How to be human: how do I find emotional intimacy without a relationship?

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How to be human: how do I find emotional intimacy without a relationship?

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Leah Reich was one of the first internet advice columnists. Her column “Ask Leah” ran on IGN, where she gave advice to gamers for two and a half years. During the day, Leah is Slack’s user researcher, but her views here do not represent her employer. You can write to her at and read more How to be Human here.

Hi Leah,

After coming off a long-term relationship (think nearly a decade) I need to stay single for a while and rediscover myself. That said, good sex is something that I very much enjoy and am looking for. While I am looking for casual sex or friends with benefits right now, advertising this seems to degrade conversations to focus on just sex and I tend to be more attracted to personalities. So either I meet people who are just looking to get laid and the sex is mediocre because the emotional connection isn’t there or have a great connection and break hearts when I no longer want to hook up. I have also been in a wonderful relationship with an amazing woman in this time but I was struggling to find the space I needed for myself. And despite how good everything else was, I needed the space to find myself more.

Ultimately, I’m just frustrated. I’m learning a lot about myself and what I want.

I have tried to be as upfront with everyone as possible about where I am and what I am looking for, but I only seem to disappoint and hurt people. Maybe I can stop caring so much about the people I meet and their feelings toward me, but everyone I have met so far has been wonderful and worthy of some respect.



A long time ago I had a voice coach who I saw once a week. This guy was incredible. He had a big wide grin and a gap between his front teeth and a voice that could hit notes I didn’t even know existed. He also had a rare ability to make me believe in myself. More than that even — he could make me believe in my voice. And while all this coaching and singing was going on, there was also sometimes a little chatting. I’d tell him about what was going on in my life and he’d give me some advice. The thing about his advice was that it was better than advice I’d ever gotten from anyone else, and to be fair, better than most advice I’ve gotten since.

Anyway, one time we were talking sex and dating. Now, this guy was cool as hell. So it struck me when he said, “One of the problems with having sex super early in a relationship is that it can create a false sense of intimacy between two people getting to know one another. Like, sex is a form of intimacy but it’s a kind of intimacy that, when you don’t really know each other, can serve as shorthand or escape when the emotional intimacy rears its head.” He interlaced his fingers and touched the tips of his thumbs together, and he held up his hands so I could see the hole in the center. “That physical intimacy connects you, and it’s a pretty strong glue. That glue can keep you together even when you shouldn’t be together, even if you don’t fill in the center with something solid that keeps your connection from slowly collapsing over time.”

I’ve been thinking about that advice for a very long time.

Somehow it never quite stuck, as much as I wanted it to, and as much as I wanted to wait and get to know people. I ended up stuck to at least one person for a long time because the sex was so good, and I ended up feeling connected to plenty more based on what amounted to very little closeness.

When I read your letter I feel the same sort of tension my coach was talking about, even though what you’re experiencing is from another angle. You feel like leading with your interest in “just sex” means you can’t find someone you have good sex with. Right, that makes sense! I mean, yes, sex with a total stranger can be great. Some people prefer to have sex with people with whom they don’t have an emotional attachment or don’t even know. Maybe, like you, they don’t want the entanglement. Some people think the emotional aspect can make sex too heavy or less hot or comfortable in the boring way. Some people find a lot of pleasure in the purely physical, or at least the physical as heavily privileged over the emotional.

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