Blog 20: Intimacy: A World to Explore

Written by Jim Sheehy

Hi.  My name is Jim Sheehy.  This is and this podcast is about Intimacy: A World to Explore.

Each generation has a different take on love and sexuality.  The current focus is around consent when having sex, or using ‘sex acts’ as a commodity to be used for quick ‘pleasure fixes’ or for financial gain.  What I want to do is emphasise the wonder and complexity of intimacy.  Only when intimacy is central do we fully enjoy love and sexuality.  Attitudes of the past as proclaimed by Church and Society led to sex being seen as ‘necessary but somehow shameful’; however, the attitude today is equally flawed.  Why? Because sex needs to be experienced as just one colour, a very beautiful and pleasurable one, in a palette of many colours.  The palette and only human context for sex is intimacy. 

I imagine intimacy as a world with 5 continents and each continent needs to be explored if partners want the full experience:

  • Africa – a sensual zone of touch, movement and change
  • Australia – always fresh in re-inventing itself through passion and difference
  • America – the need for boundaries and communication so as to be practical and safe
  • Europe – an awareness that love and sexuality has had a history and speaks separate languages
  • Arctic – the reality in intimacy is that we encounter freezing waters at times when new depth-levels only occur if we’re brave enough to cut through the ice in the relationship


So if we explore Africa, we enter the sensual zone of touch, movement and change.  Touch is a sense we need to re-discover.  Skin on skin needs no words but a message enters our very core that is purely positive or negative.  The body never lies, and certainly not in touch, whether that be hug or intercourse.  Intimacy is not just about partners or boy/girlfriends - intimacy includes friendships, closeness with children, models and mentors like grandparents or coaches who have earned their right to be our trust and wisdom figures.   So, returning to the sense of touch, a teenager just finding out she’s unexpectedly pregnant and desperate needs no words; she folds into the body of Mum or Dad and very quickly checks out if she is loved and cared for right now, does she belong or has become an outcast, will she still make a positive difference, now and in the future, in how this family sees itself and where shame and blame get no oxygen.  Movement and change in intimacy recognises and accepts that the 2 persons are evolving as individuals all the time and, if the relationship is to survive and thrive, the partners’ expertise in communicating will be tested.  Intimacy to work means that there is generally 50-50 give and receive.  If one partner consumes 70% of the attention and energy over a long period, the relationship is in trouble.  Intimacy is that sit down at the kitchen table and one partner beginning: ‘I feel tired, stuck and invisible …’ and awaiting their partner’s response, or reaction.  Don’t we all recall those very brief encounters with our partners when we knew we’d work through something, or not.  

The zone that is Australia in intimacy is the need to keep partnering fresh by reshaping itself through passion and difference.  Friendship is a good barometer of quality in intimacy.  While I can remain with another for social or financial reasons, the odour of decay appears if my reasons for liking as well as loving this person aren’t worked on.  Partners who still love and like each other after many years have realised the chemistry of interdependence, happy in their own skin and wanting to be with, not needing, the loved other.  Sex is fresh because life-experience and age brings very different needs and desires and each partner listens to their own and the other’s body.  Being open to surprise and spontaneity can be hugely challenging with a few children roaming the house but we know how wonderful and affirming it is to be recognised, affirmed and celebrated as ‘just me’ apart from ‘the many masks and roles’ I live through willingly every day.  

America represents the need for boundaries and communication in being practical and safe when intimate.  In today’s experience of sex, we tend to want to explore and even test the unique pleasures of what’s possible at the physical level  and finding the thinking and feeling  parts of ourselves asking serious questions and even challenging the idea that sex is designed to be just physical.  Consent is an umbrella term and a very limited ‘bottom line’ for enjoyable and meaningful sex.  Constant one-night-stands can be either a forerunner to discovering the partner of my dreams; or it can a cop-out to deep and real emotional commitment.  Our bodies talk and bodies today are screaming to wake up and smell the coffee through huge increases in sexually transmitted diseases and bruised and battered women reporting at rape crisis centres, and many not even bothering to report because they know the hassle that follows.  I have had young men and women in therapy who tell me their story of either substituting casual sex as an escape from emotional engagement and others wrecked in spirit and feeling ‘dirty and damaged’ because their bodies were used for a ‘pleasure-and control-buzz’. One young woman described how she felt as small.  Her identity growing up as a child and teenager lacked substance and confidence and, now a young woman, she fell into the embrace of a partner who abused her emotionally and physically until she saw herself as small.  In her healing process she outlined how her new emotional identity would evermore only seek the following, her intimacy manifesto:

  • Respect I can express myself and how I feel.  No one judges.  I can speak my feelings.
  • Comfort  I don’t feel pressure.  I feel relaxed.  I can listen to the voice in my head ‘I am okay’.  I am calm.  I think clearly.

Europe in intimacy is an awareness that love and sexuality has had a history and speaks separate languages.  Two individuals meet and chemistry happens.  Each of them brings a very unique history of what intimacy looks like and expresses itself.  Where do we learn this language and experience the 5 zones of intimacy?  As children, we’re aware of how our parents communicate and relate, how they display sensitivity and kindness in being a couple through a touch or gesture, how they negotiate phases of difficulty when finance, family pressures or ill health come their way.   Partnership is crying together, managing the other’s frailties, being independent and yet always wanting the other to thrive.  And when we do these well, love and sexuality has its home, a human context that makes sense, and only then is it beautiful and human.  A young adult with this history comes into relationship ready and equipped.  But what if their partner had the opposite history where shouting, blaming, hostility was a daily menu in their birth-home.  Are they able to get the subtle cues and messages intimacy uses to communicate and relate.  And even sexual activity itself speaks a different language in each partner.  There is no one way to make love and do sex.  That is why constant viewing of porn leads to crazy misinterpretation and unreal expectation for teens. In real life, a conversation happens if 2 people are choosing what movie to go to or what music festival to attend.  Makes sense.  And yet, when it comes to what they naturally prefer in having sex, and it will often not be the same, they lose their voice and partners get it wrong presuming s/he will like this or that.  Sex education in schools needs to wake up and explore the reality with teens that sex, as well as needing to be practical and safe, is also a gateway to saying what I want and what the partner needs to hear.  

Finally, the ‘Arctic’ zone in intimacy is realising that we encounter freezing waters at times in the relationship when new depth-levels only occur if we’re brave enough to cut through the ice.  Can I communicate in my words and body when I feel sad, hurt, angry, anxious or invisible by what you, my partner, do or say or don’t do and don’t say? Can you, my partner, pick up my signals and cues and have you that inner space and energy to contain my stuff?  Do we instead ignore ‘the stuff’ and excuse and distract ourselves by pretending to focus on the kids, work, extended family etc.  So the ice thickens and opportunities to get ‘down and dirty’ in saying ‘I feel …’ lessen while the blame and shame games get louder and nastier.  The ‘Arctic’ zone is difficult but essential to negotiate if intimacy is to grow between partners.  Managing the negative stuff tests the maturity of each partner and depending on how each shapes up, the relationship crumbles or deepens.  If children are around, this is the zone in intimacy they most focus on and are sensitive about - how parents manage ‘real-life shit’!

So I appeal to and challenge this fresh generation to become Strong young men and Strong young women and allow intimacy a chance to breathe in your world.

A big thank you to Clara Ferry from Arranmore Island for her artistic view on intimacy.

Presentations on the 4 zones are also available on video and podcast through the website – see

If you enjoy the material, please get the word out there among those you care for.  You can contact me with comment or suggestion via Facebook at Jim Sheehy Therapy and on Twitter @jimsheehy2017

Take care,

Clarifying Disclaimer:  While the material I am presenting is well-researched and suitable for the general population, I believe each person’s issues and needs are unique.  I encourage you to seek medical and/or therapeutic support if you struggle with an issue or condition that negatively and seriously impacts your life.


Contact me:

Jim Sheehy M.Ed. MIACP
Co Donegal 
F94 WV99

087 2137922


Message Me

Welcome to Really Human