What Is Intimacy

Women's Dating

Exploring the Meaning of Intimacy: Types, Challenges & Ways to Express It

Mackenzie Buck

Written by: Mackenzie Buck

Mackenzie Buck

Mackenzie Buck is an experienced writer who earned a master's degree with distinction from the University of Manchester. Her relationship advice has been featured on the New York Post, among other publications. She has worn a variety of hats in the digital marketing space over the years and is excited to bring her unique voice and storytelling chops to DatingAdvice.

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Edited by: Lillian Castro

Lillian Castro

Lillian Guevara-Castro brings more than 30 years of journalism experience to ensure DatingAdvice articles have been edited for overall clarity, accuracy, and reader engagement. She has worked at The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, The Gwinnett Daily News, and The Gainesville Sun covering lifestyle topics.

Reviewed by: Amber Brooks

Amber Brooks

Amber Brooks is a dating and relationship expert who has penned over 1,800 lifestyle articles in the last decade, and she still never tires of interviewing dating professionals and featuring actionable advice for singles. She has been quoted by the Washington Times, Cosmopolitan, The New York Post, and AskMen.

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People from all over the world ponder what love really means to them. What’s the magic that brings two people together? And what keeps those people happy and healthy over an extended period of time? Intimacy, according to psychologists, is a key aspect of a healthy relationship. 

Plenty of us have associated this term with knocking boots, getting jiggy with it (I can’t believe I just typed that), or indulging in a little afternoon delight.

However, the scope of intimacy is broad and complex, and certainly worth discussing beyond what goes on in the bedroom.

In this guide, we’ll explore the many facets of intimacy, including its various meanings, roles, and challenges, as well as provide tips for injecting more of this special ingredient into your own relationship recipe, romantic or otherwise. Let’s get into it. 

Types of Intimacy | Importance in Dating | Challenges | Tips

Types of Intimacy

Sex seeps into much of American media, so it’s easy to get fixated on the physical aspects of intimacy and forget that meaningful connections with those we love (or want to love) requires a more thorough covering of the bases, if you will.

The combination of emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and physical intimacy will more successfully bring two people together and keep them happily and healthily bonded for the long haul.

        1. Emotional Intimacy 

I tell people all the time that my best friend Julia is my true soulmate in this life. I joke that my future partner may have a difficult time competing with her for the title of “my person.”

This is because over the last 24 years of friendship, we have shared every win, every challenge, and essentially every emotion with each other for a majority of our lives. 

emotional intimacy

We call on each other for support and guidance, trusting that the other person knows just what to say to get us through our lowest lows. And although not everyone will be able to say that they have a best friend of 24 years, they may be able to relate to having this type of emotional intimacy with someone in their lives.

People with emotional intimacy share a deep connection based on many conversations surrounding their fears, dreams, and everything in between

Exchanges of this vulnerable nature allow us to feel more trusting of and bonded to another person, regardless of if they are friends, family members, or romantic partners. 

        2. Intellectual Intimacy 

Have you ever ended up in a conversation with a random stranger who just happens to be into the same obscure hobby as you? Maybe they share a similar obsession with carbon capture? Or equally believe in the possibility of time travel?

intellectual intimacy

More often than not, these end up being people you feel quickly connected to, despite having just met them 45 minutes ago while in line for the bathroom.

This illustrates the power of intellectual intimacy — or, in other words, a feeling of closeness that develops from sharing your innermost thoughts, ideas, and interests.

People who lean more heavily on the intellectual pillar of intimacy will likely find themselves drawn to others who share a similar desire to connect based on their ideas and values.

        3. Spiritual Intimacy

One thing that bonds us as humans is our curiosity about the meaning of life. What are we here for? How should we be spending our time? What happens after we pass on? 

spiritual intimacy

These are all questions that humans have pondered throughout history. And when brought into conversations with those we love or are trying to get to know, these kinds of topics have the power to bond us to one another on a more profound level. This is called spiritual intimacy.

        4. Physical Intimacy 

We know it, we (probably) love it, it’s: physical intimacy. This kind of intimacy can be defined as “any physical contact ranging from holding hands to sexual intercourse.”

physical intimacy

People have different preferences regarding how much they indulge in this type of connection, but healthy amounts of it can be integral in building trust and closeness with someone. 

As with all other aspects of intimacy, it can be found not just amongst lovers, but friends as well — for example: offering a comforting hug, a congratulatory pat on the back, or kiss on the cheek (if you just so happen to be visiting Europe). 

The Importance of Intimacy in Dating

People in long-term relationships commonly experience romantic lulls. Sometimes the energy between you and the person you love feels a bit off. More often than not, these down times can be traced back to a lack of true intimacy in the relationship.

Here are some best practices to bring back those loving feelings.

Establishing Connection 

When two people in a relationship share their thoughts, feelings, and ideas with each other, they begin to build a bridge that brings two very different people together to meet in the middle.

connection

Over the course of time, the relationship evolves and life events may challenge you, but emotional intimacy should remain relatively constant. Your deep emotional connection keeps you and your partner coming back together into closeness again and again and again. 

It can be difficult in the early stages of dating to feel strongly connected in times of conflict, but that emotional intimacy will strengthen as you overcome challenges and stay together.

Enhancing Communication 

How can you love and stay bonded with someone if you can’t maintain open communication? The answer is: You can’t.

communication

Or, at least, you won’t be able to for long. Emotional closeness comes from talking about what you think, feel, and experience. Such verbal intimacy brings safety and comfort by instilling a sense of confidence that your thoughts, feelings, and fears will be heard and respected. 

Couples in a healthy relationship aren’t afraid to communicate with one another, even on difficult topics.

Strengthening Bonds 

I know of many couples who struggle to maintain happiness within their relationships because both people in the couple struggle to share what’s really going on inside, merely getting by on lust, niceties, and surface-level conversations. 

bonding

Although this can work for a short period of time, it keeps both people feeling stuck and unable to deepen their romantic connection. They’re doomed to drift apart and, eventually, let the relationship go. 

When couples put in the work to nurture the emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and physical aspects of their relationship, however, this intimacy draws them closer to a place of security in which both people feel comfortable staying.

Challenges in Cultivating Intimacy 

We all crave human intimacy. But depending on various factors from an individual’s past, building it can be hard. 

Past Trauma

Our fears, habits, and struggles stem from the culmination of experiences that we’ve had in our lives.

traumatic experiences

Absent parents, abusive relationships, health scares, and the like all make an impact on our brain’s neural pathways, dictating how we respond to life events. 

When someone has experienced traumatic events, this can make it more difficult for them to feel comfortable creating space for intimacy in their relationships.

Fear of Being Hurt

Many people endured childhoods where they were taught that opening up about their thoughts, feelings, and emotions was unsafe.

vulnerability

Perhaps they were yelled at by their parents for crying or were ignored completely.

Either way, the fear of intimacy can carry into a child’s adult life, especially as it pertains to their romantic relationships and friendships.

If you want to have a close relationship, you have to overcome fears of being hurt or rejected. It may time time, and therapy, to get to that place, but it’s so worth it once you do.

Communication Barriers

On that same note, a person who struggles to show vulnerability will inherently find it more taxing — or, at times, impossible — to communicate effectively with their partner.

communication barriers

And, as we learned in the above section, communication is a prerequisite for healthy intimacy in the world of romance. 

Couples need to communicate so they can be aligned on how they share intimacy and express love. Otherwise it’s going to be a rocky relationship road.

Mismatched Expectations

Sometimes what we love so much about our partners is actually what makes them different from us. However, having significantly different expectations in the relationship can be quite damaging. 

mismatched expectations

Opposites don’t always attract. For example, if one person considers themselves to be touchy-feely, while the other despises public displays of affection (PDA), the couple may struggle to nurture physical intimacy in a way that feels comfortable for both parties. 

Or if one person is an open book and the other prefers to keep to themselves, they will likely find themselves unsatisfied with the level of emotional intimacy in the dynamic.

Tips for Expressing Love and Affection 

Even if you’re experiencing intimacy problems, that doesn’t mean you can’t change and overcome your relationship issues. With a strong dose of effort and intentional practices, both you and your partner can work to stoke the fires of intimacy (in all senses of the word) and create the kind of closeness that your relationship needs. 

  1. Be Open 

No change comes without a shift in mindset, and being open to change is essential for two people trying to build a life together.

be open

If you truly want to foster a healthy sense of intimacy within your partnership, it will require you to keep an open mind. Acknowledge that your way isn’t necessarily the only way.

You may have to go outside your comfort zone in some conversations, but on the other side of any discomfort will be a happier, more meaningful relationship. 

  1. Foster Trust 

Trust is essential to a healthy relationship, and it all comes down to how you treat one another and how you fulfill each other’s expectations.

foster trust

If every time your partner offers a bid for connection you react negatively (whether that’s by ignoring them, getting angry, or showing annoyance), you will never be able to create an environment where your partner feels safe and free to express themselves to you. 

Stay consistent in your efforts to build this intimacy, and both you and your loved one will find that it gets easier with time. 

  1. Be Vulnerable

Vulnerability can be scary when you’re not used to it, especially if you have had bad experiences being vulnerable in the past.

be vulnerable

However, if we never trust, we’ll never love — such is the risk of this game we play. 

Not only is vulnerability a good thing, it’s a necessary thing. The more frequently you give yourself permission to share your thoughts, feelings, and dreams with your partner, the more you will build intimacy.

Soon being vulnerable with a significant other won’t feel so very terrifying — it will feel like second nature.

  1.  Invest Time and Effort

Intimacy is a skill, just like painting or singing. The more time and effort you put into building intimacy, the more confident you’ll feel.

invest time and effort

Set aside time every week (or however often you and your partner deem necessary) to dedicate to building intimacy with your partner. This could look like planning date nights, participating in phone-free time, joining a book club, or attending couples therapy. 

All of these activities can help nurture intimacy and closeness in your relationship, so make sure to explore a plethora of options and find what works best for the two of you. 

Prioritize Intimacy to Enhance Relationship Satisfaction

Think of Intimacy as the yeast in a delicious loaf of love bread. All of the necessary ingredients can be present — such as compatibility, similar interests, and shared values — but the dough simply won’t rise into the full, fluffy, scrumptious brick of goodness (aka a happy, healthy, satisfied relationship) that we’re craving without the yeast doing its thing. 

This is why it’s crucial to build Intimacy — emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and physical — within our relationships, and not just when things start to get rocky.

Set the intention to integrate intimacy-building efforts into your relationship on a regular basis, and you’ll reap the benefits of a closer, more meaningful connection between you and those you love. Don’t wait another second, friends. It’s time to get intimate!