In modern secular culture, it is widely assumed that sex is the key to intimacy. Of course, having sex with someone who care for is a way to be intimate with him or her, but what makes us think that sex is the key to closeness?
After all, sex can make us feel distant or even more distant from one another, and hooking up with a stranger can lead one to feel deeply alone.
Moreover, given the multifarious ways in which human beings comport themselves to one another, it would make perfectly good sense if being skillful in other modes of contact could bring about closeness. Consider: cognitive congruence, emotional resonance, engaged storytelling, skillful compassion, insightful thoughtfulness, artful and uncontrived expressions of affection–are these not also very good, and often unpracticed, ways of being intimate with one’s lover?
I trust you can see the downsides of the sex-is-the-key assumption: if sex is the barometer of the flourishing or withering of the relationship, then, in any given period, infrequent or less frequent sex or else unskilled sex at the outset of a relationship can give rise to anxiety and can spell the end of the relationship. You see? No room for allowances, for honest conversations, or for flexibility and learning.
Without question, sex is a lovely expression of entwinement and, as such, it should be taken to be an important factor in a loving relationship, but for too long its importance has been blown out of proportion.
It is, after all, possible too to default to the view that good sex is good hygiene. This psychological-medical conception is, quite frankly, sad. For while the tautology is true (good sex is good sex), it doesn’t follow that intimacy is like brushing your teeth daily. If anything, intimacy requires an intuitive intelligence of the kind that may be obfuscated by overreliance on the sex-as-barometer or the sex-as-hygiene conceptions.
The long and short of a good relationship is this: can you improvise with this person in creative ways? Can you move and wend together even in th hard times? In this sense, if we feel inclined to force an analogy, then we’d be better off with this one: true intimacy is like a beautiful landscape painting, with lovely sex like a river flowing through an otherwise stunning landscape.