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Do you know how to build intimacy safely in your relationship?

Do you know about intimacy? Do you know intimacy doesn't necessarily mean sex? Do you know what constitutes safe intimacy? Do you know how to build intimacy with your partner in a ways that feels safe for everyone?


If you answered 'No' to any of the above questions, then you're going to want to read on! This blog covers historical context about what we're taught about sex and intimacy, the gaps in our knowledge and understanding, and how to re-group and learn ways to effectively build connection and intimacy with a partner without causing harm.


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This little ditty often pops into my head when thinking about sex: 'Let's talk about sex' by TLC. Who's with me? Maybe your go-to ditty is 'Shoop' by Salt-n-Peppa, also a classic! :)


Let's Talk About Sex

Did your parents sit you down and have the ‘birds and the bees’ talk? What were you taught about sex? If you were one of the lucky ones whose parents actually had a conversation with you about sex, what did they teach you? Some, maybe most, learned the mechanics of heterosexual sexual intercourse (this is a whole other beast to tackle at a different time!), how babies come from sexual intercourse, and potentially that use of condoms is good practice for safety during sex. Am I right? Well, some others of us (like me) were told nothing, no conversation, no education, just got the impression ‘it’s not good to have sex while you’re young, you could get pregnant (the worst possible thing) or you could get an STD (the next worst possible thing)’—PAUSE HERE, did anyone else learn, or were taught, or inferred that getting pregnant at a young age was the worst thing that could happen if you had sex? WTF is up with that? Topic for another day…


The Birds and the Bees 'Talk'

Now, if you did get ‘the talk’ what information was included? I’m sure the basics of how sex works and what can happen…but were you taught about intimacy? Connection? Safety? Consent? Communication about sex, preferences, desires, what’s okay and what’s not okay? Were you taught that exploring sex, sexuality, and sexual preferences is something positive and healthy (and maybe even necessary?) to do yourself, on your own, before engaging in sex with a partner? I certainly did not! To this present day, absolutely no one has ever asked me what my sexual preferences are…not partners, not friends, not therapists, not my parents, no one. This knocked me off my axis a few months back when this occurred to me. Then as sex, relationships, trauma, self-view come out with clients during session, I’ve started asking them what they were taught about sex. And in many cases, it’s the same! They were also taught nothing and basically “figured things out on my own.” However, what folks have figured out on their own is faulty, one-sided, not safe, not really consensual, not equitable between them and their partner, and often does not include connection, intimacy, trust, and safety.


Sex Without Safety

Let’s start with the why-it’s-not-good-or-healthy-to-engage-in-sex-without-safety piece. Most people may think of safety around sex in terms of sexual abuse, sexual assault, sexual misconduct, any inappropriate sexual act or action that is unwanted. While all of those scenarios certainly violate safety, they are not the only scenarios that violate safety when it comes it sex. Inappropriate inuendo, comments, or jokes about sex violate safety. Sex without intimacy and trust violates safety. Sex without shared values and mutual respect violate safety. Not engaging in safe touch before sex violates safety. What happens if intimacy or sex occurs without safety? TRAUMA. Yes. If one person does not feel safe, for whatever reason, and sex continues or ensues, it’s likely traumatizing for that person. If we haven’t done a good job to develop a foundation of trust, open and respectful communication, and a felt sense of safety with our partner, then sex can actually be wounding to you, and damaging to your relationship. It is absolutely necessary to establish safety for any actual intimacy to take place.


What is intimacy? Intimacy is a feeling of closeness and connection in an interpersonal relationship. Merriam-Webster states “something of a personal or private nature.” The word intimacy is derived from the Latin word intimus, which means 'inner' or 'innermost.' In most romance languages, the word for intimate refers to a person's innermost qualities. Intimacy allows people to bond with each other on many levels, and deeper levels. Therefore, it is a necessary component of healthy relationships. And it’s also something not developed with every person you know, meet, or have some kind of relationship or friendship with. Intimacy is special. And specially reserved for certain people or relationships. Intimacy refers to a level of closeness where you feel validated and safe

You can’t actually get close to someone or truly connect with someone if you don’t feel safe. It’s not objective; it’s subjective. It’s a felt sense, it exists in your body. No one else can tell you what is safe for you so that you can build intimacy with someone. You must determine what is/feels safe or unsafe to you. But my guess is, no one every told you that. No one every told me that, and it’s led to many choices that actually just caused me further harm. I didn’t realize these choices were causing me more harm. I didn’t realize that I often did not choose a sexual partner, but they chose me, which felt like validation and acceptance, which I did not get in my family growing up (in fact the exact opposite, tons of invalidation, judgment, exclusion, and impatience with who I am), which I subconsciously conflated to mean I was well-liked by this other person, which certainly affected my decision-making, and I didn’t even know it. Revelation hit when I realized, most, if not all, sexual encounters or experiences I engaged in were a response to someone else expressing an interest, first. And then I cried. Because I realized this was a trauma response. It’s not that it wasn’t consensual (although sometimes it was not consensual, other times coerced, other times forced); it’s that I didn’t realize my consent was based off faulty world and self-view. I developed this warped view out of trauma, and the faulty message of my trauma sounds something like this, “Wow, it’s so great this person, who you like or enjoy being around, wants to have sex with you, that means they like you, Sarah, and you know most people don’t like you, or don’t accept you so go ahead and do this, it means there is a closeness already, it means we have intimacy and connection already, if they want to have sex and you want to have sex just go for it, because it’s a good thing, right?” Now, it wasn’t always that naïve, or that clear in my mind or body, or that simple, but basically, the overarching message was “you’re not really good enough, so if someone thinks/acts/believes/says/demonstrates that you’re good enough, you should go with that, or you might be alone.” I had no idea about safety. I had no idea what real intimacy was. I had no idea how to express preference (and no one ever asked what I liked or if I was satisfied). I basically didn’t consider myself too much at all when it came to sex, because I was wired, from an early age, to focus and prioritize what others’ need, to then get what I need from them in return; or to then be and feel safe; or to then be validated for who I am. Except it was all untrue. I was operating out of unhealed (and unrecognized that I was unhealed) trauma that told me ‘put others’ first, do for them first, because #1 it keeps you safe and #2 then you’ll maybe get some of your needs met because you met all of theirs first and they should be in a good place to show up for you now.’ The reality? I did that. A lot. In so many relationships—romantic, friendships, family—and what happened was they took whatever I was giving, in full, then did not actually attempt to meet my needs in return. And the more times this happened, with sex or otherwise, I incurred more injury. More traumatic injury.


Sex Without Emotional Connection

If my story sounds familiar, know that it’s not just you and me. To be frank, it’s most women. Woven into the fabric of the air we breathe in our society for our entire lives, is the message that sex is something men need, and women are the vessel in which that need is fulfilled. Do women want, need, and enjoy sex? Yes, when the circumstances are right…for them. Sex has also been depicted as its own thing, separate from intimacy, separate from emotional intimacy, separate from ‘good’ communication in a relationship. And I have personally never heard or seen the words “sex” and “safety” together until researching this topic. And, surprise surprise, the information comes from mental health and trauma sources, but nothing mainstream or universal. If we talk about the message men get about sex, then we can see how an overall safeness with sex just breaks down. Men are taught about sex without any teaching about emotions, emotional expression, vulnerability, sharing details about themselves, attunement to their partner, and what real intimacy actually is. And all around, this is just sad. Sad and disheartening for everyone, all of us. The pervasive faulty impression we all get about sex and ‘how it works’ is wreaking havoc on people’s nervous systems…and I bet most don’t even know why.


I started with the doom and gloom information to bring into awareness the reality for many people out there. Even in marriages, committed relationships and partnerships, safety can be non-existent, yet sex is still happening. We can learn from here, though. We can all look at sex and intimacy differently, more fully, and with healthier lenses—we just have to be willing. Are you willing to take a step back and build intimacy with your partner without sex? How exactly does one do this? Yea, glad you asked this, because a roadmap is necessary. For many, this is navigating new waters. For most, we have no idea where to even start. I’ll help you out!


Intimacy Does Not Equal Sex

I think it’s really important, for ALL relationships, to understand that intimacy does not mean sex. Sex/sexual intercourse is an aspect of intimacy, yet intimacy really has a much wider scope. Achieving sexual intimacy actually starts outside the bedroom. Taking from the definition listed above, intimacy is about sharing something personal, private; sharing the very innermost parts of you, sometimes the most vulnerable parts of you, with/to/around/in front of someone else and this brings about a closeness and connection that runs deeper than relationships without intimacy. It should feel different, special, set apart from other kinds of connection. We can grow and build intimacy in our relationships, and, in fact, building intimacy is a likely a relationship-long process, requiring communication and adjustment over the years, as we change and grow, what is or feels intimate may change, what is or feels safe may change. That’s fine! Just be open, honest, and communicative with your partner about it.  I’ve come across five (5) different types of intimacy: emotional, intellectual, spiritual, experiential, and physical. There could be more designations out there, but these five cover a lot of bases.


 

Building Healthy Emotional Intimacy

Emotional intimacy can be one of the most critical factors of a relationship. It is characterized by being able to share your deepest, most personal feelings with another person; being transparent with your deepest feelings, fears, and thoughts. Building emotional intimacy just might be the most direct route to increasing safety. When we can share innermost thoughts, feelings, desires and then be seen, heard, affirmed, accepted, and cared for then our felt sense of safety rises. Being accepted and loved, as you are, for who you are, is deeply felt by people, and is deeply needed for most people. And it’s deeply necessary for anyone with a past lived experience of trauma, betrayal, emotional abuse/neglect, invalidation, or history of a relationship with a narcissistic partner. Sharing our emotions and being vulnerable can sometimes be challenging. But greater emotional intimacy leads to stronger trust, and when trust is established in a relationship, we are often willing to take greater risks, like engage in sex with someone. Emotional intimacy can be developed by listening better to the other person and being able to speak clearly and honestly. This type of intimacy may also require reassurance that, despite differences in experiences and emotions, you are safe with each other because you find support and comfort when you express your deepest fears, pains, and doubts.


 

Building Healthy Intellectual Intimacy

This type of intimacy involves being able to share ideas, opinions, and questions, with another person. You might not agree on everything, but you can gently challenge each other and are able to consider the other person's perspective. You are open to learning, in general, and about your partner. To cultivate intellectual intimacy, maintain a curious attitude. It’s important to share points of view with the intention of learning from each other more so than debating opinions. Active listening really become paramount in intellectual intimacy. We don’t listen to debate or challenge our partner; we listen with intent to understand them and their views and their perspectives.


 

Building Healthy Spiritual Intimacy

While this can be referring to religious ideas and beliefs, it can also mean something more profound, like sharing actual beliefs and values. Your values and beliefs can align with religion or even health and wellness. Regardless, it's important to share these critical aspects of your life with your partner. To nourish spiritual intimacy, be intentional about learning more about each other’s practices and beliefs. Of extra importance is being curious as to why those are important to the other person. Spiritual intimacy is about sharing the impact your beliefs have on your life and respecting this may be different for the other person. Values, beliefs, and faith are deeply personal. How many of you discussed your actual values and beliefs before entering into a serious partnership or marriage? How many of you knew you values and beliefs before entering into a serious partnership or marriage? Not me!


 

Building Healthy Physical Intimacy

This type of intimacy involves safe touch and proximity that can enhance feelings of emotional closeness. According to a recent study done in 2020, physical touch can help build bonds and can reduce perceptions of loneliness. But it has to be safe touch. This isn’t foreplay. This is affectionate touch. Holding hands, sitting close to one another, stroking your partner’s hair are some small demonstrations of physical affection. They may seem mundane, yet they can be instrumental in helping you and your partner cultivate a feeling of closeness. Enough cannot be said about engaging in touch that is not sexual in nature. This is especially true for anyone with a history of a lived experience of sexual abuse or assault. Touch, of any kind, could very easily activate the nervous system of sexual abuse/assault survivor. If this is your partner, going out of your way to ask about the safe touch points for them would be a tremendous act of love and consideration (which also builds intimacy!)


 

Building Healthy Experiential Intimacy

Having experiences together, you know, the way your relationship probably started; with activities, dates, experiences you both engaged in together, is another way to build intimacy without sex. Do things together! And not just your usual out to eat or ‘typical’ date night. Doing things around the house-together; Running errands-together; cleaning up after dinner-together. These are all ways to snag extra moments of intimacy with your partner. Chatting while cleaning can grow connection. Being around one another even if you’re not talking but engaging in the same activity can build closeness. Spending time together, pursuing activities together, and participating in hobbies together are just a few ways that people can deepen this type of intimacy. Besides, you wanted a life partner to have someone to share life’s experiences with, right? Many of those ‘experiences’ are everyday things, tasks, chores, and responsibilities. Yet, if you can if you can do them together, and enjoy spending time together doing those mundane things, it can make life more fulfilling and reduce feelings of loneliness.


 

Practical Steps for Safe Emotional Intimacy

  • Clearly express empathy

  • Do your own work to heal your wounds

  • Validate your partner; ensure they feel seen, connected, wanted, cared for, understood, & heard

  • Share your own thoughts & feelings

  • Be vulnerable & self-disclose without your partner having to ask

  • Practice active listening

  • Remain curious & receptive when your partner shares something vulnerable


Practical Steps for Safe Intellectual Intimacy

  • Spend time in deep conversations

  • Be sure to have difficult conversations, rather than avoid difficult conversations or topics

  • Read to each other

  • Use active listening, express genuine interest

  • Engage in thought-provoking conversation

  • Spent time having meaningful & inspiring talks

  • Discuss social, cultural, scientific topics

  • *Respectfully challenge each other (only do this if both have consented and feel safe)

  • Discuss a book, a podcast, a show, or an article you found interesting

  • Ask your partner questions about their interests and invite them to share their thoughts

  • Don't always expect your partner to initiate conversation with you, you must also initiate

Practical Steps for Safe Spiritual Intimacy

  • Share your personal beliefs with each others

  • Know and understand your values & ethics first then;

  • Values and ethics need to be shared and respected

  • Discuss and determine your chemistry, energy, meaning, and/or shared faith with one another

  • Share and/or practice spiritual/religious beliefs & values & rituals alone and together

  • Meditate, alone and together

  • Practice Mindfulness alone and together

  • Connect with nature alone and together, frequently


Practical Steps for Safe Physical Intimacy

  • Share with your partner affection that feels good to you

  • Discuss what feels safe or okay for you and what doesn't

  • Engage in safe physical touch with each other

  • Dance and/or sing together

  • Physical presence, physical closeness (together in the same space; near each other in the same space)

  • Experiencing a physical felt sense of safety in the body

  • Express affection often through safe touch (*this minimizes feelings of loneliness)

  • Safe touch-- *Remember, touch is only safe if it has been discussed beforehand and consented to. Some options include:

    • Hugs

    • Holding hands

    • Shoulder or foot or hand massage

    • Snuggling/cuddling

    • Kissing

    • Stroking hair or back

    • Place hand on knee or back

Practical Steps for Safe Experiential Intimacy

  • Work together to reach a goal or accomplish something neither can do on their own

  • Offer up and engage in experiences equitability

  • You can go on walks, runs, bike rides, or car rides together

  • Plan and then do household projects together

  • Share about an individual experience you had or enjoyed with your partner

  • Take a trip together

  • Plan for joint experiences in the future, discuss with your partner

  • Start a new hobby & do it together

  • Do everyday activities together. Some options include:

    • Cooking

    • Cleaning

    • Yard work

    • Running errands

    • Caring for pets

    • Cleaning out house or garage


I hope this posts inspires you to think outside the box, so to speak, about building healthy and safe intimacy in your relationship(s). Communication is important. Setting boundaries is important. Understanding yourself is important. Self-awareness about your needs and what feels safe is important. Compassionate care for yourself is important. Compassionate care for your partner is important. Building intimacy and connection in safe ways is important. We all want to feel connected, and we all want to feel safe to connect with others.


Thanks for reading! Check out more resources & references below!


 

What Next?

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If you need a professional to educate or train in trauma-informed/human-centered communication and practices, you want to call me! If you need a professional to consult in decision-making for constituents, especially if those are individuals with mental health disorders (think: AI programing, Policy-making, Implementing research that affects real humans, Opening or operating a mobile crisis response service etc.), you want to call me! If you want to make sure you're following policy and protocol for confidentiality and HIPPA compliance and/or following trauma-informed principles in real time with real people, then you want to hire me to review and inform on next steps! If you want to learn more about the work I do, check out my professional media page:


Some of my titles and roles include:

  • Dynamic trauma-informed professional

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  • Licensed psychotherapist

  • Subject Matter Expert

  • Social Impact Leadership Analyst & Strategist

  • Consultant for adding/improving TI practices in teams & organizations

  • Consultant for TI non-clinical MH crisis response + creator of TI Crisis Response Guide

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References



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