When relationships are at their best, they have the power to create tremendous rewards. Individuals in loving, supportive relationships live longer, healthier, happier, and more meaningful lives. Healthy relationships fulfill some of our most important needs — to be seen, understood, and cared for.
Given the important role that intimacy plays in relationships, it helps to be clear on just what it involves. What does it mean to be intimate with another person? Intimacy involves mutual knowledge. It’s two people who have a deep understanding of each other’s histories, expectations, likes and dislikes, hopes and fears. Intimacy also involves spending time together — creating shared memories that become a central part of the relationship. Showing each other kindness and compassion is another key ingredient.
While it’s easy to spell out what intimacy involves at an abstract level, defining what counts as an intimate moment in a relationship is not an easy task. Part of what makes intimacy so difficult to define is that individuals have different ideas about the types of behaviors that convey intimacy in a relationship.
Partners can view the exact same event differently, so what may feel like an intimate encounter to one may not register the same way to the other. For example, watching a movie together may feel very intimate to one party, but completely lacking in intimacy to his or her partner.
Not only do people disagree on whether an event creates a sense of closeness, but people also have different intimacy needs. Some crave intimacy in their relationships, while others desire less of it. A few minutes of genuine, heartfelt conversation may leave one partner craving more, while the other has already reached his or her limit.
Attachment theory captures how such differences in the experience and need for intimacy often play out in romantic partners’ lives. According to attachment theory, early experiences with caregivers can shape how individuals experience intimacy later in life. Some individuals develop a secure style of attachment: They have an easy time trusting partners, don’t feel overly constrained by making commitments, and are generally comfortable depending on and being dependent upon a partner.
It’s also possible for people to develop an anxious or an avoidant style of attachment. People with an anxious style of attachment experience high levels of self-doubt, which lead them to seek intimacy as a means of reassurance. They believe, If only someone loved me enough, then I would feel safe and secure. Individuals with an anxious style of attachment desperately want to be loved, but doubt that their partners actually love them.
Individuals with an avoidant style of attachment prefer distance to closeness in relationships. They don’t believe that partners can be trusted to meet their needs, so they downplay the importance of intimacy and try to keep partners at a safe distance. They tell themselves, I don’t need you to feel safe and secure.
New research shows that how people define what passes for intimacy in a relationship is based on their style of attachment.
In a large-scale study of how people define closeness in a relationship, people with an anxious style of attachment reported needing higher levels of time together, affection, and self-disclosure in order to feel close to a partner. By comparison, individuals with an avoidant style of attachment indicated that much lower levels of time, affection, and self-disclosure were desired in a close relationship. No big surprises here.
However, this research also explored how people define intimacy by asking participants to rate the level of closeness between two people after reading a series of short scenarios describing different types of encounters. For instance, in one scenario, participants were asked to rate the level of closeness involved in a situation where Matthew almost always calls Stacey when he needs help. Across the scenarios tested, the results showed that individuals with an anxious style of attachment saw less intimacy in these scenarios, while individuals with an avoidant style of attachment viewed the exact same situations as being more intimate in nature.
The results highlight the importance of understanding one’s style of attachment. Individuals with an anxious style of attachment not only have higher needs for intimacy, but also view common events in a relationship as being less intimate in nature. This finding helps explain why people with an anxious style of attachment are often disappointed in relationships — they are less likely to perceive intimacy in everyday events, while wanting more closeness than they experience.
Likewise, the study helps explain why avoidant individuals are also less satisfied with their relationships. They desire less closeness in relationships, but are more likely to view everyday encounters as being intimate in nature.
Is it any wonder that problems emerge when individuals with anxious and avoidance styles of attachment date each other? A routine conversation may feel too intimate to the one who wants less intimacy, while the other finds the same conversation devoid of closeness.
This latest study shows that anxious and avoidant individuals not only have different emotional needs, but they disagree on the very definition of what passes for intimacy. While partners always create a relationship together, their individual experiences may differ. They're actually experiencing two distinct relationships.
Hudson, N. W., & Fraley, R. C. (2017). Adult attachment and perceptions of closeness. Personal Relationships, 24(1), 17-26.