How Intimacy Drastically Changes From Age 20 To 40

The 20s and 30s are the "impressionable years." True intimacy often happens later.

Last updated on Jun 07, 2023

happy middle aged couple - Yuri A / Shutterstock

As a metaphor for intimacy, searching for a deep connection in the dark is a recipe for short-term, and certainly a long-term, disaster. Why? Because instead of turning the lights down, we need illumination.

Intimacy is about seeing the truth and being vulnerable and willing to express our needs and desires openly together. There are different levels of emotional and sexual intimacy and a host of reasons why we need both types.


Intimacy does not come naturally, which is one of the main reasons why many men and women in their 20s and 30s struggle and fail in their relationships. 

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How intimacy evolves over the course of a relationship

Your 20s and 30s — the impressionable years

A National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) study found that people's brains are not fully mature until they reach age 25. Between the ages of 15 to 20 our prefrontal cortex continues to mature. This is the part of our brain that allows us to create long-term strategies, anticipate the future consequences of our decisions, control impulses, and compare risk and reward. We ask important questions about where we're heading in life.

Between 20 and 25 our brains are still forming. We're highly impressionable. Fantasies and other peoples' beliefs have a major impact on our decision-making, focus, and direction. Our idea of intimacy and knowledge of sexual fulfillment is borrowed from religious doctrines, movies, books, games, the Internet, family, and friends.

Between 26 and 30, we may have discovered that our years of education didn't land us the job of our dreams, and we are now reexamining what we want to do when we "grow up." The deeper question of "Who am I?" is tabled in favor of financial independence from family and financial obligations. By now most of us have had one or two serious attempts at relationships.

Levels of intimacy

Psychologists have established five levels of intimacy that a couple needs to progress through together. Most 26-to-30-year-olds get to level two — or maybe three. At these levels, we are moving away from other peoples' opinions and beliefs to come to know our own. Instead of saying things like, "I read that good foreplay must have …" we begin to express our own beliefs about love, sex, and more. 


The most dramatic shift that happens is we move away from high sensitivity to criticism and rejection to a place where we are more willing to be vulnerable. But we still reserve the ability to change our opinion in an instant to avoid pain or conflict. Many of us end relationships abruptly, moving on to the next without a lot of self-examination. Wisdom around emotional intimacy comes slowly.

Sexual intimacy is another matter. The average age for marriages is moving upward to 28 for women and 30 for men. Premarital sex is the norm, so a lot of sexual exploration is happening before people reach true intimacy.

This gives us a false sense of sexual and emotional intimacy, which most of our early relationships ride on. That false intimacy and chemistry propels many couples into marriage or long-term commitments literally with the lights turned off.

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Your 30s and 40s — the early age of illumination

As we get older, everything begins to change. We start looking inward to discover who we are rather than making decisions based on others' beliefs, rules, and demands. We have different levels of authority and certainty, and we have more clarity about what we need emotionally from our relationships, both personal and professional.

We are more prepared to move up to the next stages of intimacy so we can find the true experience of trust and a willingness to share our deepest selves. Both emotional and sexual intimacy are deeply personal, co-creative, and ultimately blissful experiences here.

Keep in mind that this entire progression is halted if we are co-dependent. Co-dependency is rooted in our programming from early childhood. It is a defense mechanism our ego adapted to help us survive. It is based upon the feeling that we are broken, unworthy, and unlovable. Co-dependency attempts to protect us from being rejected, betrayed, and abandoned because we are unworthy and shameful. Many of us have a fear of intimacy because we were emotionally wounded and traumatized in early childhood.

Intimacy is a journey

All of us have gone through a time when we felt rejected and abandoned. This is the beginning of our so-called "Hero's Journey." While we are on that journey we discover that we are living in an emotionally dishonest society without the proper tools for healing and without healthy role models. We live in fear of deep intimacy until we firmly conclude that keeping up appearances to hide our shame from others only causes more resentment, shame, and blame.


"Turning on the lights" forces us to look at ourselves and truly see others. Complete illumination keeps us present because we see that the shame, blame, resentment, and guilt we have carried with us are not real. It is left over from co-dependent relationships in the past. We can finally look in the mirror and accept what we see with unconditional love, flaws and all. That means if we don't like the way we look, instead of shaming ourselves we do something about it. Instead of depreciating our own self-worth, we appreciate what we have chosen in life and the fact that we are fully capable of love, starting with ourselves.

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Welcome to the path of true intimacy

Now we're taking a path to true intimacy — including rock-your-world sexual intimacy.

Will we have accomplished all this by the age of 40? The truth is, too many people of all ages are still turning off the lights to experience intimacy. If we are still looking for love in all the wrong places and wrong faces, and if we are still involving ourselves with unavailable people, we will set ourselves up to continually be abandoned, betrayed, and rejected. The lights will be off and intimacy will be impossible.


One thing is for certain. Between the ages of 30 and 40, we experience the first truly mature drive to break through constraints from our childhood and early adult life. We have abandoned other peoples' dreams for our own desires and needs.

If we have broken free of our childhood wounds, which were also the wounds of our parents and their parents if we have ended the cycle of toxic shame, then we can engage in sexual communion with reverence instead of manipulation — and with a deeper respect for health and emotional abundance. We are more willing to put it all on the line because we have had the experience of growth through radical honesty, and there is a deep sense of discovering "the real me."

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Larry Michel is the Founder of the Institute of Genetic Energetics and a Relationship Restoration Counselor, helping individuals, couples, and companies discover the deepest influences that drive their relationships to flourish.