The Difference Between Physical Intimacy And Sexual Passion In A Relationship

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated July 25, 2022

Content/Trigger Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include sexual assault & violence which could potentially be triggering.

Intimate relationships exist between two people with physical or emotional closeness. While the term intimate relationship usually implies the inclusion of sexual activity, the term is also used to indicate a relationship with more than just sexual activity. Relationships with authentic intimacy maintain a key role in the overall human experience because they involve emotional connections with a partner. This may be romance, physical or sexual attraction, sexual activity, or emotional support, while also helping people develop strong interpersonal connections.

So, the question exists, “Are sex and intimacy different things?” "What is sexuality?" We may also ask, “Can you have one without the other? Or does one lead to another?” There are many conflicting opinions on the roles of sex and the intimacy definition inside and outside of relationships. Because no two people have the same ideas on sex, there is no finite answer to any of these issues in life. In a traditional framework, sex includes long-term commitment or marriage, followed by emotional intimacy and procreation. However, in an increasingly promiscuous society, the connection between sex and intimacy can be a tenuous one.


Can Sexual Passion Last Without Love?

The inclusion of physical intimacy in human sexuality is another factor that requires consideration. It is reported that most people desire physical intimacy of some sort at least occasionally in life, being that it is a natural part of human sexuality. Because this is most often sensual touching of any sort, it requires an entrance into another’s personal space, while it may be an emotional or sexual act anywhere from hugs to kisses to sexual intercourse.

Emotional or sensual touching of this sort factors into the release of oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin. The release of these feel-good hormones can reduce stress, lower blood pressure and even support pain relief. These are some of the ways in which physical intimacy can provide health benefits for many. Also, without physical intimacy in life, there are increased feelings of loneliness or sadness.

There are very basic definitions provided for the definition of physical intimacy, especially including the definitions of other words that are part of the physical acts of intimacy. While many of the ones that are primary definitions are not actual sex, they are still touching and physical interaction.

It could be some nouns or verbs, most commonly caress or fondle. There are also the synonyms that describe these words including stroke, cuddle, fondle, embrace, hug, nuzzle, pet, or pat. It seems to vary back and forth, especially since there can be the inclusion of physical and emotional intimacy as a part of an intimate relationship, making it not necessarily a feeling or action of its own.

Definition Of Sexual Passion

Now, this may be as simple as comfort with personal affection or with public displays of affection because of the level of intimacy that has developed between two people in relationships. There is also the question of whether there is sex or sexual passion without emotion or love, and whether it can be maintained.

Interestingly enough, when looking for the definition of sexual passion, many of the same references as physical intimacy appeared in different dictionary locations. One additional mention is that of “affection,” something that is of addition to the physical touching and intimacy that comes with the emotions being expressed. While “affection” and “love” are not completely the same, this indicates that there may be something a bit more emotional in the passionate side of this word combination.

People who are close and familiar through conversation are more comfortable entering each other’s personal space and taking on physical contact. Depending on the relationship, public displays of affection may vary based on the social norm in which they find themselves. These displays can range from simple gestures like a kiss or hug to an embrace or holding hands. Even sustained eye contact can be considered a form of intimacy as it can create a sense of physical closeness. While this may be a simple greeting, there may be long-term contact or affectionate embrace maintained in the public space when these two people are quite comfortable with each other.

Then, there are methods and moments of human contact that are maintained in a private place like a bed in a more intimate relationship. As two people become closer to one another, building trust, understanding, and a bond, they are at ease and can display forms of affections with their body when together including:

  • Cuddling
  • Caressing
  • Tickling
  • Massage
  • Touching or intertwining of legs

These events do not require sexual activity to have passion or intimacy, but this would likely indicate that it is not a sexually passionate relationship. Rather, an intimate relationship that does not include a sex life between the individuals. There are many types of interpersonal relationships and most are not sexual. If two people are looking to maintain a friendship, it is more likely they will stick to a hug or kiss on the cheek to show care or affection that is not sexually passionate.

Therefore, physical sexual intimacy can vary in definition. Some people are more sexually passionate than others and can bring that level of intimacy into a romantic relationship much more easily. How much sex or physical affection is desired in a relationship is completely individual. There is also the fact that each person sees sex in at least a slightly different manner, and it is common that men and women address sexual intimacy and passion differently. Having a talk with your partner and bringing attention to this topic can help you better understand their views more clearly.

Is There A Difference Between Sex And Intimacy, Or One Without The Other?

Can Sexual Passion Last Without Love?

Sex without love or intimacy is a question that exists at the core of any strong relationship. Since there is the value of sex between two people who have an intimate or loving relationship, there is also the importance of defining all the different pieces of the relationship. General intimacy involves knowing someone deeply and the ability to feel completely open, free, and honest with them. Some people may find this easier than others. For example, people with an avoidant personality disorder are characterized as having a fear of rejection and can be socially withdrawn. Therefore, building intimacy with a partner may be more challenging. If you feel this may be describe you, it can be helpful to seek advice, diagnosis, or treatment in order to manage it effectively and find more satisfaction with a partner.

So, sex in a loving or intimate relationship tends to be the physical embodiment of those feelings. The ideal theory is that this physical intimacy plays an important role and creates loving connection between the two people in a relationship. The two of them within a relationship are thus interconnected: physical intimacy builds sexual passion, and sexual passion builds sexual intimacy.

There is the ability to separate sexual passion from the world of physical intimacy as well. This is if sex is just a physical act, especially when it occurs outside of a relationship. Within a relationship, sex can be a very intimate act, but there are different occasions when this act can occur. It can be a physical act that occurs without consent (rape), an act that is paid for (prostitution), or a simple physical exchange (one-night stand).

Say that we consider the one-night stands that anyone takes on after a night of drinking or partying with friends. Two individuals can enjoy a night of sex without love or intimacy, usually when there is physical attraction or the basic desire for the enjoyment of sexual intercourse. It is often a psychological question of the difference between these two, and the overall intimate and vulnerable act of offering yourself to another in sex, which would connect both sex and intimacy again.

Once the determination of sexual passion or physical intimacy is made, there then comes the question of sex or making love. With this having been a strong debate for long periods of time, there is the potential to understand that this is an independent decision to be made. Or at least this would be the decided term between the two partners who have established their intimate, sexual relationship.

Since no matter the term used, sex is always a physical act and can be done without intimacy. However, there is the potential for the love or intimacy involved in this act to be a degree or level of connection associated between the two partners involved, making it something that becomes more intimate or more a form of lovemaking as their relationship grows over time.

It is also important to remember that loving and intimate couples at times are unable to have sex or choose not to do so. There can be medical conditions that prevent a partner from engaging in sexual intercourse, changing the physical intimacy dynamic in their relationship. This does not eliminate the passion or attraction they feel for one another. It also does not remove other forms of physical intimacy and touching, or quality time spent together to express their love and emotions for one another. Their sex life may simply involve other acts that lead to sexual arousal.

The Role of Intimacy in Relationships

While people may define sexual passion and physical intimacy differently, there can be a link between the two. Intimacy plays an important role in sexual passion. Studies show that most men and women have increased sexual desire when intimacy is present. This intimacy was not limited to physical in the study, but a self-reported feeling of connection to their partner, boyfriend, or girlfriend. Furthermore, regardless of whether the partner was a man or woman, that desire increased when the feeling of intimacy did as well. While both sex and intimacy can exist without each other, they can also play off each other well.

Physical affection may create a stronger sense of both intimacy and passion in relationships. One study by the American Journal of Family Therapy found that the more physical affection was present in a romantic relationship, the better conflict resolution was reported. That’s not to say these couples had a lower chance of fighting, but that they were able to overcome such conflicts. As such, physical affection may support emotional intimacy as well. 

Therapy to Improve Physical Intimacy or Sexual Passion

If you have questions or feel uncomfortable with some aspects of your intimacy or sexual passion, or want to improve these in your relationships, it can be beneficial to talk to a therapist. After all, a therapist can help you with anything mental health related, including depression, anxiety, or stress. Therapists, like a LCSW, are trained to support communication, conversation, and empathy, which research has been shown to improve intimacy between couples. Whether you choose to see a therapist solo or with your partner, online therapy can be a convenient option for a lot of people to gather tips, understanding, and advice. Everything is on the table in therapy.

As long as you are willing to put in the effort and be open to feedback, therapy can be a wonderful place for personal growth. Keep in mind that therapy is a process, and everyone won't see positive effects overnight. But with the right mindset, you're likely to see an impact sooner rather than later. BetterHelp can connect you to a licensed professional from the comfort of your home, no matter your reasons for seeking out help.

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