A reader asked: How do you define intimacy?
This seems straightforward. I mean, we could just crack open the dusty old Webster’s Dictionary and look it up. For relationship researchers, the answer is a little more complex. In fact, it could fill an entire book (and has). Of the many ways to define intimacy, I’ll focus this post on “closeness” which is oftentimes considered synonymous with intimacy. The following summary is largely drawn from Deb Mashek and Art Aron’s Handbook of Closeness and Intimacy.
One perspective is that closeness and intimacy represent an overlap of identities or inclusion of other in the self.1 Essentially, who you are as a person becomes intertwined with who your partner is. As a result, you see less “me” and “you” in the relationship and much more “we” and “us.”2 Thus, if someone asks you “what did you think of Avatar?” you may respond “we liked the special effects, but the story was predictable.” Responding this way is interesting because your partner isn’t physically there, but clearly is part of your sense of self. This type of closeness also involves merging of resources (“our bank account”), perspectives (“our presidential candidate”), and identities (“our family”). Sometimes partners merge to such a degree that it is hard to distinguish them (e.g., “Brangelina,” or “Filliam H. Muffman“).
Another perspective suggests that intimacy must satisfy three criteria: “self-revealing behavior, positive involvement, and shared understanding.”3 First, intimate partners share information (e.g, secrets, future plans, personal details, what really happened on Spring Break) through self-disclosure promotes intimacy. Secondly, intimate partners have positive involvement with each other which involves attentiveness, physical proximity, eye gaze, and body orientation or coordination. Simply put, you can detect a couples’ intimacy through their body language. Finally, intimate partners have a sense of understanding of each other that allows them to know each other’s thoughts, experiences, habits, and preferences. This comes in handy when picking out the perfect gift for your partner’s birthday!
Intimacy also involves partner responsiveness in which partners are sensitive to each others’ feelings in ways that enables appropriate responses that meet the partners’ needs.4 For example, if your partner has something go wrong a work, should you ask questions so they can talk it out, or should you give them space? It may depend on your partner, but you’d need to be responsive to know the right answer so that your partner feels cared for and validated.
Importantly, researchers consider intimacy and closeness as distinct, but related to, other positive aspects of relationships such as commitment, satisfaction, passion, love, support, and positive regard. All of these characteristics make distinct contributions to positive relationships.
1Aron, A., Mashek, D., Aron, E. (2004). Closeness as including other in the self. In D. Mashek & A. Aron (Eds.), Handbook of closeness and intimacy (pp. 27-41). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
2Agnew, C. R., Van Lange, P. A. M., Rusbult, C. E., & Langston, C. A. (1998). Cognitive interdependence: Commitment and the mental representation of close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 939-954.
3Prager, K. J., & Roberts, L. J. (2004). Deep intimate connections: Self and intimacy in couple relationships. In D. Mashek & A. Aron (Eds.), Handbook of closeness and intimacy (pp. 43-60). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
4Laurenceau, J. P., Rivera, L. M., Schaffer, A. R., & Pietromonaco, P. R. (2004). Intimacy as an interpersonal process: Current status and future directions. In D. Mashek & A. Aron (Eds.), Handbook of closeness and intimacy (pp. 41-78). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Dr. Gary Lewandowski – Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski’s research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.