Three Therapists Weigh In on Mental Health, Intimacy & the Layers in Between

Art by Sam Liacos.
Intimacy is “an exercise in being vulnerable and knowing that I’m going to be okay on the other side of it regardless.”
Words by Julia Pretsfelder. Artwork by Sam Liacos.

As‌ ‌we begin to socialize ‌in‌ ‌real‌ ‌life‌ after‌ ‌being‌ ‌stuck‌ ‌with‌ ‌ourselves‌ ‌during‌ ‌quarantine, how‌ ‌can‌ ‌we‌ be intimate ‌in‌ ‌a‌ ‌way‌ ‌that‌ ‌is‌ ‌gentle‌ ‌with‌ ‌our‌ ‌minds and hearts?‌

To avoid the trope of unpacking what the dictionary has to say about something you struggle to define, I turned to a more Gen-Z-esque cliché: asking friends in a group chat and a burner Instagram what intimacy means to them. “Something between raw openness and mutual understanding when that openness can’t happen,” a friend replied. Another said it meant “being vulnerable with someone and trusting they wont hurt you.” Their words hit like a Mitski track during the throes of a crush. The range within these replies shed a light on how the ways we process love and intimacy can be so heavily filtered through our individual experiences. Beyond individual understandings of intimacy, there is a larger false belief that intimacy is equivalent ‌to‌ ‌sex.‌

“When people use the word sex and intimacy interchangeably, that’s dangerous because you’re expecting an experience of closeness that doesn’t necessarily show up every time,” says Dr. Myrtle Means, a psychologist and author who studies pleasure through a psychoanalytic and evolutionary lens. The disconnect speaks to the vicious cycles of miscommunication that foster some of our misunderstandings of human connection in the first place. 

But, what if you don’t want this “Summer of Fuck” (the name of the group chat I turned to while writing this) to morph into what one friend calls, “Responsible Relationship Fall?” Desirée Robinson, a clinical sexologist and social worker, encourages people to establish an awareness of your intimate desires before becoming emotionally, or physically, intimate with someone. 

The emphasis is less on ‘I need to have this type of relationship’ and more about ‘Who is the person who compliments me?’

Desirée Robinson

“You can be casually sexual with someone and still enjoy a sense of intimacy…but this person is not fully available for your emotional needs,” she says. “Be super clear about what this expression of intimacy is, and [ask yourself] has everyone consented to it?” This ongoing communication with ourselves and our partners cultivates our ability to be intimate down the line by setting expectations and boundaries regarding the many types of intimacy we can share. Chemically speaking, the timing of these conversations is also important. After about a month, what Robinson calls, the “juicy, cuddle hormones,” such as oxytocin, begin to wear off, and you can start assessing what kind of intimacy (if any) is taking place, while you transition from being attached to the idea of someone and their validation to being connected with them. 

At that stage, Robinson says “The emphasis is less on ‘I need to have this type of relationship’ and more about, ‘Who is the person who compliments me? Do I show up with joy?’” 

But if these doctor’s orders are coming in late for you, how can you go about healing? In the wake of heartbreak, Jeanae Hopgood, a marriage and family therapist and PhD candidate in Human Sexuality, reminds us that intimacy takes bravery and work: “In a perfect world, intimacy is organic in the sense that it is typically comprised of feelings of emotional closeness, safety, sharing, risk-taking, and it’s natural for us to want to connect in these ways.” 

To get to a place of openness to intimacy, Hopgood encourages examining those moments you don’t want to share with partners, family, or friends. “Sometimes it’s really just your own fear,” she says. “You have to decide, ‘Am I going to be courageous here?’ It’s an exercise in being vulnerable and knowing that I’m going to be okay on the other side of it regardless.”

As we have these awkward, necessary conversations about boundaries and summon the courage to put ourselves out there, Dr. Means assures us that improving our intimate lives can be fun.

You have to decide ‘Am I going to be courageous here?

Jeanae Hopgood

“When you’re in a challenging space with your mental health, a lot of people don’t think about intimacy as a source of comfort, but I think it’s a great opportunity to reconnect,” Dr. Means says. “Intimacy and pleasure are very much connected.” Across decades of research, Dr. Means has found that genuine intimacy—be it getting to know your own body, quality time with a loved one, or emotional vulnerability—ultimately enhances our capacity for pleasure. Romantically speaking, exploring each other inside out is key, and if the idea makes you squeamish, her book even has four types of “intimate” music playlists to try. Most importantly, “I don’t think you can really achieve peak ecstasy unless your partner knows you well enough for you to relax and feel safe,” she says.

In light of this advice to talk it out with partners, unpack our baggage, and be vulnerable, it’s important to remember that we can’t avoid getting hurt. That may seem bleak, but striving for healthier connections is still an act of self care that empowers us to redefine how we love. As Robinson said, tracing the links between self-reflection to build and reclaim intimacy: “The ways in which I learned to be in this world originated with my family and my environment, and this is an invitation to start to create and cultivate something on my own.”

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