Developing intimacy in relationships 

I thought I was doing okay. We were talking. She knows I love her, because I tell her. Now she says she wants more intimacy.

Intimacy is a sense of closeness or connectedness shared with another person that can take some time and work to establish.

For men who have experienced child sexual abuse or sexual assault, like many men, becoming comfortable with intimacy can be a challenge. Below is some information about intimacy, details of some of the difficulties a man who has experienced sexual victimization can face, along with suggestions on how to further develop intimacy in our intimate partner relationships and friendships.   

What is intimacy? 

Intimacy is a close personal connection between people that usually develops in depth over time. Typically, children learn about and develop intimate relationships through interacting with parents and close family members. As we grow older opportunities arise to develop more intimate relationships outside of the home, getting to know people, establishing commitment and trust, building connections through work, play, sexual contact, parenting, etc. The journey towards creating intimate relationships is therefore potentially never ending and everyone’s experience in growing up and learning about intimacy is going to be different. 

Men, sexual abuse, and intimacy 

Cultural beliefs about men, about what a man should stereotypically do and be, influence how men understand and relate to intimacy. When the traditional man’s role of breadwinner, protector and provider was dominant, with an emphasis on men standing on their own two feet and being self-reliant, there was little expectation that men would put energy into developing intimate connections. Now however, partners, men, their children, family members and friends are seeking a greater degree of companionship, closeness and intimacy.  Consider: 

  • What do you know about intimacy? 
  • What training did you receive in intimacy while you were growing up as a young man? 

Men who have been sexually abused in childhood can face additional challenges in developing intimate relationships, as many people who perpetrate abuse invest considerable time and effort in getting to know a child, to build trust and a sense of intimacy in order to commit and continue abuse.  This can result in any form of intimacy becoming associated with sex and abuse and can make survivors suspicious of intimacy.  This is particularly the case when the abuse was committed by a family member or trusted person and a person has not had alternative experiences of positive and safe intimacy.  

When sexual abuse involves such a profound betrayal of trust, and emotional manipulation it is not surprising that closeness and intimacy in future relationships can be challenging and evoke some degree of discomfort.  An experience of child sexual abuse can lead to: 

  • Reluctance to trust someone or let anyone get close 
  • Perceiving any expression of care or attention as a sign of sexual interest or precursor to sexual activity 
  • Wariness about sharing personal information, due to the way it has been manipulated and used in the past 
  • Uncomfortableness with gentle touch or touch without prior specific agreement 
  • Difficulties with any feeling of closeness or intimacy, due to the fact it can trigger memories and flashbacks 
  • Keeping distance, isolating himself, closing off, becoming hard core independent in order to protect himself from further harm.   

An additional challenge that men who have experienced abuse identify, is that developing intimacy with friends and partners, typically involves sharing information about our life, our inner thoughts and vulnerabilities.  The idea being that the more personal and deeper the disclosure, the closer and more intimate the relationship becomes.  Many men are therefore confronted by a dilemma where they have never spoken about the abuse to anyone (or only a few people) and feel that if they do not disclose abuse to a friend or partner, they are not being honest and genuine, which will limit the level of intimacy in the relationship.   

One way to manage the pressure many men face is to recognise that there are many forms and levels of intimacy.   

Becoming clear about and developing intimacy 

In seeking to develop more intimate caring relationships, it can be useful to identify different forms of intimacy and to see these as separate from sexual intimacy. The following list identifies a number of opportunities for enhancing intimacy, closeness and greater connection in our lives: 

  • Emotional intimacy – you are able to express and share a wide range of feelings in a mutually supportive relationship with friends and colleagues, not just partners 
  • Physical intimacy – Feeling comfortable being physically close, being comfortable with touch, a hug or arm around your shoulder or even non-sexual kiss.  
  • Intellectual intimacy – Sharing ideas or talking about issues or even hotly debating opinions and still respect each other’s beliefs and views 
  • Spiritual intimacy – discussing how spirituality works in our lives, in such a way that we respect each others particular spiritual needs and beliefs 
  • Conflict intimacy – the ability to work through our differences in a fair way, and reach solutions that are broadly and mutually satisfactory, recognizing that perfect solutions are not part of human life. 
  • Work intimacy – You are able to agree on ways to share the common loads of tasks in maintaining your home, incomes, and pursuing other mutually agreed goals. 
  • Parenting intimacy – If you have children, you have developed shared ways of being supportive to each other while enabling our children to grow and become separate individuals. 
  • Crisis intimacy – You are able to stand together in times of crisis, both external and internal to the relationship and offer support and understanding (There are friends you might call and can rely upon and assist at moments of crisis that are not partners). 
  • Aesthetic intimacy – Mutually sharing and taking pleasure in the beauty of music, art, literature, theatre, film nature and a whole range of activities, experiences and aesthetic practices. 
  • Play intimacy – Having fun together, through sport, recreation, relaxation and humour.[1] 

The intention of the above list is to highlight the multiple opportunities for developing close, intimate relationships.  All of the above might be part of both a close friendship and an intimate partner relationship.   

Although sex is often an important part of a close intimate partner relationship and can increase feelings of intimacy, sex and intimacy are not one and the same. There can be intimacy without sex and sex without intimacy and there can be sexual intimacy in a supportive intimate partner relationship.   

You may be interested in the companion page Partners and Sexual Intimacy.   

While our intimate partner relationships might build closeness through engaging in many of the above forms of intimacy and include ‘sexual intimacy’.  We also benefit from developing intimate relationships outside of our partner sexual relationships.   

Mateship and intimate friendships can sustain us and add to the richness of our lives.  

It is worth noting that where women typically can identify a long-term confidant or close group of friends with whom they enjoy intimate moments and pleasures and share support, many men may not have close, intimate connections outside of partner relationships.  This can place additional load and pressure on partners to meet men’s intimacy needs and leave men isolated when partner relationships break down.   Research tells us the more close friendships and connections we have, the better our wellbeing. 

In seeking to make intimacy more a part of your life and relationships, it is important to recognise that intimacy is relational. Intimacy is not something you can create on your own, the degrees of closeness and intimacy possible in a relationship is dependent on there being a shared commitment and connection.  

Negotiating and building intimacy is supported by clear communication, a knowledge of your own and friends, family members, partner’s preferences and a willingness to put time and energy into relationships in an ongoing way.  It is about listening to and building intimate connections with a mate, friend, partner or family member. You might consider: 

  • What areas of intimacy might you develop further and with whom?  

In posing this question, it is recognized that there is no prescribed right way of developing greater closeness, connection and intimacy. No two relationships are alike and not all relationships need to be really close.  Although what has gone before might provide a guide to preferences or relationship challenges, history does not dictate our future. 

Relationships provide opportunities for learning, greater awareness, change and growth. A partner of a man who experienced sexual abuse observed: 

He’s good at being independent and he knows how to take care of himself. Even though he’s not that good at intimacy, I am. So having learnt off each other I am more independent and he is more intimate. 

As indicated, building and maintaining intimacy in relationships is a life-long project. You might consider  

  • How might you and your partner introduce greater intimacy into your lives? 

Practical tips for building and maintaining intimate partner relationships 

I used to complain saying ‘you haven’t said you love me in ages’. Once I realised that this wasn’t getting what I wanted from him, I started telling him that I need to feel loved sometimes and I explained to him what makes me feel loved.

Some practical tips to help men understand and enhance connection and love in an intimate partner relationship are offered in the book Five Love Languages Men’s Edition: The Secret to Love That Lasts[2]. This book encourages men to talk with their partners, to listen, to learn and attend to both, their own and their partner’s preferred ways of developing closeness and expressing care. In doing so it demystifies love and intimacy, presenting information in a practical useful way that move beyond seeing intimacy only in terms of sexual intimacy.   

If you were asked, could you identify your preferred ‘love language’ and that of your partner from the following list? 

  • Words of Affirmation – Compliments, words of appreciation, positive feedback about specific things your partner has done. 
  • Quality Time – Togetherness – giving undivided attention, more than just physical proximity. Quality conversation – talking about your day, keeping each other up-to-date, expressing your feelings, being available to listen with care. 
  • Receiving Gifts – Putting time and thought into creating/buying gifts. The gift of your ‘self’ – simply being there at crucial times 
  • Acts of Service – Doing practical tasks for your partner eg. Household chores. Particularly doing these without being asked 
  • Physical Touch – Loving touch crucial to healthy emotional development for babies and children. Affection is also important for adults, in addition to sexual touch 

An understanding of your own and your partner’s preferred ways of relating and connecting is important and can assist in building and maintaining closeness and intimacy.  An investment in developing and maintaining positive close, supportive, intimate relations with friends and family members outside of a partner relationship is something that can also very much benefit our intimate partner relationship.  


  1. Augsburger, D. (1988) Sustaining Love, Regal Publishing. 
  2. Chapman, G. (2010) Five Love Languages Men’s Edition: The Secret to Love That Lasts, Northfield Press. 
  3. Chapman, G. (2023) The 5 Love Languages for Men Workbook Paperback