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What is holistic intimacy?

Carly Quellman

February 15th, 2023

There are many ways to get close to other people. Carly Quellman examines a different perspective on connection.

I’ve always viewed February as the beginning of change—the time, post-January ‘New Year New Me’ rush, that I willingly dedicate myself to. As a somatic intimacy consultant, I am often thinking and delving into the layers of non-verbal communication and its systems. But to acknowledge where it lives in my own life feels a bit nebulous. Whereas January is fueled by the unshakable force of momentum (and capitalism) to advocate for and apply change in our lives, February is the month to reflect on what occurred—and what still ceases to exist. Sure, I have loads of kind, healthy intimacies, yet I also don’t always feel deeply connected to the people around me, or that I’m always able to communicate the best way to provide or receive the intimacy I crave. Sometimes connection comes across as very cerebral, even with something like touch, and that leaves me wondering what the feeling itself would be like. 

The assumption v. the reality

I spoke with Cessalee Stovall—intimacy director, cultural consultant, and the founder of Australia-based DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) organization, Stage A Change—about holistic intimacy. I was curious specifically about how intimacy touches every part of our lives, from a connected, rather than sexual, point of view. According to Stovall, “We live in a very sexualized society where a certain touch of a certain quality automatically means something. Intimacy takes many forms—[it’s] an assessment of our responses to our interactions—and it’s how we can engage with all five of our senses around us.” 

“I like to think about intimacy, physicality, movement, and touch as an additional language we have access to,” Stovall continued. “It can give us language to communicate emotion, on top of the words we’re actually saying.” I think back to tingly surges of excitement running through my body in response to an energetic exchange between me and something—or someone—else. Sometimes, it’s the connection rather than the action that holds so much power. 

But intimacy is often used interchangeably as a term for sex, or physical forms of intimacy rooted in somatic pleasure. On top of that, our relationship status is often used to designate the kind of intimacy we should have in our life. “We jump, as a society, to sexualization. We feel like we either ‘do nothing’ or we’re ‘all the way in,’” Stovall said. “We miss a lot of the colors and nuances of the full spectrum of intimacy.” 

Personally, I know I love platonic forms of intimacy with friends. Holding a hand or offering multiple types of support is paramount in my life, especially as someone who struggles with overstimulation and social anxiety. Intimacy goes beyond our scope of passion and touch. It’s also about creating connections that fit within our own life. There’s no fixed model. 

Yet media representation in society—specifically toward female-identifying people—portrays intimacy as a tool for heightening eroticism and deepening the sexual experience. It’s never described in relation to an emotion. “I feel like there’s a missing conversation. There’s a lack of diversity around representation of intimacy,” Stovall said. “There’s this image of ‘this is what intimacy is,’ and not so much creativity around what intimacy can be. We don’t see a lot of representation of those kinds of moments. Then, in real life, we aren’t able to recognize real intimacy when it happens or when it comes.” 

How to practice it

If we feel close to someone—emotionally, mentally, physically, or spiritually—the closer we are to experiencing intimacy. But if we aren’t used to interacting with that emotion, how can we practice it? I am learning that true intimacy involves slowing down and taking note of how we’re feeling. It takes generosity and willingness to commit—to the anticipation; to the present moment; to the unplanned, inevitable future. It takes trust.

It also takes getting weird. Stovall recommends just allowing awkwardness, and then talking about it. “If you don’t know what to physically do, ask!” It may seem daunting to ask another person permission to engage—not because of consent, but because of the specificities around our questions. Taking time to understand both ourselves and each other builds the vulnerability needed to engage in holistic forms of intimacy. Sometimes that’s simply having “the talk,” but without the weight of added pressure. 

I may not have loads of people lining up in front of me wanting to form intimate connections, but that’s OK. I am, instead, committed to the journey of holistic intimacy—not the fleeting spurt of passion so frequently linked with the word. Like Stovall explained, “We can hold space, hold people, in another way.” For me, that’s finding time outside in the crisp, warm air, surrounded by joyful people who believe in all forms of connection and are curious about life. If there’s balance, there’s freedom. If I’m failing, flailing, falling in love with life, I’m learning. And I love that feeling.

  • Intimacy
  • Relationship