Intimacy isn’t only the glue that keeps you connected to others, but the atmosphere of closeness you develop with special people in your life.
Sometimes intimacy is just a euphemism for “sex,” but it has a more distinct meaning. While intimacy is part of what makes many sexual relationships work, you can also find it in connections with close family members and friends.
Intimacy doesn’t always come naturally and can take time and practice to build. If you feel a current relationship lacks intimacy, it’s possible to learn how to build and nurture it, creating a more fulfilling relationship for everyone involved.
One way to define intimacy is as a positive, give-and-take cycle involving each person in the relationship.
Each person helps foster the conditions — like warmth, confidentiality, and understanding — that allow them to be vulnerable and authentic with each other, increasing the closeness of the relationship.
This is what intimacy is often built upon:
Warmth is key to intimacy in relationships. It helps create a psychologically safe environment, inviting you to lower your defenses.
Warmth can look like:
It’s natural to feel a self-protective urge to keep some parts of yourself — body parts, thoughts, or emotions — hidden from most people you interact with.
When confidentiality is established in a relationship with mutual trust, it can allow you to feel emotionally safe. This may lead to sharing the parts of yourself you mostly keep to yourself, which contributes to intimacy.
Vulnerability in relationships means exposing sensitive parts of yourself to the other person, such as:
- dreams and fantasies you’re afraid others won’t understand
- ambitions and hopes for your future
- past moments of shame or embarrassment
Being vulnerable might feel scary, and it does come with some risk: vulnerability can open you up to criticism and rejection. If safety is well-established in a relationship, it can make vulnerability easier, which will increase intimacy.
Authenticity allows you to show another person your whole, complex self.
Although authenticity is an often-celebrated trait, it doesn’t always come easily. Trouble being authentic is often rooted in past experiences of rejection or fear of being rejected.
Like vulnerability, authenticity can feel difficult because you’re exposing yourself to potentially negative judgment. It makes sense to care about how others perceive you — your interpretation of these perceptions may play a key role in shaping your personality.
When you’re able to be vulnerable and authentic, it builds the closeness that’s key to intimacy. Signs you’ve achieved this level of closeness in a relationship include:
- open communication
- signs of secure attachment
- rapport or chemistry
Benefits of intimacy
Intimacy in any relationship can be rewarding, with benefits including:
- less loneliness
- feeling accepted
- enhanced trust
- an outlet for difficult emotions
- feeling intellectually understood
- fulfilled emotional and/or physical needs
While a romantic relationship doesn’t necessarily need all of these types of intimacy to be successful, many thriving relationships have established multiple forms of intimacy.
The quality and depth of the intimacy you experience can also make for a more rewarding relationship.
These are the five types of intimacy:
- Physical. Physical intimacy is what many people imagine upon hearing the word “intimacy.” It does involve sex but also includes other forms of physical touch like hugs, holding hands, and even sharing personal space.
- Emotional. Emotional intimacy involves holding space for someone else’s feelings, validating their emotional experience, or being there for a vent session when they’ve had a bad day.
- Experiential. This lesser-known form of intimacy can form between people with shared experiences. For example, you might have experiential intimacy with a work colleague, a friend you volunteer with, or your child as you create an art project.
- Spiritual. Spiritual intimacy typically involves shared spiritual or religious experiences. A
2016 studyeven cites spiritual intimacy as a key predictor of marital success. Spiritual intimacy can refer to how you make meaning of and perceive forces beyond the physical.
- Intellectual. Also called cognitive intimacy, this type of intimacy can build feelings of mutual understanding through shared thoughts, opinions, and ideas. It can involve philosophical discussions or talking about interests or hobbies.
Intimacy vs. sex
Sex refers to sexual intercourse or sexual stimulation. Intimacy is a sense of closeness, connection, and trust, even if momentary.
Can sex exist without intimacy? It depends on who you ask.
Some people consider all physical closeness to be inherently intimate. Another perspective is that sex can lack a certain level of intimacy if it’s purely physical, with no emotional connection.
On the other hand, it’s possible for emotional intimacy to exist without physical intimacy or sex — this happens in many friendships, for example.
Certain traits and experiences can make it harder to open up and get close to people even when you want to.
Traits and experiences that obstruct intimacy can include:
- Lack of trust. Difficulty trusting others often arises when your trust has been betrayed before — consider experiences of infidelity, intimate partner violence, or childhood abuse. Low levels of trust in others have been linked to loneliness.
- Insecure attachment. Your attachment style grows from the bond you had with your earliest caregivers. It can make intimacy harder if it’s an insecure attachment — that is, avoidant, anxious, or disorganized.
- Unclear communication. Intimacy can become more difficult if you have difficulty communicating with a loved one. Common communication roadblocks include making assumptions, mind reading, and stonewalling.
- Criticism. In constructive relationships, it can be helpful for a partner or friend to gently confront you about areas where you may have room to grow. But when criticism motivated by contempt flies between you and another person, it can cause you to keep your defenses high, leaving less room for vulnerability.
- Mental health concerns. Specific mental health concerns, including anxiety, depression, personality disorders, eating disorders, or substance use, can make it harder to trust, communicate, and connect with others.
Building deep intimacy involves creating an environment where both people feel safe being themselves and sharing their thoughts and feelings. It also requires both people to be emotionally available.
You can do this by:
Learning how they connect
Understanding how your friend or partner expresses love can help you determine how to connect with them. For example, you might have a partner who feels more connected with lots of physical touch, while your friend might thrive on shared experiences.
Asking questions that spark deeper conversation
You can use a variety of conversation-starters to deepen your intellectual, spiritual, or emotional connections.
Making space for shared experiences
Sharing experiences with another person is a great way to build experiential intimacy. Try:
- volunteering to support a cause you both care about
- taking a class to learn a new skill together, like dancing, motorcycle riding, or pottery
- planning and taking an adventure together, such as a backpacking trip
Identifying and sharing emotions
Becoming a great listener
Listening is equally important in intimate relationships as sharing. Active listening is a great way to help the person sharing feel heard, understood, and maybe even less alone.
Trying couples therapy
In romantic relationships, working with a couples therapist can help both people deepen their bond and work through obstacles to different types of intimacy. You may also want to consider a family therapist for relatives or close friends.
Intimacy is a sense of trust and comfort you establish with another person. It exists in many forms and can develop in various relationships, not just sexual or romantic ones. It’s the quality of relationships that involves vulnerability and closeness.
If intimacy isn’t effortless, it’s possible to use strategies like active listening, gratitude, emotional awareness, and even therapy to make your relationships deeper and closer.
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