You grow up enthralled by cute love stories. You start off watching Disney princes whisk away damsels in distress, observe Troy putting his career and friendships on the line for Gabriella, find out Noah wrote to Allie every day for an entire year and watch Patrick serenade Kat with an entire marching band in the middle of a stadium. Could love get any more beautiful?
And then you turn to look at the person sitting next to you, scrolling on their phone, dressed in sweats and eating ice cream out of the tub. When was the last time they leaned in for a warm hug? Gave you a spontaneous back rub? Or held your hand in public? The dissatisfaction sets in and you suddenly get flashes of yourself pulling a Bridget Jones-style break-up ice-cream binge.
Sure, you and your partner’s sex drives might align, but what about the non-sexual physical affection? The affection that wouldn’t leave you feeling desperately lonely and unfulfilled? You, my friend, might be in an ‘inter-intimate’ relationship.
The term was coined by US-based journalist Allison Hope, who described it in an article for The New York Times as a relationship “where each partner has different preferences when it comes to giving and receiving non-sexual affection”.
It’s a form of intimacy distinct from sex — it’s the holding of hands, arm rubbing, a soothing back or shoulder massage and unexpected playful random touches, without the intention of it leading to sexual intimacy.
For Hope, this was a problem she was experiencing with her wife of 12 years but was unable to find a ‘label’ that best described her situation — and thus, the inter-intimate relationship was born.
“There is an abundance of information about mismatched sex drives but physical intimacy exists in its own category and, in an era when physical touch, or a lack thereof, was front of mind during a pandemic — where we have to create physical distance to stay alive — I wanted to explore whether others were getting the affection they needed in their own relationships,” Hope tells psychotherapist and love coach Angela Barrett.
We’re predisposed to think relationships are all about sexual intimacy, but in actual fact, non-sexual physical touch is just as crucial. It’s a concept which aligns with the five ‘love languages’. Originally introduced by author and counsellor Dr Gary Chapman in his best-selling book The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts, these languages are based on the different methods humans use to speak and understand love: via words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service or physical touch. The idea is that each person has a primary language they resonate with the most.
But being in an inter-intimate relationship raises the question: is physical touch the most important language of the five?
If you think about it, the other four can all be attained from other people like friends and family (without crossing any boundaries or creating awkwardness, of course). But physical touch? It’s the only one you can receive from your partner.
Barrett also agrees: “As adults, welcomed non-sexual physical touch can feel comforting, reassuring and pleasurable. It causes the release of ‘feel-good’ hormones and can increase our sense of connectedness with the other person.”
In fact, a study published in the journal Scientific Reports found that in moments of acute pain, the simple act of holding a lover’s hand can reduce heart rate, pain and equalise breathing through the synchronisation of our nervous system. Wild, right?
Young people can often place insurmountable pressure on their significant other to conform to ideals they stole out of a rom-com. We go through life yearning for catharsis and happy endings, so naturally, problems will arise when you enter a relationship and your partner doesn’t show the non-sexual affection you assumed was considered ‘normal’. You begin to question the legitimacy of your bond as vexation and disappointment starts to plague your feelings.
But it also goes both ways; what if you’re the one in the relationship who is less inclined to display physical affection?
“For this person, it can feel crowded and exhausting trying to maintain a so-called ‘healthy’ relationship, and they might consider their partner needy,” explains relationship expert and dating coach Samantha Jayne.
And then there’s another issue — where does your personality fall on the introversion-extroversion spectrum? “Those who are more introverted will struggle to be more intimate. They’ll need more time alone to rejuvenate, and the mere thought of having to constantly show affection might cause them to feel unfulfilled and drained,” Jayne explains.
“On the other hand, those who lean towards extroversion will naturally want more time and affection together because they’re rejuvenated by company.”
Regardless of which role you play in your relationship, Barrett says this inter-intimacy will lead to a range of emotions from sadness to irritation, resentment and even anger. Ultimately, the overarching guilt will be the nemesis that will eat away at your relationship.
“For the physically ‘starved’ partner — who places a higher value on physical affection — they can end up feeling deprived, neglected and even experience feelings of being unloved or unwanted. The less ‘touchy’ partner can undergo feelings of obligation, a sense of pressure and agitation, and even be perplexed about why it’s such a big deal.”
In saying all this, inter-intimacy doesn’t necessarily mean a relationship is devoid of love. As Jayne points out: “There’s a major positive of being in an inter-intimate relationship and that is you get to grow, step out of your comfort zone, and consider someone else’s needs and perspective.
“Meeting in the middle is actually very healthy and, with time, you might even grow to be more alike.”
Barrett agrees: “Inherent in every difference in a relationship is an opportunity to know each other better. Navigating such differences in a healthy way can create a deeper bond, greater understanding and connection.”
It’s a skill those in non-inter-intimate (geez, talk about a tongue twister) relationships will never grasp.
How to reconcile an inter-intimate relationship
If you’ve been nodding your head to all of the above, don’t stress. There are effective strategies to reconciling your inter-intimate relationship.
Ah, yes, that c-word we’re all fond of. It sounds like a cliché, but communication really is the golden key.
“Just like any good relationship, it’s important to be transparent about what your needs are. One of the worst things you can do is expect your partner to be a psychic or have a belief they should just know what you want,” Jayne says. “Instead, take the time to communicate what you need and listen to what they need.”
It’s important you open the conversation by validating their wishes, and making them feel heard and cared for.
As Barrett puts it: “Implying your partner is wrong, dysfunctional or disappointing will make them defensive. Acknowledge that you’re different in this way but it’s something you can work through together.
“Let your partner know you love them and how much your relationship means to you. Explain that one of the primary ways you feel loved is to receive non-sexual physical touch from them.”
She also notes that it’s probably best to pick an appropriate time to have this heart-to-heart conversation, like “on a morning walk after you’ve both had a mood-boosting coffee”.
An easy way to find true happiness in your relationship is to simply accept your partner for who they are.
“Accept that the two of you have differences and can both grow by stepping out of your comfort zones,” Jayne explains. “See it as a healthy challenge and see life through your partner’s eyes.”
After all, forcing someone to change is never the answer. “If you try to make the person someone else, it will blow up in your face — you simply can’t force a person to be the same as you. However, you can meet in the middle and find a happy medium.”
“Set aside time each day or week for small, realistic acts of affection that will make both of you happy,” Jayne explains. “When you set up these rituals, they’ll soon become a normal part of your life.”
But what happens if your partner finds physical touch confronting or off-putting?
“They’re probably willing to work on it, so consider different things you can do that incorporate more physical touch,” Barrett explains. “For example, an online cooking class, a couples dance class, a fun stretching session on YouTube or taking a fun bath together all create opportunities for physical touch in unexpected scenarios.”
Investigate your love languages
Take a page out of Chapman’s book and ask your partner what their primary love language is so you can better understand them.
“A key to overcoming a challenge like inter-intimacy is to show reciprocal interest in meeting your partner’s needs and wants,” Barrett says. “Ask them what you can do more of to help them feel safe, loved and cared about.”
Own your need for physical touch
Do you feel guilty about wanting more?
“Sometimes there can be shame or embarrassment when we have a need or want, which our partner isn’t meeting,” Barrett notes. “But we all have certain needs and preferences, so stay strong and don’t fall into a guilt trap if you require more physical touch. When you acknowledge and accept your needs, you’ll be more grounded and calm about negotiating for them to be met.”
As Jayne emphasises: “It’s OK to not be identical to your partner. What’s important is that you listen, validate and make an effort to meet in the middle.”
Relationships are about creating your own fairy tale, so as lovely as it would be to have your Prince Charming sweep you off of your feet into a world of never-ending love and magic, growing from an inter-intimate relationship is just as — if not even more — fulfilling and beautiful.
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