What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word intimacy? Usually, people tend to equate intimacy with sex. There is more than one way to experience connection in a relationship—there are at least five. At its bare bones, intimacy is a feeling of closeness that can be intricate or multifaceted. It’s an experience that can cultivate a sense of safety, one of the essential pieces of a relationship.
Intimacy is paramount for a relationship to thrive, and it creates a foundation of trust by allowing for vulnerability and for each person to feel seen and known. All of the essential components of a relationship, such as communication, boundaries, and support, can benefit from intimacy. Similarly, a lack of intimacy in relationships can cause partners to feel misunderstood, disconnected, or distant.
A 2017 study found close relationships are vital to health. The specific type of intimacy depends on the partners involved and individual needs. Like the five love languages, which are a blueprint for how someone likes to receive love, people can crave and benefit from unique kinds of intimacy, depending on the person.
Many relationships ebb and flow from types of intimacy throughout a given day. It’s also difficult to “perform” intimacy and go through the motions; intimacy relies on feeling just as much as the exchange of trust. You can have intimacy with relationships that extend beyond romantic configurations, in friendships, or with people who have a love of a shared experience.
People often conflate physical intimacy with intimacy as a whole. First things first: physical intimacy doesn’t just mean sex, and sex alone does not always equate to intimacy. Any form of connected consensual touch and even forms of energy exchange, such as tantra practices, are forms of physical intimacy. And its benefits extend beyond just pleasure. A small 2020 study found that physical touch reduced perceptions of loneliness and strengthened bonds. Depending on a person, physical intimacy can feel crucial or less important. Physical intimacy can include any form of touch that grows or continues a feeling of closeness.
Examples of Physical Intimacy
-Holding hands while watching Netflix
-A long hug after a workday
-Sex (any form of it!)
Emotional intimacy involves creating closeness by being open with your fears, feelings, or thoughts. When partners meet this vulnerability with nonjudgemental validation or empathy, a sense of security can arise and strengthen bonds. Sometimes, the emotions shared can be difficult to understand; what’s more significant is that the person feels they are met with safety by someone who is trying to understand. Sharing feelings or emotional vomiting isn’t the same as emotional vulnerability—it’s a shared experience that depends on the closeness between two people.
Emotional intimacy also relies on appropriate timing, can be worked on over a period, and usually stems from a show of trust and preexisting security. Sometimes, emotional intimacy can be more or less difficult depending on how your early caregivers handled your emotions. If you were taught not to show your feelings, being vulnerable might take more time in a relationship. But emotional intimacy is possible, and for many, it’s necessary to sustain a relationship.
Emotional Intimacy Examples
-Feeling seen and heard in a conversation
-Sharing a vulnerability with a partner and knowing they are listening or responding empathetically
-Feeling validated by a partner after sharing a challenging work or family scenario
Intellectual intimacy is a form of intimacy where you maintain curiosity for the other person’s thoughts. Sometimes, it involves challenging one another and can lead to deeper conversations. Intellectual intimacy fosters emotional intimacy for some people, but the two are not always intrinsically linked. Intellectual intimacy extends beyond “how was your day at work” rapport.
Intellectual Intimacy Examples
-Brainstorming plans or solutions
-Comparing thoughts after a shared experience like reading the same book, watching a movie, or meeting someone new
-Sharing views or opinions and feeling respected even if the person you’re sharing with has a different perspective
Spiritual intimacy involves sharing or respecting spiritual practices, religion, ethics, morals, or rituals. Spiritual intimacy can occur with those in a faith-based space, a yoga class, a meditation retreat, or with your partners. Having a sense of respect for different spiritual practices can also be a form of spiritual intimacy, such as not sharing your partner’s beliefs or traditions but seeing how meaningful they are.
Examples of Spiritual Intimacy
-Feeling safe expressing your thoughts around spirituality and big questions
-Feeling closeness through having philosophical conversations about the meaning of life with your partner
-Listening to your partner’s spiritual thoughts or feelings nonjudgmentally
-Sharing a sense of awe or wonder with a partner
Social or Experiential Intimacy
Social or experiential intimacy is how you and a partner or partners spend quality time together. It can involve sharing interests and having experiences together. Regardless of the activity, social intimacy allows for a shared bonding with the world around you. Experiential intimacy can help to reinvigorate a relationship.
Experiential Intimacy Examples
-Taking a trip
-Trying a new class together
-A weekly date night
How intimacy Can Become Lost in Relationships and How to Rekindle It
All relationships experience more or less forms of intimacy at specific points. Plenty of circumstances can impact intimacy in a relationship: career stress, a change in mental or physical health, financial burden, resentment, or having children, to name a few. Fear of intimacy, an aversion or sabotaging of emotional closeness usually due to prior trauma, can also thwart how willing someone is to show up to intimacy in a relationship. Individual or couples counseling can be helpful. Bouts of less intimacy may cause someone to feel farther away, less adventurous, or have the urge to process formerly shared experiences alone.
It’s entirely possible to restore a sense of intimacy after a dry patch. However, it requires emotional willingness from each partner. As a relationship evolves, the forms of intimacy someone most needs can change. Intimacy plays a profound role in relationships—from improving mental and physical health, facilitating closeness, improving sexual and relational satisfaction, and creating stronger bonds that can help a relationship grow.