Relationship Tips

There Are 4 Types of Intimacy, and Only 1 Includes Touching

Mary Grace Garis

Photo: Getty Images/Westend61
Something about the mere word "intimacy" evokes an image of not necessarily being in the middle of sex, but at least being in a situation that's setting the mood for it. Perhaps the parties involved aren't fully dressed, or perhaps they're just inching closer toward each other. At any rate, no matter what you're imagining specifically, it's likely aligned to the concept of being intimate with someone, which is a notion many of us regard as first and foremost a physical act. That's where we're not quite right. Truly connecting with someone calls upon a combination of the four types of intimacy, and most of those don't involve any type of touching whatsoever.

According to an Instagram that therapist Alyssa Mancao, LCSW, recently posted, fostering a sense of closeness in any relationship (romantic or otherwise) requires a combination of all four types of intimacy: emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical. But since you obviously won't have natural off-the-charts natural chemistry with every person in your sphere, understanding what each of the types of intimacy has in common is crucial for maximizing the power of each.

According to Helene Brenner, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of I Know I’m In There Somewhere, A+ intimacy boils down to connection and attention. "Intimacy is a one-on-one connection that involves a synchrony between two people," she says. "If you want to feel intimate, the first thing you and your partner need to do is stop all the other things you are doing and give each other your undivided, undistracted attention."

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While intimacy can't be forced, it can be workshopped and improved upon. Below, Dr. Brenner shares what what each type of intimacy calls for—and how you can work on strengthening that ingredient.

Emotional intimacy

To bolster emotional intimacy, break it down into three parts: slow down, keep it simple, and share what’s hard to say. Thoughtfully process your feelings before you speak, and when you do speak, contextualize your emotions so you can communicate them as direct and potent statements. Think: "I got hurt." "I got scared." "I love you." "I miss you." "I’m scared to tell you how much you matter to me." Don't rely of qualifiers to pad out your earnest feelings; instead, get right to the root of your unfiltered honesty. And above all, allow yourself to be vulnerable.

"Take the risk not to protect yourself. You can’t simultaneously protect yourself and be emotionally intimate. Let your heart be seen." —psychologist Helene Brenner, PhD

"Take the risk not to protect yourself," Dr. Brenner says. "You can’t simultaneously protect yourself and be emotionally intimate. Let your heart be seen."

Mental intimacy

Consider mental intimacy as a meeting of the minds: It's satisfying, challenging, and possibly stimulating (imagine two little brains in Paris, sipping red wine by candlelight).

"For some people, this is great wit and repartee—they love bouncing off each other, challenging each other," Dr. Brenner says. "[Mental intimacy] can also be great talks about movies or a play you saw, or the career you both are in, or the causes that matter to you."

So, have a topic to return to with your partner that fuels you both. Maybe it's a business venture you want to start together or a sporty passion you share, like tennis or rock-climbing. "Make sure you spend significant amounts of time engaging together in what stimulates you mentally," she continues. "And a little playful competition doesn’t hurt, so try playing board games against each other, as long as you’re fairly evenly matched.

Spiritual intimacy

 This one can skew tricky because it's rare for two people in a couple or friendship to be similarly in touch with their spirituality. But, spirituality can take different forms or expressions: Maybe it's a code of values or ethics, versus using actual spiritual language or practices.

"If your partner is not spiritually inclined, find spiritual intimacy by expressing to your partner what your spirituality means to you, how it makes you a better person, or gives more meaning to your life," Dr. Brenner says.

"Find spiritual intimacy by expressing to your partner what your spirituality means to you, how it makes you a better person, or gives more meaning to your life." —Dr. Brenner

You can also boost spiritual intimacy with your partner by connecting in a quiet, poignant moment. "If you are having a moment that feels 'spiritual' to you with your partner, share your joy in the spiritual meaning you get from that moment," she says. "Then look for the ways that your partner expresses deep spirituality through the actions they do and the values they live by."

Physical intimacy

Ah, the type of intimacy many people make their absolute speciality—and, to be clear, it's not not important! Physical touch might well be the love language you both speak well, and that's great.

"Physical intimacy is essentially about relaxing into it, joining in the flow of it, getting into the moment, and sharing, giving, getting, and expressing what feels good. It’s all about connection, excitement, the giving and getting of pleasure, and closeness," Dr. Brenner says. "Ask for what feels good. Go for what feels good."

And with all of these types of intimacy at play, you'll feel connected—trust me.

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