Intimacy vs. Romance

By Katrina J. Zeno, MTS

The music ended and a warm, melted chocolate feeling flowed through my body. I remained in my dance partner’s arms, savoring the moment. I could feel my thoughts drift toward the ozone – how nice to be in his arms, how safe, how romantic…

Time out!!! Get a grip on reality, I told myself. You know this man off the dance floor. You know he’s arrogant, self-centered, and never listens to you but only talks about himself. How can you even consider being romantic with him?

Having crashed into reality, I thanked my partner and walked off the dance floor. I had just experienced one of the most important events of my adult life: the difference between intimacy and romance.

Before this experience, I never considered the difference between intimacy and romance. As a woman, I am wired a particular way: If I feel close to a man, I interpret this as a green light to race into romance, or at least start walking quickly in that direction.   After this dance-floor experience, I realized that feeling close to a man wasn’t an indicator of romance but of intimacy.

Over the past five years, I’ve had ample opportunity to reflect – and put into practice – this difference between intimacy and romance. Intimacy is the experience of closeness, of feeling warm and accepted in another’s presence. Intimacy emerges from vulnerability – we take off the masks and allow someone into our personal and emotional space. This creates a bond, and that bond we experience as intimacy.

One of the key distinctions between intimacy and romance is exclusivity. It’s possible to be intimate with many people, but romantic with only one. Why do I say this? Because I’ve seen it in my own life. I am blessed with a dozen extremely deep and personal friendships. With each one, there is an emotional connection born of time, self-disclosure, and shared joys and sorrows. I am emotionally nourished by them and they by me. I light up in their presence. They are indelibly embedded in my heart. One, however, does not exclude the other. A “we” is not formed that prevents the formation of other intimate alliances.

I thought the “exclusive” distinction between intimacy and romance was self-evident until speaking on men, women, and romance in San Diego in December of 2002. After the talk, a fortyish looking man asked to speak to me. He graciously explained that as a man, he heard the word intimacy very differently. For him, intimacy evoked images of intimate apparel, Victoria’s Secret, and physical contact. To hear me say that we can be intimate with many and romantic with only one sent shock waves through his masculine system. It was the equivalent of endorsing fornication and adultery!

Humbled, I listened intently to his description of a relationship continuum that he and some friends devised. They described a relationship developing from friendship to close friendship to romance to intimacy. Intimacy was on the other side of romance and therefore was the exclusive component of the relationship.

His comments sent me back to my cave to think, and think some more. Maybe it’s not only romance and intimacy that need to be distinguished, but different kinds of intimacy. The intimacy I was describing as belonging to many was emotional intimacy. The intimacy the fortyish man was describing was physical intimacy. Perhaps the relationship continuum needed to include both: friendship, close friendship, emotional intimacy, romance, marriage, physical intimacy. Romance would then be the bridge between emotional intimacy and physical (i.e., marital) intimacy. Emotional intimacy could remain inclusive and physical intimacy exclusive.

Intoxicated by this insight, I tried it out on my first available victim: a male friend who picked me up from the airport. Yes, yes, I was right, he said, that men equated intimacy with the sexual dimension of the relationship. But emotional intimacy? Men squirm at the thought of saying they are emotionally intimate with each other. It carries feminine and even homosexual overtones. Brotherhood was a better (i.e., safer) word he informed me. He described the relationship continuum as acquaintance, friendship, and brotherhood.

I was making progress. Perhaps there needed to be two relationship continuums – one with female language (emotional intimacy) and one with male language (brotherhood).   I had one last test case: My 14-year-old son.

After listening to my five-minute recap, he said to me: “In 50 words or less, how would you describe the difference?” Ouch! The long-winded speaker in me was reined in by unadulterated youth. I couldn’t answer then, but back to my cave I went and thought not just about intimacy with the same gender, but intimacy with the opposite gender. Why do men and women have such a hard time engaging in close friendship and emotional intimacy without tumbling into romance and physical contact?

I think Catholic speaker Mary Beth Bonacci hits the nail on the head. She says male attention feels like love. Women race from emotional intimacy (or flattery!) to romance because male attention feels like love. It makes women feel special, chosen, selected from the crowd. It satisfies a deep, gnawing craving; it fills an interiorly empty space.

Spurred by my son’s challenge of brevity and these new thoughts, I gave emotional intimacy a new definition for women: Being able to receive male attention without demanding that it be exclusive.   My hunch is that the male counterpart would go something like this: Being able to receive feminine attention without fantasizing about the physical relationship.

It may seem like a lot of mental gymnastics to arrive at this point, but I think it’s critical. Many single people think they’re dying because they don’t have romance. I think they’re dying because they don’t have emotional intimacy. Many married people have access to physical intimacy, but their relationship is sinking because they’ve neglected emotional intimacy and romance. Other people engage in physical intimacy without recognizing its exclusive (i.e., lifelong and marital) dimension and therefore leave a wake of regret and destruction in their path.

Intimacy and romance are tremendous gifts from an intimate and romantic God. Knowing the difference between the two can free us to encounter the other gender deeply, personally, emotionally, and spiritually. And ultimately that’s what the human heart longs for.

(Originally appeared in Our Sunday Visitor, Feb. 10, 2002.]

  • "Man...cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself." (GS 24)