Intimacy. People often confuse it with sex. But people can be sexual without being intimate. One night stands, friends with benefits, or sex without love are examples of purely physical acts with no intimacy involved. They are what they are, but they don’t foster warmth, closeness or trust.

Intimacy means deeply knowing another person and feeling deeply known. That doesn’t happen in a conversation in a bar or during a lovely day at the beach or even at times during sex. It doesn’t happen in the first weeks and months of a new and exciting relationship. It doesn’t develop when one person nurtures a relationship more than the other. No. Intimacy, like fine wine takes time to deepen and mellow. It takes gentle handling and patience by all involved. It takes the willingness to make mistakes and to forgive them in the name of learning.

Intimacy is what most people long for but not everyone finds, or rather, makes. Why? Because intimacy, true closeness with another human being, can also be scary. Getting to the intimate core of a relationship requires that both people work through their fear. By visiting and revisiting these areas, intimacy matures and mellows over time.

What Intimacy Involves:

Knowing: A truly intimate relationship lets both people know on the deepest level who they each truly are. They have looked into each other’s soul and found what something they value and appreciate so much that it can withstand the inevitable differences that exist between any two individuals.

Acceptance: Neither person feels the need to change the other or to change themselves in fundamental ways. Oh yes, minor changes always occur when people accommodate each other to live together. But neither member of the couple thinks to him or herself, “Well — with time, I’ll get him or her to change who they are.”

Appreciation of differences: Both understand that they don’t need to be entirely the same to be close. In fact, part of the delight of relationships is the discovery of differences and appreciation for each other’s uniqueness. Learning about each other’s points of view is seen as an opportunity to expand their worlds.

Safety: True intimacy happens when both people feel safe enough to be vulnerable. There is support for each other’s weaknesses and celebration of each other’s strengths. The couple has agreed on a definition of fidelity and both feel secure that the other will not violate that understanding.

Compassionate problem-solving: Elephants don’t come to stay in the middle of the “room” of the relationship. Issues are confronted by both people with love, compassion and a willingness to engage with whatever problems have come up. The two work to be on the same team, solving a problem, rather than on different teams competing with each other.

Emotional connection: Intimacy grows when people stay emotionally connected, even when there are problems to solve. It doesn’t require that either person walk on eggshells or withhold what they really think in order to stay connected.

How to Nurture Intimacy:

Choose wisely: The first rule for having an intimate relationship is to choose wisely in the first place. If being in the relationship with your boyfriend/girlfriend requires that you give up who you really are, that you always accommodate, or that you make fundamental changes to be acceptable, this person is not for you. Even more telling is if your partner regularly accuses, blames or harasses you or requires that you not stay close to other friends. Cut your losses. Get out. Make yourself available for someone who will honor and cherish you and support you for who you are.

Show yourselves: As a new relationship grows, gradually show yourselves to each other – both the most attractive and the not so attractive features of who you are. Be willing to expose your core beliefs, values and ideas to discover the other’s reactions. Opposites may initially attract but they are also often the seeds of dissatisfaction as a relationship evolves over time. Explore your differences and decide if they are interesting and exciting or deal breakers. Make sure that your differences don’t violate core values for either person.

Draw a circle: Intimacy requires that your relationship with each other is somehow different from your relationships with everyone else. Many couples draw the boundary around their sexual exclusivity. Others define their intimacy in different ways. Whatever your decision about fidelity, there needs to be something you both agree is the core of what makes your relationship special, precious, and unique from all others. Both agree that boundary is so important that violating it would shake the very foundation of your couple-ness.

Develop emotional mindfulness: Emotions aren’t good or bad. But how we express them can either enhance or damage intimacy. It’s inevitable that each of you will feel anger, hurt or disappointment at times, perhaps even many times. Intimacy requires learning ways to express those feelings that are neither intimidating nor distancing. Work together to discover ways to calm intense feelings instead of getting caught up in them. Agree to work on finding and addressing the root of problems instead of exploding or withdrawing.

Embrace conflict: Yes, embrace it. Ignoring conflict rarely works as a means to intimacy. Whatever the conflict was about just goes underground, festers, and eventually comes out in unattractive and often hostile ways. Conflict is a signal that there is a problem that needs to be solved. Intimacy requires facing problems with courage and with the faith that the relationship is more important than whatever crisis is going on in the moment.

Be the person you want your partner to be: It’s easy to want someone else to be understanding, compassionate, faithful, giving and generous. It’s not so easy to do it. Intimacy requires that we do our very best to be someone worth being intimate with. It’s not necessary to be perfect at it. It is necessary to do our best and to be open to feedback when we miss the mark.