As humans, we are quite complex when it comes to the world of sex and our emotions–sometimes it seems like the rest of the mammals have it much easier. Many of us rely on building an emotionally intimate connection before we can even consider having sex, some find that sex can be simply just about sex, with little to no emotional attachment involved, and others are somewhere in between.
We spoke with Chantal Gautier, a fully certified sexologist (PgDip) with, BSc and MSc degree in Psychology, to get to the bottom of the connection between emotional intimacy and pleasure. Spoiler alert: there is much more involved than perhaps first meets the eye.
What is the crux of the connection between emotional intimacy and sexual pleasure?
“Emotional intimacy can foster a deeper sense of connection between partners, and this connection can translate into a more profound and satisfying sexual experience,” says Gautier. At the same time, it is important to note that emotional intimacy does not automatically lead to sexual pleasure. How we experience pleasure depends on other important factors such as our understanding of arousal and our relationship with our body, our attitudes towards sex, how we relate to others, and the type of relationship style we seek.
How does intimacy go beyond sex?
We all know that the new relationship buzz, particularly in the early stages of getting to know someone, when the ‘chemistry’ feels right, is the release of oxytocin and endorphins, which can lead to feelings of closeness, explains Gautier. Several studies have found higher levels of oxytocin during the orgasm or ejaculation point of sex, but oxytocin is not exclusively released during sexual activity or limited to sexual relationships; rather, it is frequently released by a wide range of positive physical touch experiences such as a massage or great hug - which is why all of these kinds of intimacy are important in relationship building.
As we relish this satisfying sexual connection, we start to deepen our connection, through communication, sharing emotions and trust. As we develop new ways of relating we become more at ease with each other beyond sex. It’s a bit of a cycle - but a great one to be in.
Can improving emotional intimacy in a relationship increase sexual pleasure, and vice versa?
While it is important to nurture both the emotional and sexual aspects of our relationships, there is also a flip side. When relationships become overly familiar, especially long-term, this can affect our desire for sex. Because desire, as we know it, thrives in an environment of novelty and curiosity. If we want to increase sexual pleasure and keep the spark alive, we want to avoid becoming too enmeshed, says Gautier.
It’s also worth noting that a lack of emotional intimacy can contribute to decreased sexual desire and pleasure, and so you should try and keep that connection if you plan on a long term relationship. A study conducted in 2021 discovered that couples who ensure that they spend lots of quality time together experience heightened closeness, more favourable emotions towards each other, and increased overall satisfaction in the relationship.
How can somebody build a stronger connection in both emotional and sexual intimacy?
First things first, we want to appreciate that sex means different things to different people. Secondly, when we refer to pleasure, we often talk about it, in the context of ‘the other’. “We tend to focus on the pleasure of others (whilst neglecting our own sensations), so we look for cues in our partner” explains Gautier. The pathway to sexual pleasure is when we start to take ownership of our own sexuality. The happiest couples tend to be those who are interdependent, as it’s important to stay yourself in a relationship. This involves openly communicating about feelings, desires, dislikes, and boundaries. In doing so, we become more attuned to each other’s pleasures and discoveries, which can lead to a more fulfilling and deeper connection both sexually and emotionally.
Working on other things such as honesty, trust and respect, safety and communication, understanding, and compassion can make your relationship stronger. If you work on building all of these aspects within your relationship, you will likely find that you are more emotionally connected, and this connection is likely to help with your sexual intimacy. Work together on understanding your boundaries, communication style and love languages, and you’ll be on the right track to the rest of it.
Why do some people require emotional intimacy to experience sexual pleasure, and vice versa?
Some people need to experience a level of emotional connection before any thought of sex enters their minds and for physical arousal to surface. While for others, it is possible to have sex without intimacy. Emotional intimacy is not necessarily synchronous with sexual intimacy. Either way, there is no right or wrong, explains Gautier. We are just differently wired, with different needs that vary at different stages in our lives.
Sex can ultimately mean different things to different people. The way we saw others interact around us as a child, our scientific makeup, our beliefs–all of these things can impact how we view sex, so some of us are able to have casual sex where we love and affection isn’t guaranteed, and others find that emotional connection and sex are bound together.
What is the difference between these kinds of intimacy? Do we need both?
Gautier explains that what we know about the complexity of human sexuality and intimacy is that it is multi-dimensional: encompassing emotional, psychological, and relational aspects. And so, when we talk about intimacy in a relational context, we need to be clear about how we define it and what type of intimacy we are looking for, be it emotional, sexual or both.