Per social psychologists, intimacy refers to a process of interaction in which social partners, as a result of sharing personal and private thoughts and feelings, come to feel understood, appreciated, and cared for by each other. This definition is deliberately narrower than the many common language usages of this term. In everyday language, intimate and intimacy are often used as synonyms for closeness, sexual activity, love, marriage, privacy, or relatively intense forms of physical engagement (such as touching or standing very close to another person). When intimacy exists, each of these may or may not be involved. Consequently, and to eliminate confusion, researchers prefer to rely on the more precise definition.
Intimacy and Relationships
Intimacy is widely regarded as one of the key processes governing close relationships. Extensive theory and research indicate that the most gratifying close relationships are those characterized by a mutual sense of understanding, appreciation, and caring. Not coincidentally, people whose social networks possess high levels of intimacy tend to be happier and healthier, whereas the absence of intimacy tends to be associated with loneliness and other forms of emotional distress, and may even lead to the deterioration of health. The association between intimacy and emotional well-being is so fundamental that many theorists describe the capacity for participating in intimate relationships as a principle feature of successful personality development and maturity.
What characterizes the development of intimacy in a close relationship? The process typically begins with one person’s self-disclosure of self-relevant material, which involves both words and the nonverbal cues accompanying them. The potential for fostering intimacy is greater when this material is personal, private (in the sense that one is highly selective about revealing it), and affective (concerned with feelings or capable of creating a significant emotional response). Nonverbal cues may contribute to intimacy by indicating the sender’s affective state (e.g., a sad expression), by altering the meaning of words (e.g., a sarcastic smirk paired with a positive statement), or by regulating immediacy (e.g., leaning closer to or away from one’s partner).
Of comparable significance to the unfolding of the intimacy process is the partner’s response. Supportive responses encourage the growth of intimacy, whereas disinterested or critical responses are likely to inhibit its development. Partner responses provide signals (again involving both verbal and nonverbal content) that the self-discloser uses to infer whether the partner has understood the personal meaning of whatever was communicated, whether the partner values and appreciates the self-discloser, and whether the partner can be trusted to be caring. Of course, in the real-time ebb and flow of conversation, these exchanges are rapid, spontaneous, and complex, suggesting that there is considerable subjectivity in how self-disclosures and responses are interpreted. A large body of research has established that both the objective properties of these behaviors and the individual’s idiosyncratic interpretations of the behaviors are influential.
Another important consideration is that the intimacy process is both recursive and reciprocal. That is, as each partner comes to trust the other’s response to his or her self-revelations, each becomes increasingly willing to disclose personal thoughts and feelings to the partner. Typically, disclosers and responders swap roles back and forth, often repeatedly in the same conversation. An individual’s experience as responder usually affects his or her subsequent willingness to be open with his or her own thoughts and feelings; similarly, each partner’s perception of the other’s responsiveness is likely to affect his or her own willingness to be responsive in turn to the partner. These principles illustrate the fundamentally interactive and interdependent nature of intimacy.
Individual Differences and Intimacy
Ever since Erik Erikson, one of the most influential psychoanalytic psychologists of the 20th century, described the successful attainment of a primary intimate relationship as the fundamental life task of early adulthood, researchers have been interested in identifying factors that predispose some people to achieve higher levels of intimacy in their close relationships and others lower levels. This research demonstrates that many factors contribute to an individual’s preferences and capabilities with regard to intimacy.
No other variable has been studied as extensively as has a person’s biological sex. A general conclusion from these many studies is that women’s social lives tend to exhibit higher levels of intimacy than men’s do, and that this difference is greater in same-sex friendships than in other types of relationships (e.g., heterosexual romantic relationships, marriages). Although some researchers see this difference as mainly being the result of biological differences between men and women, evidence for this position is sparse and in fact contradicted by certain studies: For example, studies showing that same-sex friendships in non-Western cultures tend to find small, if any, sex differences in intimacy. The best supported conclusion appears to be the developmental one: that in Western culture, men learn to be more reluctant about the vulnerabilities inherent in intimate interaction.
Another important avenue for research has viewed intimacy as a motive, emphasizing determinants from personality (including both genetically determined and learned qualities) and from past experiences in close relationships. For example, self-esteem, openness, comfort with closeness, empathic concern for others, trust, extraversion, parental warmth, and prior intimacy tend to be associated with higher levels of intimacy and intimacy motivation, whereas social anxiety, fears about exploitation, vulnerability, dependence, social avoidance, conflict and distance with parents, and prior dysfunctional relationships tend to be associated with lower levels of intimacy and intimacy motivation. Regardless of differences in motivation, intimacy is known to be an essential component of social life and, more broadly, human experience.
- Prager, K. (1995). The psychology of intimacy New York: Guilford Press.
- Reis, H. T., & Patrick, B. C. (1996). Attachment and intimacy: Component processes. In A. Kruglanski & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Social psychology: Handbook of basic principles (pp. 523-563). New York: Guilford Press.