What Defines an Intimate Relationship?

by | Feb 1, 2023

A few years ago, I was speaking at a college campus about God’s design for sexuality. During a break, a young woman approached me with a question, “You said that God created me for intimacy. Isn’t intimacy the same thing as having sex?”

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This brave woman articulated a confusion that I believe many experience. Intimacy and sex have become synonymous. For example, an eleven-year-old girl develops her first significant friendship with a classmate. They share secrets, hold hands, and think about one another. This is intimacy. Yet, in today’s climate, this young child is likely to wonder if the attachment means that she is a lesbian or bisexual. Unfortunately, she has no category for an intimate relationship other than to define it as sexual. This is also why our Christian subculture has no room for a deep brother-sister affection among adults. Any intimate relationship is assumed to be romantic or sexual.

Unfortunately, some modern theologians approach God’s Word with this limited framework of intimacy, suggesting that Jesus had a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene and even with the apostle John. They also suggest that David’s relationship with Jonathan was sexual because it was so fulfilling and intimate. What a limiting view of intimacy and a gross distortion of biblical teaching!

Sexual intimacy is one very specific form of intimacy, yet it is not the only or even the most significant form of intimacy. As we learn through the lives of Jesus and many of His followers, you can and should experience deeply intimate relationships that are not romanticized or sexualized. Yes, I have an intimate relationship with my husband, but I also have intimate relationships with my mother, some close friends, and even my sons. These relationships are deep and rich, yet are clearly not sexual nor romantic.

So, what defines an intimate relationship? While this is quite a complicated topic, here are three specific elements of any intimate relationship.

1. Commitment to one another over time

While you may feel an immediate connection with a new friend, true intimacy can only develop over time. Intimacy involves a process of learning to trust each other as each person in the relationship prioritizes one another. This means that a group of friends can be intimate. In fact, the Bible encourages us to build intimacy not just with one other believer, but with many in the family of God. My husband and I have a small group that has been meeting together regularly for the past four years. We each make it a priority to get together, text each other, and pray for one another. We are far more intimate with this group now than we were a few years ago. In friendship, the potential of intimacy grows as you prioritize your relationship and time you spend with each other. This is why family relationships (siblings, parents, adult children, grandchildren) have the potential to be deeply intimate.

2. A progressive journey of being known

Time together is not enough to forge intimacy. You may spend every day with your spouse or co-worker but feel miles apart from each other. A key element of any intimate relationship is deep knowing of one another. It sounds cliche, but some define intimacy as “into me see.” From the time we were children, we learned that there are certain aspects of ourselves that we don’t show other people. We quickly become skilled at saying what we think people want to hear and playing a part to cover up ugly truths about ourselves. You can’t be intimate if you wear emotional armor. Intimacy and authenticity are not the same thing. As you mature, you learn to be authentic with everyone. You don’t pretend to be someone you are not. But in your intimate relationships, you feel safe enough to let people know more of you. This is a progressive journey of building trust. I’m quite sure you have experienced the pain of sharing intimately with someone who took advantage of your vulnerability. Jesus was aware of this danger, which is why the Bible says, “He did not entrust Himself to the crowd because He knew what was in their hearts” (John 2:24). Jesus consistently demonstrated boundaries with people, trusting only a few in His inner circle. Notice that He only took three friends with Him to be near Him as He wrestled the night before He was crucified.

3. A feeling of affection and attachment

While our feelings can deceive us, they are also an important component of intimacy. I feel a deep affection for people with whom I am closest. The journey of sharing and being loved forms affection and connection. Jesus showed deep affection when He wept for his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazurus. He cared deeply for His disciples, telling them unabashedly how much He loved them. The apostle Paul might seem like a stoic theologian in some of his teaching, but notice in his letters how often he expressed attachment and affection for his friends, co-workers, and those he discipled. Here just are a few examples:

[God] knows how much I love and miss you these days. Sometimes I think I feel as strongly about you as Christ does!” (Philippians 1:7-8 MSG)

I have sent you Timothy, my son whom I love…” (I Corinthians 4:17)

Do you have any idea how very homesick we became for you, dear friends? Even though it hadn’t been that long and it was only our bodies that were separated from you, not our hearts, we tried our very best to get back to see you. You can’t imagine how much we missed you!” (I Thessalonians 2:17-18 MSG)

You might ask, where does sex fit into this picture? Does sex have any role in intimacy? And how do you know when feelings of closeness are meant to be sexualized? I’m going to warn you that you may not like my answer. It’s completely contrary to what you’ve likely been taught by the culture and even in some church circles. Are you ready? Here it is… Sexual intimacy isn’t a feeling or experience you follow but a journey you choose. I choose to pursue sexual intimacy with my husband because I have a marriage covenant with him. I choose not to nurture sexual desires and thoughts with anyone else. I share many aspects of myself with intimate friends and family members, but I only share the sexual me with my husband. As he and I share this sacred aspect of ourselves with each other, we add sexual intimacy to the many other facets of our relationship.

Feelings of sexual arousal and desire can come and go throughout your lifetime, but those don’t define intimacy. We steward our sexual experiences based on our choices, not the other way around. Friend, you and I were created for intimacy. We were not primarily created for marriage or for sex. Those are unique expressions of intimacy which we choose; we do not just fall into them.

When we mistake intimacy for sexuality, we will fail to invest in the core relationships that are meant to sustain us through life’s challenges. Church should not just be the place you hear a sermon, but where you find “your people.” Friends are not meant to be transient people you occasionally see, but those who are growing to know you more intimately through a shared journey.

Our world is becoming a desperately lonely place, in large part because we have co-opted sexual expression to be a substitution for intimacy. Our true need is to experience committed relationships in which we trust each other enough to truly be known and accepted for who we are. What steps do you need to take today to walk towards intimacy with friends, your church family, and even with your spouse?

Learn more about building intimacy in your relationships with these blogs by Juli: