“Physical intimacy isn’t and can never be an effective substitute for emotional intimacy.”
What is intimacy? Often, the term intimacy gets conflated with sex. After all, an entire industry is built around the conviction that sex is the ultimate connection with another person.
But sex is only a fraction of the experience.
A romantic relationship is a whirlwind of emotions, which shift and change as the connection between two people deepens. Intimacy doesn’t necessarily come within the first few weeks or months of a romantic partnership. It can take years for people to settle into a truly intimate connection.
Intimacy Means More Than Physical Touch
The complete picture, of all the many types of intimacy, is about more than sensual touch. Consider the spiritual, intellectual, and emotional connections formed with the one you love. What about that meaning one-on-one time and sharing profound experiences? These all add inherent levels of intimacy to the foundations of your partnership.
Are you still missing this intimate meaning? Intimacy is an art form, and not all partnerships achieve it. Maybe your relationship only operates on the surface and ignores the ocean of possibilities flowing underneath the waves. How can you improve your intimacy and get into the depths of this great resource?
The following details the many, many types of intimacy — plus, it explores the true meaning of intimacy beyond sex. It’s a powerful resource for anyone wanting to improve the level of intimacy int heir relationship (no matter what your relationship looks like).
Let’s Look at Some Examples of Intimacy
Let the following few examples of intimacy help to clarify the definition for you. Different couples, at different times, will experience remarkably different levels and types. Do any of the following sound familiar? Do they sound like the types of intimacy you crave?
Sam and Nicole joined an online book club, which focuses on political and philosophical titles. They read the book together in bed and often find themselves deep in conversation, long into the night. While they might have differing views on the ideas, they are open to hearing each other’s opinions. They ask pointed questions and actively listen to each other’s responses.
Aaron has been struggling with his mental health during the long winter months. His partner has noticed a change in his demeanor over the dark, dreary season but is patient. Eventually, Aaron reaches out to his partner to talk openly and frankly about his depression. His partner listens, comforts, and receives his vulnerability with grace. There is no judgment, just patience, love, and support.
Elisa and Jose have an extremely affectionate relationship. They frequently hold hands, even when alone. In passing, they will offer an affectionate touch. While watching television after work, their legs are always wrapped around each other. The catch? There is no expectation that the physical touches will lead to sex later. Sometimes the cuddle is all they need.
What Does Intimacy Feel Like?
“Can the purpose of a relationship be to trigger our wounds? In a way, yes, because that is how healing happens; darkness must be exposed before it can be transformed. The purpose of an intimate relationship is not that it be a place where we can hide from our weaknesses, but rather where we can safely let them go.”
Marianne Williamson, Enchanted Love: The Mystical Power Of Intimate Relationships
Does intimacy always feel good? That’s a complicated question. Some types of intimacy should always feel pleasurable, including sexual, physical, and experiential intimacy. But other types may feel hard, challenging, emotional, or vulnerable. While these are not necessarily good feelings, they all are part of a bigger and deeper connection between two people.
Sometimes intimacy means opening up about hard issues. It’s scary to be completely vulnerable, but when you trust someone, in the long run, sharing creates a stronger relationship. What is intimacy if it’s not able to get real and raw with the person you cherish the most? Long term relationships are about sticking together through thick and thin, and this is easier when the feeling of intimacy is deep and unshakable.
What Does Intimacy Mean for a Marriage?
The internet often wraps the idea of intimacy in marriage around ideas about sexual intimacy. It also usually has a religious undertone. But is intimacy always about working on increasing the frequency and quality of your sex life? Is it always about upholding Christian or other religious values?
By now, there is an entire industry focused on intimacy between married people — and to no one surprise. Between taking kids to school and soccer games, working late, commuting two hours a day, and trying to squeeze in a home-cooked meal, intimacy in a marriage can easily get lost.
Before the long workdays and house filled with kids, there were two people in love. They chose to get married, presumably because of intimacy. Now, a decade later, life has gotten in the way, and they have long forgotten this former intimacy.
One theory on the loss of intimacy within a marriage is the development of negative feelings of one (or both) person against the other. Maybe over the years, you are still holding a grudge against your partner. Perhaps their cute quirks have started to make you extremely angry. Or, you are scared of their reaction when you do open up.
If you don’t have the tools to communicate these feelings healthily and safely to your partner, you won’t communicate at all. Your marriage will become cold, dark, and lonely.
As per Dr. Wyatt Fisher, a licensed psychologist in Colorado, in an interview for Bustle, “Usually [intimacy] involves a feeling of safety and having your inner thoughts and feelings known and accepted.” He goes on to explain, “Everyone desires a different level of emotional intimacy based on their attachment experiences growing up and what their ‘normal’ was. Therefore, there’s no hard and fast rule on what’s enough.”
Otherwise, intimacy in a marriage is just like intimacy in other romantic relationships — but there is a piece of paper and ring involved.
How to Improve Intimacy in a Marriage?
According to Kalman Heller, Ph.D., intimacy in a marriage is about building (or rebuilding) trust, healthy communication, and mutual respect. These can disappear or get lost in the chaos of everyday life.
So on top of intimacy counseling, what are some ways to work on improving your marriage to deepen the trust, improve communication, and rebuild respect? Heller details several activities to get your relationship back on track:
- Talk every single day. Schedule 15 minutes of distraction-free conversation.
- Talk every week. Plan for a big conversation every single week on a topic of your choice but perhaps one inspired by the nine types of intimacy listed below.
- Schedule an overnight date every two months. That means just the two of you. No kids, no phones.
- Schedule two weekends a year. All about focusing on fun, play and the relationship.
Because intimacy in marriages can often get lost over the years, marriage counseling often includes a component of intimacy counseling. It focuses on finding the time and the skills to re-spark the old flame. Intimacy counseling may also help married couples see the broader picture outside of a strictly sexual definition.
A marriage therapist can help guide you through the darkness and give you the skills to communicate your emotions to each other. With practice and emotional intelligence, you’ll find intimacy flourishes again. Sharing concerns and vulnerabilities is a necessary aspect of a healthy marriage.
What Does Intimacy Look like for Different Types of Relationships?
Not everyone is in a traditional marriage, with conventional expectations for intimacy. According to statistics published in Rolling Stone magazine, five percent of Americans are currently living the polyamorous life, with up to 20 percent have tried it before.
The conventional image of intimacy is one of two people curled up together, whispering sweet nothings to one another. What happens with there is a third person involved? A polyamorous relationship, in combination with intimacy, is a very curious modern-day dilemma.
Remarkably, in healthy, supportive polyamorous relationships — intimacy can be better than in a monogamous one.
How can this be?
Healthy polyamory is formed on the foundations of communication. All partners have to openly talk about their fears, concerns, boundaries, and desires. If one or more players don’t communicate their needs openly and honestly, than the entire team could fall apart. Arguably, many monogamous couples today have unhealthy habits of communication. Or worse, they don’t communicate at all.
As Elisabeth A. Sheff Ph.D., CSE, the author of The Polyamorists Next Door described to Psychology Today, “For polyamorists love need not be a zero-sum game, and loving one person does not mean they have less love for someone else.” Poly people can develop emotional intimacy with multiple people. In some cases, it actually seems more likely than with monogamous couples.
What About Intimacy in Non-Romantic Relationships?
Intimacy is a crucial aspect of all-important relationships, including platonic friends to family. Of course, outside of the romantic relationship, this type of closeness can look a little different. Sexual and physical intimacy is totally out of the picture, and emotional and experiential types play pivotal roles.
Think about your relationship with your best friend. What comes to mind? The intimate meaning between friends is openness in experience ad emotions. To share your darkest secrets with someone is one of the closest connections you can have. It helps you process, it helps your friend understand it, and overall it improves your respect and trust for one another.
Family members can also have intimacy, including spiritual, emotional, aesthetic, and more. These types of intimate connections are all about feeling safe in your environment to share your feelings, beliefs, thoughts, and experiences.
You feel comfortable talking about your deepest thoughts, political or religious beliefs, and preferences. Your family is open to accepting these opinions without judgment. Intimacy between family members is about creating a safe space.
The 9 Types of Intimacy
There are many, many different types of intimacy defined in psychology. Intimacy looks very different for everyone. A healthy relationship often contains several deep intimate connections, well beyond what happens in the bedroom.
According to author Dennis A. Bagarozzi, author of “Enhancing Intimacy in Marriage: A Clinician’s Guide,” there are nine different types of intimacy.
The ability to share all emotions with one’s partner. This means you feel comfortable and willing to share the good and the bad with the one you love. True connection comes when there are no “expectations or limitations” to which emotions are allowed to be shared. Partners are both equally able to share the deepest vulnerabilities.
Another type of intimacy is psychological kind. It’s the ability (and willingness) to open up about “deeply significant and personally meaningful material.” While working with a therapist, you’ll develop a psychological intimacy, and some romantic relationships develop it as well. In practice, they may be sharing hopes, dreams, and deepest fears or discussing historical trauma. Trust is a critical aspect of this type of intimacy. As Bagarozzi says, it’s about being able and willing to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
Do you often discuss big powerful ideas, concepts, and beliefs with your partner? This may be an example of intellectual intimacy. A relationship with this type is not only open to sharing profound ideas, but it is also open to hearing them.
Perhaps the easiest to define is sexual intimacy. Some definitions of sexual intimacy, as discussed by Bagarozzi, include erotic, romantic, and conjugal love. Sexual intimacy is all about having an in-depth knowledge of what your partner likes erotically or sexually. Equally as important is the respect each other has for these pleasures.
You can develop powerful sexual intimacy through trust and complete honesty during sexual encounters. Sexual intimacy can be negatively or positively impacted by the health of other types of intimacy.
Physical (But not sexual) Intimacy
It’s not all about sex. Physical intimacy is about the small touches, hugs, and physical closeness that comes after a long time spent together. It doesn’t happen within the first few days or months of a relationship. It can take years to develop. The end goal of non-sexual, physical intimacy is not sex or erotic interaction. Its closeness, cuddles, and comfort.
Can you open up about your true feelings on God, religion, and spirituality with the one you love? Sharing intimate thoughts and profound beliefs without fear of judgment is a powerful way to build a spiritual type of intimacy. This intimacy could include philosophical conversations on the topic of life and death, shared religious practices, and much, much more.
Foster aesthetic intimacy about the world around you with your partner. It’s all about art, beauty, nature, and music. Sharing beautiful experiences. A visit to an art gallery or basking in mother nature are examples of sharing aesthetic intimacy with someone. For many, this forms a critical backbone to experiential intimacy.
Social and Recreational Intimacy
Also known as experiential, social, and recreational intimacy between lovers can often fade during long term relationships, where kids and work begin to get in the way of love. Socializing is the way humans form connections. Get playful and plan enjoyable conversations. If all your conversations are about logistics (ex: errands, chores, money), you’ve lost the social and recreational component of intimacy.
A little-talked about and often ignored aspect of intimacy is temporal intimacy. This type is critical for some people and much less critical for others. Temporal intimacy describes the importance of spending time together, typically in a one-on-one setting. In some relationships, this direct-interaction is needed every single day. While for others, it’s less critical. Spending time together may flow into physical, sexual, social, or emotional intimacies.
Intimacy vs. Sexual Intimacy, What’s the Difference?
Again, you’ll often find sexual intimacy and relationship intimacy conflated with one another.
Remember, sex can be intimate, but not all intimacy is sexual.
As per a definition in International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Science, “Intimacy is a state of privacy where two people, or a small group or a family, shielded from the larger group, can reveal themselves more fully, physically, psychologically, sexually, and so forth.”
And, as we have seen in the nine types of intimacy listed above through Bagarozzi’s work, intimacy covers the gamut of relations well beyond just straight sex.
While sex can be one of the most intimate connections two people share, not all sex is intimate. In fact, most sex is probably not. It can take ages for a couple to reach the level of shared connection, trust, and vulnerability to reach a high level of sexual intimacy.
How to Develop Intimacy in Your Relationships
“True intimacy is a human constant. People of all types find it equally hard to achieve, equally precious to hold. Age, education, social status, make little difference here; even genius does not presuppose the talent to reveal one’s self completely and completely absorb one’s self in another personality. Intimacy is to love what concentration is to work: a simultaneous drawing together to attention and release of energy.”
While not all relationships require an intimate connection, the most important ones do. The person you choose to share your life with is one of the most important close relationships you’ll have.
It won’t always be easy to maintain this type of intimacy, but it’s critical never to let it slip from your grasp. A healthy relationship is built on a foundation of intimacy.
How to (re)build intimacy in your relationship? Try the following five suggestions:
- Physical Touch without Sexual Expectations. Comfort each other through gentle, romantic touches, with no expectations that the touches will lead to more. Sometimes a cuddle is just as valuable as a sexual experience.
- Schedule Date Night. As cliche as date night has become, it’s also critically important for temporal, social, and emotional intimacy. Getting out of the house and away from distractions means your entire focus is on the other person. When was the last time you experienced this?
- Show Your Vulnerabilities. Opening up is part of creating all types of intimacy, whether that means sharing a challenging experience or talking about a sexual fantasy. Share secrets with your partner as a means of sharing more of yourself with them. On the flip side, it means accepting and respecting what your partner chooses to share.
- Take Time. Intimacy doesn’t bloom overnight. It takes weeks of constant sharing, experiencing, and practice to flourish. Be patient with the process, and put in the work.
- Do the Inner Work. Sometimes the level of intimacy between two people isn’t a problem with the relationship but a struggle of an individual. Inner work means developing an understanding of yourself, the good, and the bad. What made you into who you are today? What challenges you?
A Therapeutic Approach to Developing Intimacy
How are you going to improve intimacy in your relationship? It can be challenging to see the forest for the trees in this situation. From within the relationship, how can you find the disconnection? How can you put your emotional turmoil aside long enough to take an unbiased look at the foundations?
Intimacy counseling guides couples through the journey safely and communicatively. Counseling should always be a safe space, no matter how many parties are involved in the session.
Marriage and couples therapists have the knowledge, skillset, and experience to help both of you come to terms with the issues, see the way forward, and practice new habits to get there.
If you are continually rehashing the same old arguments or find yourself trapped in the same patterns of communication, a professional may help get it ‘unstuck.’ It’s the jumpstart your relationship needs to get out of the rut and into a new way of thinking.
Sometimes, you have to go through the mud to get out of it, and a therapist can help you do that safely with the least amount of damage.
Intimacy is an Ongoing Challenge, But Worth the Work
“It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy;—it is disposition alone. Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others.”
Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility
Intimacy tends to come from a long term commitment, where both parties learn enough about one another to let go of fear. It’s about total trust in the other to accept you and keep you safe. A week-long fling, while fun, is not a profoundly intimate relationship.
But even in the most connected and longterm relationships, it’s easy to lose intimacy. Life is busy. People forget to pay attention to the intimate meaning, which matters most. If you spend every day with someone, it is remarkable how easy it is to avoid intimately connecting with them. Remember, intimacy takes time to build, but it requires constant maintenance work as the years roll by.
As you work on your own intimacy, whether through intimacy counseling or on your own, remember it’s ongoing. There is no end date to when you’ve reached peak intimacy, and every day is a new chance to deepen it.