What is intimacy?
Intimacy is closeness between people in personal relationships.
It’s what builds over time as you connect with someone, grow to care about each other, and feel more and more comfortable during your time together.
It can include physical or emotional closeness, or even a mix of the two.
First things first: Intimacy isn’t synonymous with sex
You’ve probably heard of intimacy in the context of sex and romance.
For example, people sometimes use the term “being intimate” to mean sexual activity.
But intimacy isn’t another word for sex.
Sex with a partner can build intimacy, but it’s far from the only indicator of intimacy.
It’s possible to have sex without intimacy as well as intimacy without sex.
And it shouldn’t be reserved purely for sexual or romantic partners
Sex and romance may come to mind first, but intimacy plays a role in other types of relationships too!
For example, if you describe a party with friends as an “intimate gathering,” what are you trying to convey?
You’re probably saying the party was a small group of close friends as opposed to a huge crowd with many strangers.
You might also be referring to the quality of the time you spent together. Maybe you and your friends opened up about personal details and bonded over common interests.
Your relationships with family, friends, and other trusted individuals all include elements of intimacy.
It ultimately means different things to different people
You may feel close to a date while you watch a movie together, while your date can’t wait to take a walk after the movie to feel closer to you.
That’s because intimacy means different things to different people.
Your specific idea of intimacy may be influenced by your interests, communication style, or preferred ways to get to know someone.
And there are different types of intimacy
To figure out what intimacy means to you, consider the types of intimacy.
Intimacy falls into several different categories, including:
Emotional intimacy is what allows you to tell your loved ones personal things that you might not necessarily share with strangers.
Think of it as letting your guard down. As you learn that you can trust someone, you feel safe enough to let your walls down.
Do you look forward to coming home from work so you can relax and be yourself with your partner?
Or how you can tell your brother anything without being judged?
This is what it means to have emotional intimacy.
Intellectual intimacy involves getting to know how another person’s mind works and sharing the map to your mind too.
It builds as you exchange ideas and have meaningful conversations.
You know that deep philosophical discussion that helped you realize your classmate wasn’t just a classmate, but also a friend?
Or the first time you stayed up all night talking to your partner and felt that “spark” of connection?
These moments brought you closer because you shared intellectual intimacy.
Physical intimacy is about touch and closeness between bodies.
In a romantic relationship, it might include holding hands, cuddling, kissing, and sex.
Your relationship doesn’t have to be sexual or romantic to have physical intimacy.
A warm, tight hug is an example of physical intimacy with a friend.
You build experiential intimacy by spending quality time with someone and growing closer over common interests and activities.
There’s nothing quite like the way you bond with someone over your mutual love of “Game of Thrones” or during a spirited game of Monopoly.
Spirituality means different things to different people, so spiritual intimacy can vary too.
Generally speaking, spirituality is about belief in something beyond the physical realm of existence.
That belief can be in a higher power, in human souls, or in a greater purpose, for example.
Spiritual intimacy can look like sharing a common value like kindness, being on the same wavelength about organized religion, or feeling like you were meant to be in each other’s lives.
But there are 7 key factors within any intimate relationship
All intimacy comes down to a few key factors, including:
In order to share personal parts of yourself — like your most embarrassing secrets or your deepest fears — you have to be able to trust them.
Showing another person that you’re trustworthy can help them feel closer to you too.
You know you’ve established some intimacy when you feel like a person accepts you for who you truly are.
When you first meet someone, you might worry that they’ll hear your “guilty pleasure” music playlist and think you’re weird.
But as intimacy grows, you can rock out to your favorite boy bands and trust that no matter how weird you get, you’ll still be accepted and cared for.
Honesty and intimacy feed one other. You often can’t have one without the other.
You feel comfortable telling your partner exactly how you feel in part because you’ve become so close to each other.
And in the same vein, every time you open up, you can grow a little bit closer. You’ll know your partner is willing to listen the next time you want to share something personal.
Sharing your deepest, truest self with another person can put you in a pretty vulnerable position.
That’s why you tend to have your guard up when you meet someone new. You don’t yet know if they’ll support you as you are.
So, intimacy means feeling safe enough to take the risk of putting yourself out there, knowing the other person cares enough not to let you down.
Feeling cared about is a lovely feeling, isn’t it?
You know your BFF will be there for you after a bad breakup. You know your sister won’t let a week go by without asking how you’re doing.
Forgiveness and understanding can only exist with compassion between people.
Compassion is a natural component of caring about one another’s well-being.
Caring about each other is one thing, but you also build intimacy by showing that you care.
Sometimes affection is in the unspoken ways you show up for each other, like when your friend spends their day off helping you move simply because they care.
There’s a reason why good communication is so often named as the key to a healthy relationship.
When you make an effort to listen to someone and tell them how you really feel, you can build a deep understanding for each other.
And the more you understand each other, the closer you become.
Intimacy usually doesn’t happen in a flash — it must be built
You won’t wake up one morning and say, “We’re intimate now. Mission accomplished!”
Intimacy is more like a quality that you continue to cultivate over time.
The more time you spend sharing experiences and feelings, the more elements you have to work with to build intimacy.
And it doesn’t always come easy
You might feel some apprehension, or even fear, about building intimacy.
That’s understandable, considering that intimacy requires you to be vulnerable and put faith in other people when there’s a chance they’ll let you down.
If anyone has ever violated your trust, it can take a while to want to take a chance with them or anyone else again.
But once you have it, it can have a tangible effect on your health
So, why risk intimacy if there’s a chance of getting hurt?
Well, intimacy comes with some health benefits that you simply can’t get any other way.
Deep companionship helps you combat loneliness and feel like somebody “gets you.”
It also helps your mental health, reducing your stress level as your feel-good hormones get a boost from touch like hugs and emotional release like laughter.
In fact, intimacy can actually boost your immune system, lower your blood pressure, and reduce your risk for heart disease.
It’s a key building block for a happy, healthy, and fulfilling life.
How to overcome a fear of intimacy
If you have a fear of intimacy, you’re not the only one. There are ways to overcome it.
Here are some tips for how to deal with a fear of intimacy:
Name what’s happening and identify your symptoms
Your fear of intimacy may be obvious to you, but it’s also possible to be afraid of intimacy without even realizing it.
You might avoid deep relationships or feel anxious about social situations for reasons that are unclear.
Do you isolate yourself from other people? Have low self-esteem? Have a hard time staying present during sex? Avoid letting people get to know you?
Once you can spot a pattern, identifying your symptoms will give you a tangible list of what to work on.
Many people find it useful to work with a therapist or other mental health professional to help guide you.
Figure out what your boundaries are and why
You don’t have to feel ashamed of having your guard up when you understand why you put it up in the first place.
For example, fear of intimacy would be an understandable response to trauma like sexual assault or childhood neglect.
After abuse, we may try to protect ourselves from judgment and further harm by isolating from the rest of the world.
One you’ve identified what helps you feel safe and what triggers your fear, you can now intentionally set the boundaries you want to keep and start to shift away from the ones that aren’t useful anymore.
Communicate about your feelings
It’s hard to build trust with someone who doesn’t even know that you’re having a hard time.
If you have a romantic partner, you can tell them it’s difficult for you to let people in and you’re working on it.
If you feel comfortable enough, you can also share what you’re afraid of and where your fears come from.
It’s OK to tell the people in your life what you need from them in to feel safe in your relationships.
Get professional help
At times we can all use some support with facing our fears. A mental health professional like a therapist can offer that.
A professional can also help you:
- figure out how your fear of intimacy started
- work through serious issues like trauma
- identify if a mental health condition like avoidant personality disorder or depression is involved
How to nurture intimacy in any relationship
It’s normal for relationships to feel stagnant over time as life gets in the way and you settle into a routine that’s not as adventurous as when you first met.
Here are some ideas for sparking or reigniting intimacy in any relationship.
Make it a point to show your appreciation
Take time to tell the other person what you appreciate about them. Show your gratitude, which can take the form of gifts, favors, or a simple “thank you.”
Make an effort to learn about each other
Once you’ve known someone for a long time, it can feel like the “mystery” is gone.
But people and relationships grow and change over time. There’s always more to learn.
Swap stories, ask questions, and play games like “20 Questions” to keep gathering new information.
The key to this is listening so you can build a real understanding of what the other person cares about and why.
Set aside time for each other
If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy for time to fly by without sharing quality time.
So make it a priority!
Plan a weekly date night, a monthly board game night, or a nightly moment to check in one-on-one before bedtime, away from the kids or other responsibilities.
Unplug and focus on each other
Spending time together without electronics can give you a chance to give each other some undivided attention.
Show physical affection (even without sex)
If you have a sexual relationship, then mixing things up with new toys, outfits, and fantasies can keep things from getting dull.
But you can also build intimacy by making it a point to show physical affection without sex.
With warm gestures and cuddles, you can remember that joining your bodies together is about more than just “getting off.”
Tackle a project together
Restore a piece of furniture, learn a new skill like baking, or teach your old dog some new tricks.
Whatever the project, working toward a goal with a loved one can cultivate bonding time, make invaluable memories, and give you something new to look forward to together.
Talk about what intimacy means to you
Building intimacy doesn’t have to be a guessing game.
An easy way to figure out how to build intimacy is to just talk about it!
Tell your loved one how you’d like to spend time together and what activities help you feel closer. Listen when they tell you the same.
If you want to learn more
For more info on intimacy, look to healthy relationship experts and resources.
Here are a few places to start:
- 8 Books on Sex and Intimacy, recommended by sex educator Dawn Serra. This list includes inclusive, empowering titles such as “Ecstasy Is Necessary” by Barbara Carrellas.
- 5 Relationship Books That Will Profoundly Change the Way You Love, a list compiled by relationship coach Kyle Benson. This list includes books that aren’t only focused on sex and romance, like the self-development book “SuperBetter” by Jane McGonigal.
- Consider individual and relationship therapy. By working with a therapist one-on-one, a family therapist, or a couples counselor, you can get some personalized insight on intimacy. Here’s information on finding a therapist and some affordable therapy options for every budget.
Building intimacy is one of the most rewarding ways to enrich your life. Give yourself permission to seek out the meaningful connections you deserve.References:
Avoidant personality disorder. (2017).
Barish-Wreden M. (n.d.). Rekindling the intimacy in your relationship.
Written by Maisha Johnson on April 16, 2019
Sharabi L, et al. (2015). In their own words: How clinical depression affects romantic relationships. DOI:
Zoldbrod AP. (2015). Sexual issues in treating trauma survivors. DOI:
Photo Credit: Thomas Curryer