The Types of Intimacy in a Relationship, What They Are, and Why They Are All Important

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Intimacy isn’t all about sex—it’s complex and nuanced and can exist in many forms. “Intimacy comes about through expression of and acceptance of one’s innermost qualities to create an authentic, healthy bond between two people in a relationship,” says Madeline Lucas, LCSW, a certified sex therapist and the clinical content manager at Real. What’s more, there are different types of intimacy, ranging from emotional intimacy to mental or intellectual intimacy and, of course, physical intimacy—all equally important to cultivating strong and healthy bonds.

Experts In This Article

We chatted with Lucas and other experts, who explained the true meaning of intimacy, the different types of intimacy in relationships, and how to cultivate each one to form deeper connections with others.

What is intimacy?

Many peopl conflate the concept of intimacy with the act of having sex, when, in reality, intercourse is just one of many acts of intimacy. There are at least five types of intimacy, and truly connecting necessitates a combination of these types. According to an Instagram post from licensed psychotherapist Alyssa Mancao, LCSW, fostering closeness in any relationship requires a combination of four main types of intimacy, namely: emotional, mental, spiritual and physical intimacy. Lucas adds that experiential intimacy plays a role, too.

What is intimacy in a relationship?

So, what is intimacy in a relationship? According to Helene Brenner, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of I Know I’m in There Somewhere, intimacy centers around connection and attention. “Intimacy is a one-on-one connection that involves a synchrony between two people,” says Dr. Brenner “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.” It’s important to keep in mind that intimacy isn’t just vital to romantic partnerships—it is essential to cultivating intimate friendships, or platonic intimacy, too.

Why is intimacy in relationships important?

Whether in friendship or romance, intimacy in relationships is crucial. It allows each person to truly feel seen and heard, says Lucas, and in order to reap the rewards of such intimacy, she emphasizes that letting your guard down is imperative. “When we keep those guards up around trusted people, we’re robbed of the closeness, connection, and feeling of acceptance that can come from intimacy,” she says. “We miss out on chances to feel heard, learn something new about our partner, and the potential of feeling re-energized by this connection.”

How can intimacy affect relationships?

Intimacy can foster a deeper connection between people. Think about some of your surface-level acquaintances. Typically, these superficial relationships lack intimacy—whether by choice or because of a fear of intimacy. As mentioned by Lucas, to really connect and build a strong relationship, a shared sense of vulnerability, in which partners or friends want and are willing to be open with each other, is key.

Licensed clinical psychologist Lauren Cook, PsyD, author of The Sunny Side Up! and Generation Anxiety, echoes this sentiment. “Intimacy is so important in our relationships, especially during these times, when we operate with so much small talk, memes, and GIFs,” she says “That can be all good and fun, but at the end of the day, we need something deeper. Intimacy is the bridge that allows us to build and sustain meaningful connections with others.”

The bottom line? Intimacy is life-changing and even necessary for deep and long-lasting relationships—and if you want to build a stronger connection with others, it’s helpful to understand more about the different types of intimacy so you can maximize the power of each.

The 5 types of intimacy in a relationship, explained

1. Emotional intimacy

Emotional intimacy involves cultivating a sense of closeness via mutual communication, empathy, and respect. “It speaks to this feeling of closeness through the expression of personal, internal feelings or thoughts or beliefs, and again, seeing those feelings received, accepted, understood, and heard by the other party,” says Lucas. “Emotional intimacy gives us the opportunity to notice the importance of actively listening to the other person and letting them know they are heard—that is where the magic of emotional intimacy takes place.”

Examples of emotional intimacy include:

  • Having a heart-to-heart conversation about what you want from a relationship
  • Honestly—and respectfully—expressing your emotions about a particular issue
  • Providing emotional support in times of need

Mental intimacy

Consider mental intimacy as a meeting of the minds—at once satisfying, challenging, and stimulating. “For some people, this is great wit and repartee—they love bouncing off each other [or] challenging each other,” says Dr. Cook. “[Mental intimacy] can also be great talks about movies or a play you saw, the career you both are in, or the causes that matter to you.”

A sub-category of mental intimacy is intellectual intimacy, which “involves creating a deeper understanding of someone’s mind, including how it works and how they think,” says Dr. Cook. This type of intimacy can involve having conversations that spark curiosity and intellectually stimulate you. “For some folks, this type of intimacy in a relationship is critical and keeps things alive,” she says.

Examples of mental intimacy include:

  • Sharing points of view with one another
  • Having thoughtful conversations about a range of topics
  • Enriching one another’s perspectives

Spiritual intimacy

Spiritual intimacy is about sharing and, just as importantly, understanding one another's beliefs (and it needn’t involve religion). Spirituality can take different forms or expressions—like, say, a code of values or ethics—that you and another person have found commonality in—or at least a common curiosity.

Examples of spiritual intimacy include:

  • Engaging in a spiritual practice
  • Pondering life’s big questions together
  • Sharing—and understanding—one another’s beliefs

4. Physical intimacy

If the above types are about intimacy without touching, this one is all about that: “Physical intimacy is essentially about relaxing into [a relationship], joining in the flow of it, getting into the moment, and sharing, giving, getting, and experiencing what feels good. It’s all about connection, excitement, the giving and getting of pleasure, and closeness,” says Dr. Brenner. “Ask for what feels good.”

As mentioned above, physical doesn’t solely revolve around sex, and it doesn’t even have to include coitus. In fact, there are many ways to be intimate without sex. “Physical intimacy can entail things like hand-holding, cuddling, sitting closely next to each other, or any other skin-to-skin contact that feels good to you,” says Lucas. “The goal of physical intimacy is, again, to create a feeling of closeness that feels beneficial to both parties.”

Examples of physical intimacy:

  • Kissing
  • Hugging
  • Holding hands

5. Experiential intimacy

Each of the above types of intimacy involves experiential intimacy, which, according to Lucas, is all about shared experiences—be it on an emotional, mental, spiritual, or physical level. “Whether it is trying something new together or creating a routine, experiencing life together can spark intimacy at all stages of your relationship,” she says.

Examples of experiential intimacy include:

  • Starting a new hobby together
  • Embarking on a trip
  • Creating a mutually beneficial routine

How a fear of intimacy inhibits the development of deep relationships

“A major factor that inhibits intimacy is fear—whether that is fear of rejection, fear the other person will leave, or a fear of loss of independence,” says Lucas. This fear can manifest in many ways: avoiding sharing yours feelings, for example, or detaching yourself when a relationship begins to deepen. However, a fear of intimacy is typically a defense mechanism.

To move past the fear of intimacy, it’s essential for all parties involved to create a sense of safety in the relationship. “If either partner fears that they’ll be made fun of, judged, or at worst, [feel] unsafe, intimacy is going to be withheld,” says Dr. Cook. Creating a sense of safety can take time, particularly if trust was broken in the past—which becomes a matter of learning how to rebuild trust, too.

Overcoming this fear may also involve introspection as well as open and respectful communication with a partner. Talking to a licensed therapist can also be an effective avenue for building deeper intimacy in your relationship, as they can offer a professional perspective to help you work past any issues standing in the way of fostering close ties with others.

How to build intimacy in relationships

To start building deeper intimacy in a relationship, the first step is to make time for it. Like anything else worthwhile, intimacy takes effort. Below, experts offer guidance on how to cultivate the five different types of intimacy in your relationships.

Emotional intimacy

To bolster emotional intimacy, Dr. Brenner suggests a three-part approach. First, slow down communication. Second, keep it simple. And finally, share what’s hard to say. In other words, thoughtfully process your feelings before you speak, and when you do, contextualize your emotions so you can communicate them effectively. (Think: “I love you,” or “I’m afraid to tell you how much you matter to me.”)

Avoid qualifiers, like “perhaps” or “maybe,” and speak with respectful honesty. Most importantly, allow yourself to be vulnerable. “Take the risk not to protect yourself,” says Dr. Brenner. “You can’t simultaneously protect yourself and be emotionally intimate. Let your heart be seen.” Lucas agrees, adding that you might want to carve out time with your person for uninterrupted conversation to not only speak about your emotions, but also to listen to theirs. “Practice active listening, really reflecting back and acknowledging what you are hearing,” she says.

Mental intimacy

To boost mental intimacy, Dr. Brenner suggests making a conscious effort to engage in thoughtful conversations or shared projects.  “Make sure you spend significant amounts of time engaging together in what stimulates you mentally,” she says. “And a little playful competition doesn’t hurt.”

Spiritual intimacy

Spirituality needn’t relate to religion (though shared religious observance is one way to cultivate it). As Lucas said, spiritual intimacy can involve fostering shared values and practices that make you both feel grounded.

“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,” says Dr. Brenner. You can also cultivate spiritual intimacy by finding connections in quiet, seemingly poignant moments. “If you are having a moment that feels ‘spiritual’ to you … share your joy in the spiritual meaning you get from that moment,” she says.

Physical intimacy

There are multiple ways to build physical intimacy. “For some, building physical intimacy means focusing on sex [to] create that level of closeness both parties need,” says Lucas. “For others, physical intimacy may be deciding to sit close to each other on the same side of the couch to watch Netflix, holding hands on the walk to the store, or hugging in the morning in bed.”

Experiential intimacy

In cultivating all the above types of intimacy, you also foster experiential intimacy. Another way to encourage experiential intimacy is to actively share experiences together—like, say, a weekly date night, a concert, or an exciting trip—to further strengthen your connection.

And remember…

Building deeper intimacy in relationships can take time and effort, and it’s unlikely to be as seamless as the movies make it appear. “Know that nothing is wrong with you if you and your partner fumble your way through it sometimes,” says Dr. Cook. “We have a filtered view of what intimacy, romance, and connection looks like, and it’s often not that smooth. Sometimes you do have to schedule sex, and sometimes you won’t feel like being vulnerable when your partner wants to go deeper.”

If either you or your friend or partner have a fear of intimacy, it’s also essential to take this into consideration as you both work towards building—or rebuilding—intimacy. “If you’re still wanting to pull back after that, reassess and share where you’re at,” says Dr. Cook. “It takes your brain and body time to shift into being intimate—it's not like a light switch and you shouldn't expect it to be.”

Frequently asked questions

What is the difference between physical intimacy and emotional intimacy?

Physical intimacy involves physical contact, such as kissing, hugging, holding hands, and sex that feels good to all parties involved, while emotional intimacy is all about connecting with another person through honest communication with mutual respect and empathy.

How can one build intellectual intimacy with a partner?

Intellectual intimacy is a sub-category of mental intimacy, and it involves cultivating a deeper understanding of how your friend or partner thinks, and vice-versa. To build this type of intimacy in a relationship, have mentally stimulating conversations that are both satisfying and challenging—whether about a topic of shared interest or something that sparks mutual curiosity—or an activity that engages your brains, like a board game or the newspaper crossword puzzle.

Can recreational activities enhance intimacy?

Recreational activities can enhance intimacy on an emotional, mental, and spiritual level, depending on what the activity is and so long as it’s something you can do together. Doing activities together can also cultivate experiential intimacy, during which you can create memorable bonding moments.

What are common barriers to intimacy in a relationship?

One common barrier is a fear of intimacy, which can inhibit you—or the other person—from developing deeper and more meaningful connections with one another. The good news is that it’s possible to move past this fear by creating a sense of security in your relationship and, just as importantly, understanding where this fear stems from through honest and open communication or with the help of a licensed therapist.

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