What is intimacy?
For many, the concept of intimacy conflates with the act of being intimate (or, ahem, having sex). And that, folks, isn't quite right. In reality, sex is just one of many acts of intimacy. What’s more, 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 five 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 five types of intimacy.
- Alyssa Mancao, LCSW, licensed clinical social worker and mental-health expert
- Helene Brenner, PhD, licensed psychologist and creator of the My Inner Voice app
- Lauren Cook, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist and author of The Sunny Side Up! and Generation Anxiety: A Millennial and Gen Z Guide to Staying Afloat in an Uncertain World
- Madeline Lucas, LMSW, sex therapist and clinical content manager at Real
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 four main types of intimacy: emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical; Lucas adds that experiential intimacy plays a role, too. But since you obviously won't have 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.
What is intimacy in a relationship and why is it important?
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."
The reason intimacy is so important in any relationship is that it allows each person to truly feel seen and heard, Lucas says. But, 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 explains. “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 does intimacy affect relationships?
Whether it’s a friendship or a romantic partnership, intimacy allows it to be real and fulfilling. Think about some of the more base-level acquaintances you have (or have had throughout your life). Generally, these superficial relationships lack intimacy—often by choice, but sometimes by fear. Typically, to really connect and build a relationship, therapist, speaker, and author Dr. Lauren Cook says that a shared sense of vulnerability, in which partners or friends are willing and wanting to be fully open with each other, is when a truly nourishing bond can form.
“Intimacy is so important in our relationships, especially during these times, when we operate with so much small talk, memes, and gifs,” she expands. “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 point is: Intimacy is life-changing for relationships, and although it can’t be forced or faked, there are ways to strengthen each of the five types of intimacy in any relationship. Learn how, below.
The 5 Types of Intimacy, Explained
1. Emotional Intimacy
Emotional intimacy means cultivating a sense of closeness relating to how you and your partner feel via empathy, respect, and communication.
“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,” Lucas says. “Emotional intimacy gives us the opportunity to notice the importance of truly actively listening to the other person and letting them know they are heard. That is where the magic of emotional intimacy takes place.”
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."
A sub-category of mental intimacy is intellectual intimacy. “It involves creating a deeper understanding of someone’s mind including how it works and how they think,” Dr. Cook says, noting that mental intimacy examples can involve having conversations that spark curiosity and intellectually stimulate you whether about new topics, common interests, or meaningful conversations about life. “For some folks, this type of intimacy in a relationship is critical and keeps things alive,” she adds.
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.
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."
That said, physical intimacy doesn’t solely pertain to sex, as most friendships don’t revolve around (or even include) sex. If we forget that, Lucas says that we miss out on opportunities with other forms of physical intimacy. “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,” she says. “The goal of physical intimacy is again to create a feeling of closeness that feels beneficial to both parties.”
5. Experiential Intimacy
Each of the four main types of intimacy include experiential intimacy. Experiential intimacy is all about shared experiences, Lucas says. “Whether it is trying something new together or creating a routine, experiencing life together can spark intimacy at all stages of your relationship,” she explains.
Things That May Inhibit 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 five 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.
Of course, it’s not just a fear of intimacy, but a fear within the relationship in general, Lucas says. “One 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,” she explains.
Dr. Cook tacks onto this, noting that safety is needed first and foremost for intimacy to bloom. “If either partner fears that they'll be made fun of, judged, or at worst, unsafe, intimacy is going to be withheld (as it should be),” she says. “Intimacy is a gift that each partner bestows and if a relationship is lacking respect, compassion, and patience, intimacy is often inhibited in the process.”
In order to get over your fear 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.
How To Build Intimacy in a Relationship
The first step is to slow down and make time for what matters: your relationships (both romantic and platonic). In order to build intimacy, you must be present for the people in your life. Beyond that, you can hone in on each of the different types of intimacy, as suggested below.
To bolster emotional intimacy, Dr. Brenner says to 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 on 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," Dr. Brenner says. "You can’t simultaneously protect yourself and be emotionally intimate. Let your heart be seen."
Lucas agrees and suggests sitting down with your person, uninterrupted and undistracted, to ask questions to help develop emotional intimacy. “Practice active listening, really reflecting back and acknowledging what you are hearing,” she says.
To boost mental intimacy, Dr. Brenner says to 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.
"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.
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."
And keep in mind, spiritual intimacy doesn’t necessarily have to relate to religion. As Lucas reminds us, it can boil down to shared values like kindness or integrity, bonding through shared beliefs about religion, meditation, nature, the universe—anything that makes you feel grounded spiritually.
There are multiple ways to build physical intimacy. “For some, building physical intimacy means focusing on sex (exploring, communicating, trying different things) and this creates that level of closeness both parties need,” Lucas says. “For others (or even depending on the day!) physical intimacy may be deciding to sit close to each other on the same side of the couch to watch Netflix, or holding hands on the walk to the store, or hugging in the morning in bed.”
All of the four main types of intimacy lend to the overall sense of experiential intimacy. That said, another way to encourage experiential intimacy is by actively planning moments together, whether it’s a weekly date night, a weekend concert, or a special trip. By simply planning to do something together, you’ll be able to create that added layer of connection.
If at first, you feel silly for trying to be more intimate, give yourself grace—it’s not going to be as flawless as the movies make it seem—at least not at first. “Know that nothing is wrong with you if you and your partner fumble your way through it sometimes,” Dr. Cook reassures us. “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.”
With that in mind, she says to challenge yourself to take some time to let it settle in. “If you're still wanting to pull back after that, reassess and share where you're at,” she says. “Just know that 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.”
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