Why Men & Women Struggle To Have Their Primal Need For Intimacy Met — According To Science

Biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher on the ancestral reason we struggle to build bonds over time in marriage.

couple looking into each others eyes while hugging PeopleImages.com - Yuri A / Shutterstock 

“What is intimacy to you?” 

Recently I asked this of a man. He replied, “Doing things with you.” 

Most of us have a primal craving to know and be truly known by someone before we die, to build a deeply committed relationship based on honesty, trust, self-disclosure, interdependence, respect, appreciation and togetherness.

But the sexes often define intimacy differently.

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Why men and women tend to define intimacy differently

When I am with a girlfriend who knows my secrets, we talk. We swivel until we are facing one another, lock eyes in what anthropologists call the “anchoring gaze” and reveal our lives, our hopes, our worries. Talking face-to-face is intimate to most women.


The late sociologist Harry Brod, a men’s studies expert, reported that men more regularly regard intimacy as working or playing side by side. Sure, many men discuss a bad week at work, even troubles in their love lives. But rarely do they share their sacred hopes and darkest fears. And when they do, they often use “joke speak,” camouflaging their feelings with humor.

This gender difference in intimacy probably evolved millions of years ago as our female forebears spent their days holding their infants in front of their faces, soothing them with words. Words were women’s tools for connecting.

Ancestral men, on the other hand, spent most of their days sitting behind a rock or bush, quietly staring across the grass in hopes of felling a passing buffalo or another moving meal. Across deep history, ancestral men faced their enemies; they sat side by side with friends.

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You see the differences everywhere

You can see this gender difference on any park bench. The man sits facing forward, gazing straight ahead. The woman beside him is swiveling her head, shoulders, chest, hips, knees and ankles to lock eyes. Both are struggling to reach intimacy with the other — their kind of intimacy.

“Knowledge is power,” Francis Bacon declared. I agree. So, I often tell a man special things (or raise difficult issues) while we are hiking through the woods or city, driving, or just sitting on the couch looking forward. When he isn’t threatened by my gaze, he can hear me. And to build intimacy with a woman, I face her directly, lock eyes and listen.

Making love also builds intimacy — due to a powerful chemical in the brain: oxytocin. Oxytocin produces feelings of trust, togetherness and attachment–and during orgasm, both sexes gush this cuddle chemical. Men get a blast of oxytocin when they kiss, and women get a torrent of this chemical when they hold a partner’s hand.


Differences in intimacy are universal

Moreover, we humans aren’t the only creatures to enjoy this rush. All female mammals experience a deluge of oxytocin as they birth and nurse their young. And oxytocin courses through the brain as little prairie voles snuggle with a mate.

There are many other ways to cultivate intimacy. Choose a new interest to pursue together. Help your partner achieve their goals. Face your problems as a team. Develop a spiritual or religious world together. And remember when you used to cook together, help one another with the laundry, or shop? Do these again.

Then give yourselves a reward for time well spent — like a store-bought coffee or 15 minutes of mutual massage. Most important: Share your private thoughts — every day. Another equally important way to spend time together bonding? Play. Yes, having fun

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The numbers behind the conclusions

I say this because in preparation for this column, I asked 4,876 members of the internet dating site, Chemistry.com, to respond to eight questions about intimacy. There were some gender differences.

Men were far more likely to regard debating with a partner as intimate, as well as sharing a personal journal. While women were more likely to endorse organizing a party together and taking a vacation with mutual friends.

But both sexes shared some views: 95 percent agreed that talking heart to heart about the relationship was very intimate; 94 percent felt that doing something adventurous together spelled togetherness. No other activity I offered in the quiz was regarded as intimate by more than 63 percent of men or women.


Talking face to face; playing side by side: these are nature’s basic formulas for intimacy. Not coincidentally, these two styles of togetherness come across the eons, up from hunters and mothers who roamed the African grass more than a million years ago. Viva la difference.

Today, savvy couples still use both primordial mechanisms to cultivate this elegant feeling — intimacy.

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Helen Fisher Ph.D., is a biological anthropologist and Senior Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute and Chief Scientific Advisor to the dating site Match. She is the author of the book The Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray, among other titles.


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