What’s Intimacy, and What’s a Relationship?

If you’re going to think about, or discuss, the traditional Escalator approach to intimate relationships (and its alternatives), it helps to really get back to basics.

What’s an intimate relationship? Those two little words have more baggage than JFK airport. People layer lots of meaning and assumptions upon intimacy and relationships — both in concept, and in practice.

Also, people often fundamentally disagree what these terms mean — even people who are in an intimate relationship with each other!

To clarify things, here’s how I’m using these important terms:

Intimacy is the experience of emotional closeness, of knowing and/or being known at a deep level by another person. Intimacy requires vulnerability: revealing sensitive aspects of yourself (emotionally or physically) level with another person, especially by feeling free to share deeply personal emotions, thoughts and experiences with them. Any type of relationships — from friendships to playmates to life partners — might involve some level of intimacy, at least from time to time.

Relationship. Any type of connection that two or more people share, expressed through how they interact with each other. That is, relationships require at least some kind of relating, even passively through shared context. So, people standing in a store checkout line exist in a kind of relationship — just usually not a very important, intimate, or lasting one (although that might depend on the store).
Relationships which people may consider more significant on a personal, emotional, or life-influencing level might include friends, lovers, family, life partners, mentors, and much more.

On the Escalator, the scope of “relationship” tends to be highly constrained. People usually say “in a relationship” to refer specifically to two people who share an ongoing sexual and romantic connection — or at least they did at one time, and have continued to ride the Escalator together ever since. (The longer or farther they’ve ridden, the more “serious” their relationship is.) But the Off the Escalator project takes a much broader view of the universe of human relationships.

Intimate relationship. Partners in an intimate relationship express deeper levels of intimacy on an ongoing (or at least recurring) basis — often through sex or touch, power exchange or other kinds of kink, romantic feelings and gestures, or conversations that are deeply emotional or personally revealing. Living together or otherwise blending the infrastructure of personal life, or sharing substantial commitments such as finances or parenting, also tends to offer an ambient sense of intimacy — whether or not those partners are also sexually, romantically, or explicitly emotionally intimate with each other.

On the Escalator, long-term partners are presumed to be in an intimate relationship — even if the practice of intimacy has faded from their relationship.

QUESTION FOR YOU: Think of all the people you relate to in some way. Which of these do you tend to count as “relationships” — or “intimate relationships”— and why? Please comment below.

3 comments on “What’s Intimacy, and What’s a Relationship?

  1. I like your definitions a lot! They match my own. What I don’t like is that you seem to use the term romance interchangeably with love. They are not the same. Romance is something you do for someone you love, or you can act romantically towards someone you love. I have loving intimacy with someone, or I have intimate love with them. It would mean so much to me if your book makes this distinction when it is published.

    • Thanks, Jim.

      First, keep in mind that for all the terms I’m defining in my website and book, I’m defining only how I am using them in the context of this writing. I’m definitely not trying to define these terms for everyone.

      That said, I agree that romance and love are different things, but I disagree that romance is only about external actions or expressions. While this post does not specifically define romance, the way I’m using that term, it refers to the set of emotions that falls under the umbrella of colloquial terms such as a “crush,” or “falling in love” — infatuation, emotional attachment, a desire for reciprocation, etc. These patterns of emotion and thought may motivate external romantic actions, motivations or expressions, but not always. People can — and often do — have romantic feelings but keep it to themselves, without any expression.

      YMMV, of course 🙂 That’s fine!

      Love is a broader and deeper set of feeling/emotion patterns than romance, of course. In fact, it’s such a broad and loaded term that I hesitate to use it often in my own life, because it’s just not precise enough to be a useful work most of the time. But I have created a working definition for in in the glossary of my book, one which might apply pretty broadly. But you’ll probably have to wait for the book for that 🙂

  2. I loved your solo poly blog (just discovered it a couple months ago), and find it’s really helped me to think about and define my relationship goals, expectations, and guidelines. I’ve been going through a time in my life where nurturing deep and meaningful connections with people has been incredibly important. I think of all people I interact with on a recurring basis as people I have relationships with, in some form or another; any form of repeated “relations” whether it’s talking in street with a homeless person I pass regularly, or seeing my academic advisor, or anything else, constitutes a relationship for me personally.

    There are some individuals I am incredibly close to who I would identify as heart-siblings, and these I would say I have my most intimate relationships with. Most would likely consider our relationships to be friendships, though I find them to be centered around sharing emotionally deep and vulnerable things, frequent physical contact that can in with two of them occasionally shift towards erotic sensuality without sex. I currently have one sexual and romantic partner who I deeply love, but I would also say that I deeply love my heart-sibs, and our relationships are just as important to me. I also date a couple other people, but would consider our relationships to be far less intimate than my heart-sibs despite sexual activity. I am open to any of these evolving however fits us all best, but I dislike the assumption by many that my close “friends” are inherently less important or intimate than people I date and could be said by most to “have a relationship” with. I love the scope of this Off the Escalator project, and hope it reaches more and more people to nudge them towards reconsidering societal assumptions.

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