Except, not. You see, when I finally met my new digital boyfriend, we discovered we were not actually in love in real life. On the contrary: It felt like we were meeting for the first time…because, of course, we were. Was the intimacy we’d built online fake? And if so, what’s *real* intimacy, and how can we discern one from the other in today’s confusing, digital-first world?
According to relationship pro Jess O’Reilly, PhD, there’s no canned answer to this question. “Intimacy can mean different things to different people, because it’s a complex and nuanced experience,” she says. “Some people describe intimate connection as one in which they feel safe, close, and loved; however, how they reach these feelings of security differs from person to person—some require physical touch and others are more responsive to words.”
While this may be true—that the exact experience of intimacy is unique to each individual—Julie Spira, a cyber-dating expert and online matchmaker, believes there are four major components of true intimacy that are common to varying degrees across all relationships. She, Dr. O’Reilly, and marriage and family therapist Erin Nicole McGinnis, LMFT, break them down below.
Keep reading to find out if you’re building *true* intimacy with your partner.
Physical intimacy, says Spira, is often the first noticeable sign of a genuine connection (though this may not always be true in the digital age—more on that in a bit). “Physical intimacy can start with a smile, a flirty look, hand holding, kissing, and [progress] through to sexual acts,” she says. To clarify, she explains that physical intimacy starts happening when you’re completely clothed—it doesn’t rely on touch. “Just seeing a photo of someone you love or have affection for will stimulate the physical desire,” she says.
The second component of true intimacy, termed “emotional intimacy,” means your emotional needs are being met, explains Spira. “This happens when someone accepts you for who you are, cares about what’s happening in your world, and where you feel your partner is invested in you and your relationship,” she says. The creation of a trusting and committed partnership, she says, often plays a role here, too.
McGinnis expands upon what’s required of both parties in order to build what Spira describes above. “It’s being authentic as well as accurately seeing the true self of another—it requires openness, transparency, and reciprocity,” she explains. “In a long-term relationship, it’s dependent on both partners having some degree of emotional intelligence, empathy, self-acceptance, and acceptable communication skills.”
“Intimacy isn’t a destination that you arrive at but an ongoing journey and process.” —Erin Nicole McGinnis, marriage and family therapist
A relationship cannot survive, McGinnis elaborates, when even one person within it lacks empathy, or the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. “However, when a vulnerability is met with compassion and emotional support, trust is developed in the other person and the relationship,” she says. It’s necessary, then, to be able to effectively communicate your thoughts and feelings so that the other person can understand and has an opportunity to respond genuinely; self-esteem is a critical component to this exchange. “Confidence makes it easier to express ourselves, securely ask for what we want as well as clearly accept the other person without taking their issues personally,” she explains.
McGinnis insists not all of this has to be in place right away for a relationship to be real, however. Instead, intimacy is established in different stages as a relationship progresses. And, she says, what boundaries and intimacy look like in a new connection is very different from what it looks like after 20 years of marriage. “Every time we share our feelings or thoughts, we get to see how the other person responds. And if they can understand, empathize, and communicate in a way that makes us feel safe, then intimacy deepens,” she says. “Therefore, intimacy isn’t a destination that you arrive at but an ongoing journey and process.”
You know how you’ll occasionally come down from the initial attraction phase (sometimes called the “sex haze’) in a new relationship only to find that you and your new partner have almost nothing to talk about? In this instance, you may not have yet built an intellectual bond. Spira believes this is another critical component of true intimacy. “This is where you’re able to talk about what’s happening in the world such as politics, environmental issues, and business issues,” she says. “Intellectual intimacy taps into your brain and helps a couple be in sync in a non-physical way.”
Unlike the other forms of intimacy on this list, Spira doesn’t believe that digital intimacy is a critical component of true intimacy; however, in today’s world, she says, it’s often a part of the picture. (Dr. O’Reilly and McGinnis agree.)
She cautions, however, against relying on virtual interaction alone, e.g. getting yourself into a situation like mine. “I believe an online-only relationship can be defined as having a ‘digital pen-pal’—your feelings can grow and turn into real love from communicating online,” she says. (McGinnis adds an important caveat here, which is that both people have to be sharing authenically for it to be legit.) “The key is to have an end-game of actually meeting the person to see if the online chemistry matches the offline chemistry, because if you invest too much time on someone online, you might find yourself hugely disappointed when you meet the person offline,” says Spira.
Dr. O’Reilly, however, rebels against the idea that intimacy experienced without IRL interactions is somehow illegitimate. “If we can use digital communication to negotiate peace treaties and facilitate multi-million dollar deals, we can certainly use similar technology to foster friendships and intimate relationships,” she says. “Digital connection is likely to be enhanced by in-person meetings and interactions, but this doesn’t mean that digital relationships aren’t real.”
Because she believes that the definition of true intimacy is different for everybody, Dr. O’Reilly says some people may be more open to digital intimacy whereas others consider in-person connection a non-negotiable. She also believes that digital interactions play a more significant role for younger folks who grew up using text and apps as a part of their day-to-day experience. “It’s not necessarily a form of interference, but an enhancement to the in-person relationship,” she says.
“It’s important not to let passion blind you—the reality is that no matter how close you feel to a new love interest, you do not know them.” —Jess O’Reilly, PhD
This is true not just in the early stages of dating, she adds, but throughout a relationship. Dr. O’Reilly says, for example, that while many people find that communication is more effective in-person, this doesn’t hold true across the board. “Some people prefer to resolve conflict with their partner via text,” she explains. “Research may suggest that this isn’t the most effective way to do so, but if it works for you, so be it.”
What’s more, she tells me that if you’re worried that you’re fostering a false sense of intimacy by chatting online before you meet in person, it’s not necessarily a matter of digital vs. IRL interaction. “The reality is that when you first meet someone and like them, you tend to overestimate how much you actually know about them whether you’ve met in person or only chatted via text,” Dr. O’Reilly says. “This is because when you like someone, you tend to fill in what you don’t know with idealizations that suit your particularly needs and tastes.” This can happen, she says, both before and after you’ve met in person. “So, it’s important not to let passion blind you—the reality is that no matter how close you feel to a new love interest, you do not know them,” she explains. “It takes time to get close to someone—whether you’re texting or chatting over drinks.”
This sentiment seems to be a theme, and perhaps “time” could be considered the fifth component of true intimacy. Perhaps with more of it spent both online and in person, my Brit and I would fall in *real* love but for now, I’m looking to build something the old-fashioned way—with a smattering of digital mixed in with good old hand-holding, ill-advised political debates, and the occasional (or, in my case, frequent) overshare.
Trying to gauge your partner’s relationship needs? This Myers-Briggs-based insight can help. Plus, a PSA: The most common source of stress in a relationship is not what you think.
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