Sex and Intimacy: How to Have the Best of Both Worlds

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Mating in Captivity" by Esther Perel. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are sex and intimacy mutually exclusive? In what way do they contradict each other? Is there a way to bridge the gap?

Sex and emotional intimacy may seem at odds with each other but they don’t have to be. According to couples therapist Esther Perel, you can have the best of both worlds—passionate sex and emotional intimacy.

In this article, we’ll discuss the clash between sex and intimacy and how to balance the two.

Are Sex and Intimacy Mutually Exclusive?

Like security, intimacy is another modern-relationship-intangible that conflicts with desire. Intimacy is based in familiarity, closeness, compassion, and comfort, potentially polar opposites of the fundamental ingredients of desire: novelty, distance, and selfishness.

Establishing intimacy necessitates eliminating otherness and shrinking the distance between two people. Intimacy makes you care about the well-being of the other person and makes you afraid to hurt them. However, sexual excitement requires a lack of worry, and pleasure needs to be a little selfish. When you care about another person, it can be hard to focus on your own needs.

However, according to couples therapist Esther Perel, sex and intimacy aren’t mutually exclusive—it’s possible to create desire in a relationship that’s also intimate. Intimacy isn’t consistent, and even in the strongest long-term relationships, its strength differs at different times. 

Stamping Out Distance

When you first meet someone, you don’t know them. That’s why budding relationships are so intense, both physically and emotionally. You don’t know what kind of connection you have yet, so you’re working with imagination and potential⁠—ingredients for desire. You idealize the other person and focus on their positive qualities. They do the same to you, and you feel validated and transcendent. Additionally, because you don’t know each other, there are strong boundaries between the two of you. You each have a distinct sense of self that’s unmixed with the other person’s.

As you get to know each better, either by talking to each other or observing each other, you start to establish routine. Maybe you move in together, which brings you closer both physically and emotionally. You become familiar to each other. As the distance between you closes, the space where desire used to flourish shrinks.

Intimacy is a fundamental human need and you need to get it from somewhere, but historically, that place wasn’t always your lover. Like looking for security in our partners, looking for intimacy with them is also a relatively new idea. Two or three generations ago, people married for practical reasons and the central emotion was respect⁠—if they fell in love later, it was a by-product or a bonus. People found intimacy in relationships outside of their marriage, often same-sex ones.

As social structures changed and work and family separated, people spent more time apart. They were lonely and looked for intimacy in romantic relationships. Notably, in social structures where people are close to other people (living with your extended family, living with a bunch of roommates), they have built-in closeness, and they’re less inclined to look for more intimacy in their romantic relationships.

How to Balance Intimacy and Desire

When you and your partner get so close that you’re now a fusion rather than two separate people, you no longer have anyone to connect with⁠. You have to reintroduce distance if you want to reintroduce desire. This can be psychological distance, for example, asking your partner to ignore you rather than immediately greet you when you get home from work. Or it can be literal⁠—one of you leaves for a while. Either way, it can be helpful to think of the distance-creation as sexual play rather than a rejection. It can also help to remember that the closeness you and partner have established gives you a strong foundation to return to.

Tolerance for Closeness

Everyone has different requirements for closeness, often based on the dynamics of our childhood. As children, we had to balance our connection with our parents or caregivers with growing up and becoming our own person. However you balanced these tensions as a child will follow you into your adult relationships. For example, some people seek closeness because it helps them deal with the fear of being alone or abandoned. For others, closeness is overwhelming or claustrophobic because their personal sense of self is being swallowed up by coupleness and merging. Too much closeness feels like being engulfed.

You’ll likely feel most overwhelmed right after sex. People want to lose themselves in sex and the oneness that you feel while you’re doing it can make you feel engulfed. You probably won’t notice this consciously; instead, you’ll feel the urge to leave and go do something else, or you’ll think about random things like sandwiches or chores. This is you trying to separate yourself from the other person.

Extended Example: John and Beatrice

John and Beatrice spent their first six months together enthralled by desire, but as soon as they moved in together, they stopped having sex. 

For John, intimacy can feel constricting. He grew up with an alcoholic, abusive father and he acted as his mom’s emotional caretaker. As a child, he learned that love was about responsibility and duty, and he doesn’t know any other way to do it. The closer he gets to a woman emotionally, the more trouble he has having an erection. This has happened to John in all his long-term relationships and he always thought it meant he’d fallen out of love with that woman, but it’s actually the opposite. He cares for her so much he feels responsible for her well-being.

Beatrice has tried very hard to get closer to John. She changed her interests to match his and no longer sees her friends. This heightens John’s feelings of responsibility⁠—as Beatrice gives up the things that separate her from him, she gives up her own personal support system. It’s hard to desire someone who isn’t their own individual person anymore.

Beatrice moved out and worked at reestablishing her autonomy. It worked⁠—Beatrice realized she didn’t have to give herself up to be loved, and John realized she didn’t need him; she could support herself. The space they created made room for desire.

Sex and Intimacy: How to Have the Best of Both Worlds

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Esther Perel's "Mating in Captivity" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Mating in Captivity summary:

  • Why it's difficult to have a good, erotic life within a long-term relationship
  • What makes up our individual sense of desire and our desire for our partners
  • Tips on how to retain desire in a committed relationship

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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