationship based on pleasure can function without intimacy.
Today we’re going to take a deep dive into these concepts and find out what exactly we mean when we talk about intimacy and pleasure. We’ll define the terms, explore what they mean, and then look at how they connect—and what our sex lives can look like when we only have one or the other.
So, what exactly do we mean when we talk about intimacy and pleasure?
Everyone has their own personal definition of the words, but when we talk about intimacy we’re talking about a sense of emotional closeness between two or more people. When we talk about pleasure, we’re talking about things that feel good—in this context these things are physical and sexual, but they don’t always have to be. (A really excellent joke or a stirring song can be pleasurable without being sexual, for example, and a good hug can be physical and pleasurable without being sexual).
Often, with regards to sex and dating, these two concepts intertwine and we can have a relationship that’s both intimate and pleasurable. Having sex with a partner you care deeply about, and who cares about you, is an example of this.
We can also experience pleasure without intimacy, like when we have a steamy hook-up with a stranger who we don’t expect to see again. And we can experience intimacy without physical pleasure, like when we spend time with a close family member or friend.
But what’s the ideal mixture of intimacy and pleasure? Should every relationship have generous helpings of both? And what happens if we think our relationship is lacking in one or the other?
To find out, we turned to the work of our favourite psychotherapist and author, Esther Perel. We’ve discussed her work here before—we truly are massive fans! In her 2016 article The Mystery of Eroticism, Perel outlines the relationship between pleasure and intimacy.
“Good intimacy doesn’t guarantee good sex,” she writes, explaining that even couples who are deeply intimate with each other don’t always experience pleasure together—because the missing ingredient, she believes, can be eroticism.
“For some, love and desire are inseparable; but for others, they’re sometimes irretrievably disconnected. The care, worry, protection, and responsibility that nurture love can be antithetical to what ignites desire. In fact, for many people, sexual excitement flows from not feeling responsible or emotionally beholden. That unburdened experience is precisely what allows them to feel sexually free.”
Perel writes that some people feel such responsibility and care for their partners that it’s difficult for them to focus on feeling pleasure with them—their relationship is an intimate and loving one, but not necessarily a sexual one. Other people can feel more uninhibited when they’re with someone they don’t have a strong intimate relationship with.
Sometimes this might be due to gender-based socialisation we’ve received around sex, Perel suggests—women are often expected to care for the needs of others above their own, and they may found it difficult to relax and truly ‘let go’ so they can experience pleasure with their partner. Some people also find it difficult to break free of the roles they occupy in their relationship; someone who has always been “a husband” or “a mother” may find it difficult to suddenly be their full, sexual self.
Writing in Psychology Today, sex therapist Lisa Thomas introduced us to the other side of the debate. Thomas believes that intimacy exists on a continuum, and that on one side of the continuum is us showing up as our most open self: connected with our partner, positive about our interaction with them, and desiring of them. On the other end is our most closed self, shut off to the possibility of intimacy.
Thomas focuses on a similar issue to Perel: that of her readers feeling uncertain about being their full, sexual selves. She encourages people to let go of any feelings of guilt or shame around sex, and to embrace their desires, noting that it’s also important to feel as though you deserve sex and intimacy. Lastly, Thomas suggests that it’s important to orgasm during sex—we should note that while we definitely think orgasms can be wonderful, there are many people who have difficulty orgasming during sex so it’s important to not put all expectations of intimacy on this one act!
We’ve presented two conflicting views on intimacy and pleasure here because we honestly believe that there’s no single, right answer to the question of, ‘Do we need intimacy and pleasure to have good sex?’.
For some people, intimacy and pleasure might be absolute prerequisites. For others, they might be a bonus. What matters more than finding a ‘winner’ out of these two views is finding ways to make sure that everyone in a relationship is fulfilled and satisfied, in whatever way that looks to them.
So we’ve come up with a few suggestions for how to increase intimacy and pleasure in your relationship. Take some suggestions from both categories, or from only one—whatever feels right. And, because we think Esther Perel might be on to something when she says that eroticism is missing from many relationships, we’ve come up with some ideas to increase that too.
How to increase intimacy in your relationship:
How to increase pleasure in your relationship:
How to increase eroticism in your relationship: