Relationship Tips

There Are 4 types of Intimacy, and Only One Includes Touching

Mary Grace Garis

Photo: Getty Images/Westend61
For many, the concept of intimacy conflates with the act of being intimate (or, ahem, having sex). And that, folks, isn't quite right. Physical intimacy is only one form of the word's many meanings, which, according to Merriam-Webster, is "something of a personal or private nature." In fact, there are at least four types of intimacy, all of which provide a means for being close to another person, in any number of ways. And truly connecting with someone calls upon a combination of the four types of intimacy.

According to an Instagram graphic that therapist Alyssa Mancao, LCSW, 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.

In fact, A+ intimacy boils down to connection and attention, says Helene Brenner, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of I Know I’m In There Somewhere. "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."

And while authentic intimacy can't be forced, it can be workshopped and improved upon. Below, Dr. Brenner breaks down each of the four types of intimacy, and shares how each person can strengthening it in their own relationship

The 4 types of intimacy, and how to strengthen each in your relationship

1. Emotional intimacy

Emotional intimacy means cultivating a sense of closeness relating to how you and your partner feel via empathy, respect, and communication. 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."

2. Mental intimacy

Consider mental intimacy as a meeting of the minds: It's satisfying, challenging, and stimulating. "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 an athletic passion you share, like tennis or rock-climbing, that you can discuss. "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.

3. 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, for example.

"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."

4. Physical intimacy

To be clear, physical intimacy is not not important, just because it's the form most popularly associated with the term.

"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."

How to build intimacy in a relationship

Many folks have a fear of intimacy that can get in the way of building a relationship that has a healthy heaping of any of the four forms of it, let alone all of them. Some telltale signs include not tolerating close emotional interactions, not willingly sharing feelings, and having a strong preference to be alone when things begin feeling personal.

In order to get over a fear of intimacy and begin building it in your relationship, introspecting about why you feel afraid to be intimate—in any or all forms of the word—can help you course-correct. Seeking a therapist who can help you work through any issues, can also be an effective avenue for building intimacy in your relationship. And while it may well not be easy work, it's certainly worthwhile, considering authentic intimacy can allow for true closeness, mind, body, and soul.

Originally published October 29, 2019.

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