To strengthen your relationships you may want to work on four types of intimacy: physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual closeness.
Intimacy, in general, refers to the level of proximity between two people. It requires vulnerability, openness, and trust.
Getting intimate with someone else on one level doesn’t necessarily guarantee intimacy in other aspects.
Whether it’s your relationship with your parents, significant other, friends, or employers, you may experience different intimacy types depending on the power dynamics at play.
If a relationship has an equal power dynamic, intimacy becomes easier to cultivate, says Gloria Lopez-Henriquez, a doctor of social work and faculty member at The Ackerman Institute for the Family in New York City.
For instance, romantic relationships where decisions are typically made jointly, and one person doesn’t exert control or has more resources than their partner.
Not all relationships involve all types of intimacy, but these four are the most common to share:
- mental or intellectual
Physical intimacy refers to body closeness. It can involve hugging, cuddling, kissing, and holding hands, depending on the nature of the relationship.
Physical intimacy is not exclusive to romantic partners, though. Parents and children and even friends can develop non-sexual physical intimacy.
This type of intimacy involves safe touch and proximity that can enhance feelings of emotional closeness.
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This type of closeness is not typical of other relationships where trust and vulnerability may not be present.
“You cannot disrobe your soul with a colleague the way you do with a trusted friend or romantic partner,” says Lopez-Henriquez. “The difference is you’re on an equal footing in these relationships. It’s not the same as a relationship with a teacher or a supervisor, […] because they have some control over you.”
To nourish this type of intimacy, you can have an open conversation with the other person about their level of comfort with different types of touch.
Another way to cultivate physical intimacy is to make the other person feel safe with your touch. For this, you may want to start with light caresses, soft hugs, or kisses on the forehead. It’s important to be receptive to the other person’s reactions and respect boundaries.
Being emotionally intimate with another person means being transparent with your deepest feelings, fears, and thoughts. It involves feeling safe and not judged, says Lopez-Henriquez. And it’s all about being the same for the other person.
To nourish emotional intimacy in a relationship, you need to take risks and be open, she adds. However, if one or both people are emotionally unavailable or fear intimacy, closeness in this aspect may become challenging.
This type of intimacy may be developed in most types of relationships.
Parents and children can build on their emotional intimacy, for example, if they maintain a sense of curiosity about the relationship, says Lopez-Henriquez.
“It’s important for a parent or guardian to ask questions or come from a place of curiosity rather than make an accusation,” she adds. “If a child (even if they’re an adult) feels like they’ll be judged, they won’t share intimate details of their lives with their parent.”
The same goes for friendships and romantic relationships.
Emotional intimacy can be developed by listening better to the other person and being able to speak clearly and honestly.
This type of intimacy may also require reassurance that, despite differences in experiences and emotions, you are safe with each other because you find support and comfort when you express your deepest fears, pains, and doubts.
Mental intimacy refers to sharing your ideas, opinions, and life perspectives. It may also involve intellectually challenging each other and being open to learning, or at least considering, the other person’s ideas.
Having stimulating discussions about different topics and feeling safe about expressing your own views is part of nourishing mental intimacy.
The key is to show mutual respect, even when you have differing views, Lopez-Henriquez says.
To cultivate intellectual intimacy, you may want to keep a curious attitude. It’s important to share points of view with the intention of learning from each other more so than debating opinions.
Spiritual intimacy means feeling close, validated, and safe sharing your innermost ideas and beliefs on life’s purpose and your connection with divine energies.
It’s still a blurred concept because it may mean different things to different people.
Spiritual intimacy doesn’t necessarily mean both people have the same beliefs, but it may involve sharing a broader concept of spirituality.
For example, you may both believe that you must be faithful and honest in all things you do, even if you belong to different religions.
Sharing this higher sense of purpose may develop an intimate closeness that allows you to project a life together, for instance.
To nourish spiritual intimacy you may want to learn more about each other practices and beliefs and, more significantly, why those are important to the other person. Spiritual intimacy is about sharing the impact your beliefs have on your life and respecting this may be different for the other person.
Fear of intimacy refers to being scared of getting too close to someone else in one or more aspects.
There are several reasons why someone may fear intimacy, depending on age and type of relationship, says Lopez-Henriquez.
Instead of dedicating time to improving their current relationships and cultivating intimacy, many younger people may focus their energy on looking for other potential partners, says Lopez-Henriquez.
Another possible fear regarding relationship intimacy may be linked to the sense of losing your identity.
Fear of vulnerability can also be involved in a parent and child dynamic. If a child — even if they’re an adult — is afraid of disappointing a parent or guardian, they may choose not to have an intimate relationship with them.
One way to work on your fear of intimacy is by seeking the support of a mental health therapist. They may be able to explore possible causes of your fear and work with you in developing a plan that helps in your particular case.