Intimacy Photo courtesy of Indiana University BlogOpens in new window

Intimacy is a generalized concept that encompasses feelings and behaviors and that occurs in the context of relationships between individuals. Being intimate means sharing one’s innermost feelings and thoughts with another.

Intimacy involves a variety of positive and negative emotions. Being intimate usually means feeling love, joy, contentment, warmth, and possibly passion.

According to American psychologist Robert SternbergOpens in new window (1988), who proposed the triangular theory of love, loveOpens in new window is composed of three main components:

  1. intimacy,
  2. passion, and
  3. commitment.
  • Intimacy is emotional, involving warmth, connectedness, and feelings of closeness.
  • Passion is a motivational component, including strong desire, often (but not always) sexual, and arousal.
  • Commitment is cognitive; it is a decision to love another person and to secure and maintain a bond with that person.

Sternberg argued that intimacy is the core, the fundamental component of love. Needless to say, intimacy can occur in relationships that do not involve passion, especially sexual passion, such as friendships and family relationships.

Intimacy is clearly connected to the positive emotions joyOpens in new window and happinessOpens in new window. Shaver, Schwartz, Kirson, and O’Connor (1987) found that adults report the highest levels of happiness when they feel loved and accepted by others and when people praise them or show affection toward them.

As social psychologist Elaine Hatfield (1984) described, fearOpens in new window is an emotion that is often strongly linked to intimacy. Hatfield identified six types of fear commonly associated with intimacy:

  • fear of exposure (revealing the true self and making oneself vulnerable),
  • fear of abandonment,
  • fear of angry attacks (that a partner will become angry and attack either physically or psychologically),
  • fear of loss of control (that with closeness, another person will have too much control over one’s own thoughts and feelings),
  • fear of one’s own destructive impulses, and
  • fear of losing one’s individuality.

This latter fear, the fear that one’s own self will be lost in a relationship, has been discussed by many interpersonal relationships scholars. For instance, Leslie Baxter (1988, 1990) introduced a theory she called dialectics theory. According to Baxter, people have strong needs for both intimacy and independence or autonomy. She called this the autonomy-connection dialectic.

These intimacy and independence needs often conflict and lead to a push and pull in relationships. People also have needs to disclose to others and to keep some information private; these needs create another conflict. Baxter called this the openness-closedness dialectic. To achieve satisfaction in relationships, people must balance these opposing motives.

Scholars who have studied intimacy include psychologists, sociologists, communication researchers, and others. Miller, Perlman, and Brehn (2007) have written a comprehensive textbook, Intimate Relationships, describing theory and research on many topics related to intimacy, including nonverbal communicationOpens in new window, attraction, sex and gender comparisons in intimacy, friendship, love, conflict, jealousy, and other topics.

See also:
  1. Baxter, L.A. (1988). A dialectical perspective on communication strategies in relationship development. In S. Duck, D.F. Hay, S.E. Hobfoll, W. Ickes, & B.M. Montgomery (Eds). Handbook of personal relationships: Theory, research and interventions (pp. 257 – 273). Oxford, England: John Wiley.
  2. Baxter, L.A. (1990). Dialectical contradictions in relationship development. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 7, 69 – 88.
  3. Hatfield, E. (1984). The dangers of intimacy. In V.J. Derlega (Ed.), Communication, intimacy, and close relationships (pp. 207 – 220). New York :Praeger.
  4. Miller, R.S., Perlman, D., & Brehm, S.S. (2007). Intimacy relationships (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
  5. Shaver, P., Schwartz, J., Kirson, D., & O’Connor, C. (1987). Emotion knowledge: Further exploration of a prototype approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 1061 – 1086.
  6. Sternberg, R.J. (1988). Triangulating love. In R.J. Sternberg & M.L. Barnes (Eds.), The psychology of love (pp. 119 – 138). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.