Understanding intimacy in relationships

Discover what intimacy means, what types of intimacy exist, how you can build it in your relationship, and what role communication plays in this process.

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Intimacy is one of the most important aspects of a healthy, long-term relationship, and it comes in many forms. It’s not just about sex and physical closeness; it’s also about the emotional and psychological connection you share with your partner.

In this article, we’ll discuss what intimacy is, introduce the different types of intimacy, give you tips on how to strengthen intimacy in your relationship, and explain why communication is essential for building and sustaining it.

Check out our communication guide for couples to learn more about effective communication in relationships.

What is intimacy in relationships?

What is intimacy in relationships?

Intimacy in relationships is often described as a general feeling of closeness that exists between partners. However, intimacy involves more than that. In research, intimacy is described as a multidimensional construct that includes physical, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, and affective aspects of the relationship. 1

Being intimate with your partner can mean sharing thoughts and feelings with each other, holding hands, having sex, or spending quality time with each other. 2 3

5 types of intimacy

5 types of intimacy

As mentioned earlier, intimacy is multi-faceted and can take many different forms. 1 2 That’s why, in research, they differentiate between different types of intimacy.

The PAIR inventory, developed in 1981, is one of the most commonly used tools for measuring intimacy in relationships. PAIR stands for Personal Assessment of Intimacy in Relationships and covers five types of intimacy: emotional, social, sexual, intellectual, and recreational intimacy. 4

Let’s take a closer look at each of these 5 types of intimacy:

Emotional intimacy

Emotional intimacy centers around feeling understood, supported, and genuinely heard by your partner. It also includes a general feeling of closeness and trust between partners, as well as being able to be vulnerable with each other. 4

Here are some example items from the PAIR inventory related to emotional intimacy:

Emotional intimacy establishes a space for vulnerability, fostering an environment where both partners can openly communicate without fear of judgment.

Social Intimacy

Social intimacy goes beyond the confines of a partnership, extending to shared moments within broader social circles. This type of intimacy involves partners spending quality time together with friends, approving of each other’s friends, and finding contentment in the company of other couples. 4

Here are some example items from the PAIR inventory related to social intimacy:

Social intimacy thrives in shared moments, weaving connections between your lives and the world you share with others.

Sexual Intimacy

When people think of intimacy, sexual intimacy is often what first comes to mind. Sexual intimacy includes sexual activities and satisfaction, as well as expressing and sharing sexual desires and preferences with each other. 4

Here are some example items from the PAIR inventory related to sexual intimacy:

A fulfilling sexual relationship is a key pillar of a healthy partnership. However, it’s important to recognize that sexual expression is interwoven with other forms of intimacy. It doesn’t exist in isolation but rather resonates with the broader emotional and relational contexts.

Intellectual Intimacy

Intellectual intimacy involves being able to learn and grow together, as well as discussing ideas, thoughts, and beliefs. This type of intimacy includes being able to explore different topics that are important to each partner and having respectful discussions without conflict or judgment. 4

Here are some example items from the PAIR inventory related to intellectual intimacy:

Intellectual intimacy can provide a forum for partners to express their thoughts and beliefs with each other in a safe, respectful space.

Recreational Intimacy

Recreational intimacy involves being able to have fun and enjoy shared activities together. 4 This type of intimacy includes engaging in things that you’re both interested in as well as being able to enjoy new fun experiences that you discover together.

Here are some example items from the PAIR inventory related to recreational intimacy:

Recreational intimacy is an important part of a relationship, providing partners with the opportunity to create shared memories and engage in activities that they both enjoy.

Emotional intimacy vs. physical intimacy

From all types of intimacy, emotional intimacy and sexual intimacy seem to have a particularly strong correlation with relationship satisfaction. 1 Therefore, it’s worth taking a closer look at the differences between them and how each type of intimacy contributes to a fulfilling relationship.

Emotional intimacy

Emotional intimacy, also known as psychological intimacy, is the ability to be vulnerable with your partner and feeling like you are truly seen, understood, and cared for by them. 3

It is a feeling of deep connection with your partner, and it can be expressed in different ways. For example, through having meaningful discussions with them, expressing gratitude for the things they do, spending quality time together, and being able to be honest about your feelings and thoughts.

Discover how to build emotional intimacy in your relationship!

Physical intimacy

Physical intimacy involves not just sexual activities but also the ability to express physical affection and closeness with your partner. It includes things like holding hands, giving each other hugs or kisses, or even just holding and touching each other. 5

A study showed that exchanging physical affection, such as holding hands, hugging, kissing, and having sex, can reduce cortisol levels, the hormone released in response to stress. So, physical intimacy has a positive effect not only on your relationship but also on your personal well-being. 6

Communication is key to building and maintaining sexual intimacy. 7 By sharing your desires, likes, and dislikes, you can make sure that both partners are enjoying and comfortable in the sexual encounters, which is essential for sexual satisfaction. 8

Discover how communication can save your sex life!

5 signs of emotional intimacy

5 signs of emotional intimacy

Emotional intimacy serves as a foundation for strong relationships. When it is missing, partners can feel disconnected and unhappy. But what exactly is emotional intimacy, and how can you tell if it’s present in your relationship?

Here are 5 signs of emotional intimacy:

1. You feel understood and valued

In a relationship rich in emotional intimacy, you experience a genuine sense of being understood and cherished by your partner. You are able to share your thoughts and feelings without the fear of judgment. 4 Instead, you feel supported, accepted, and valued.

Feeling valued for who you are lays the groundwork for mutual respect and trust, which are essential for a relationship to thrive. 9

2. You can be open and vulnerable

Another sign of emotional intimacy is when partners are able to open up and be vulnerable with each other. This means that they can express their true feelings and thoughts without fear of being judged or ridiculed. 4

When partners trust each other enough to be able to do this, it creates a feeling of closeness that is essential for any healthy relationship.

3. Your voice is heard and respected

When you are talking to your partner, does your partner truly listen? Do you feel like the things that you bring up are being heard and taken seriously? A key aspect of emotional intimacy is feeling genuinely heard by your partner. 4

During conversations, your ideas, thoughts, and emotions are given importance and met with respect. This validation nurtures a profound sense of being valued within the relationship.

4. You feel emotionally connected with your partner

Emotional intimacy also reveals itself in the emotional connection you share with your partner. 4 This connection goes beyond mere physical proximity or shared activities—it’s about feeling attuned to each other’s emotions and experiences.

You can sense your partner’s moods and feelings even without words. This level of emotional attunement indicates a strong bond where you both are in sync on an emotional level. It also means that even when you’re not physically together, you still feel emotionally connected.

5. You feel safe and secure in the relationship

Finally, a relationship where emotional intimacy is present is one where you feel safe and secure. You know that your partner loves and supports you. This sense of safety encourages us to be more open with our feelings and thoughts, which further deepens the bond between partners.

Ultimately, emotional intimacy creates a safe space for both partners to be vulnerable and express themselves without fear.

Here are signs your relationship lacks emotional intimacy.

5 tips on how to achieve emotional intimacy

5 tips on how to achieve emotional intimacy

Emotional intimacy is a crucial part of a healthy romantic relationship. 3 But how can you build a deep emotional connection with your partner? Here are 5 tips to help you boost emotional intimacy in your relationship:

1. Prioritize quality time

One of the key ways to enhance emotional intimacy in your relationship is to prioritize quality time together. Spending dedicated moments with your partner, free from distractions, can significantly strengthen your bond. 3

Contrary to the common notion that weekends are the prime time for shared activities, a study found that adding an extra hour of shared time during the week can be even more beneficial for fostering intimacy, particularly for women. In simpler terms, spending focused time together on regular days may have a greater impact on intimacy. 3

By dedicating quality time to each other, whether it’s during the week or weekends, you create opportunities to engage in meaningful conversation and shared memories. Whether it’s cooking a meal together, going for a walk, or simply sitting down for a heartfelt chat, the key is to make this time intentional and free from distractions.

2. Show affection

Expressing affection is a powerful tool in enhancing intimacy within your relationship. Showing affection doesn’t mean that you have to be overly romantic or gushy with your words. Even small gestures such as holding hands, giving a hug, or brushing their hair away can communicate a strong sense of love and appreciation for your partner.

Research highlights that lacking affection - longing for more affection than you’re currently experiencing - can lead to reduced relationship satisfaction and a sense of emotional distance. 10 On the flip side, regular displays of affection, such as backrubs, cuddling, holding hands, and kissing, are associated with greater relationship satisfaction. 11

Check out these tips on [how to be more affectionate in a relationship](/ how-to-be-more-affectionate-in-a-relationship/)!

3. Know your partner’s love language

Just as people have unique personalities, they also have unique ways of feeling loved and valued. Understanding your partner’s love language can be a game-changer in enhancing emotional intimacy.

In 1992, Chapman introduced a concept that suggests people express and receive love in five distinct ways: quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, and physical touch. 12

Knowing your partner’s love language allows you to tailor your expressions of affection in a way that resonates most deeply with them, which ultimately will foster a deeper sense of connection and intimacy.

Learn more about the five love languages!

4. Boost your sexual intimacy

Even though sexual intimacy doesn’t automatically lead to emotional intimacy, it still has the ability to deepen your emotional connection with your partner.

A study from 2013 involving 335 heterosexual married couples examined the connections between couple communication, emotional intimacy, sexual satisfaction, and relationship satisfaction. The study revealed that sexual satisfaction significantly influenced emotional intimacy for both partners. 1

So, by actively nurturing your sexual connection with your partner, you may find that your emotional connection also improves.

Here are practical tips on how to boost your sex life!

5. Maintaining intimacy is an ongoing process

Intimacy isn’t a destination—it’s a continuous journey that evolves over time. Unlike a task that can be ticked off a checklist, intimacy is not something that’s ever completed. 4

This is important to remember because it takes work and effort to maintain emotional intimacy over the long term. Regularly check in with each other to ensure that your relationship remains strong and healthy. Here are essential tips on how to maintain emotional intimacy in a marriage!

Check out our complete, in-depth guide on how to build emotional connections in relationships for further advice!

Why communication is essential for intimacy

Good communication is essential to nurture intimacy in your relationship. 1 13 Whether you’ve been together for a couple of months or many years, communication is the foundation that allows couples to form and sustain a deep emotional connection.

Research shows that couples who engage in positive communication experience higher levels of intimacy. For instance, when couples openly share their vulnerabilities with each other, they’re more likely to feel emotionally close and connected. 1

Another study examined the relationship between couples’ sexual communication and dimensions of sexual function, including sexual desire and satisfaction. The results revealed that couples who communicated more effectively experienced higher levels of overall sexual function. Especially for women, sexual communication was strongly linked to facilitating sexual desire. 13

Talking about sex can be intimidating for some couples. Here are tips that will help you talk openly about sex with your partner!

FAQ about intimacy in relationships

FAQ about intimacy in relationships

1. Can you rebuild emotional intimacy?

Yes, it is absolutely possible to rebuild emotional intimacy in a relationship, even if it has waned over time. While challenges or life circumstances might have led to a distance between you and your partner, there are effective strategies to reignite that emotional connection.

A crucial first step is acknowledging the current state of your relationship and being open about your feelings with your partner. Honest communication lays the foundation for addressing any issues that may be contributing to the lack of intimacy.

Investing quality time and engaging in shared activities can also help reignite the spark of emotional intimacy. 3 Finding common interests or discovering new ones together provides opportunities to bond and create lasting memories.

Patience and consistency are key. Rebuilding emotional intimacy is a gradual process that requires both partners to be committed to the journey.

Learn how to rebuild emotional intimacy with our practical guide!

2. Why do you struggle with emotional intimacy?

Struggling with emotional intimacy is a common challenge that can stem from various factors. Past experiences of hurt or betrayal, whether from previous relationships or childhood, might lead to a hesitancy in opening up emotionally. The fear of being vulnerable and potentially hurt again can create emotional barriers that hinder the development of intimacy.

Additionally, personal insecurities and self-esteem issues can play a significant role in hindering emotional intimacy. If you struggle to value yourself or doubt your self-worth, you may find it challenging to believe that someone else could genuinely care for you on a deep emotional level. These feelings of inadequacy might lead you to hold back from fully engaging in intimate conversations or showing vulnerability.

Recognizing these underlying factors and taking proactive steps to address them can help you overcome the hurdles that impede emotional intimacy.

Discover how to overcome fear of intimacy!

3. What is pillow talk?

Pillow talk refers to the intimate and affectionate conversations couples have in the moments after being intimate. This positive exchange not only deepens the bond between partners but also acts as a way to nurture the relationship. 14 These conversations can range from discussing future dreams and aspirations to sharing secrets or simply reflecting on shared experiences.

A study from 2012 underscores the benefits of pillow talk. Results showed that couples who frequently indulge in positive conversations after being intimate tend to feel a stronger sense of trust, are more satisfied with their relationship, and feel closer to their partners. 14

Discover more about the importance of pillow talk in relationships!

4. What to do when your partner stops wanting sex?

It’s not uncommon for one partner’s libido to wane over time. Research shows that sexual desire tends to peak in the beginning of a relationship and then slowly decline with time as partners become more comfortable in the relationship. 15

When one partner stops wanting sex and the other feels rejected, it can lead to resentment and tension in the relationship. So, it’s essential to have an open and honest conversation about it.

A 2009 study shows that the best way to approach a problem in a relationship is by using direct and positive communication. Positive communication includes being supportive towards your partner, working together to solve the issue, and expressing your feelings in an assertive but non-blaming manner. 16

When you’re discussing the issue with your partner, use I-sentences and avoid making assumptions or judgments. Don’t assume the worst, and remember that your partner’s lower libido could be due to a number of factors, such as stress, anxiety, or even medication.

Check out our in-depth guide on what to do when your partner has lost interest in sex.

5. What to do when you’ve lost interest in sex?

If you find yourself disinterested in sex, it’s important first to acknowledge your feelings and not blame yourself. A decreased libido can be due to several reasons—physical, emotional, or a combination of both.

Several studies show that factors like stress, anxiety and depression, certain medications, and relationship problems can impact sex drive. 17 18 19

The good news is, there are many things you can do to boost your libido:

For more advice on what to do when you’ve lost interest in sex, check out our complete guide here.

6. What to do when you and your partner have mismatched sex drives?

Mismatched sex drives are a common challenge for many couples. In fact, it’s one of the primary reasons couples consider therapy. A recent study from 2020 explored the various strategies couples employ when faced with this discrepancy in desire. 24

Communication stood out as a critical strategy. Those who took the time to talk with their partner about the disparity, or engaged in alternative activities together instead of pulling away, generally felt more satisfied in their relationship. 24

Thus, if you and your partner are experiencing mismatched sex drives, having an open and honest discussion about it is a good start. To delve deeper into this topic, check out our complete guide on how to deal with mismatched sex drives.

Consent is a fundamental aspect of any healthy and respectful sexual relationship. It’s an ongoing agreement that ensures both partners are comfortable and enthusiastic about any sexual activity. It involves understanding what you’re agreeing to before any sexual activity takes place. Also, consent only holds weight when it’s given freely, without any form of pressure, manipulation, or undue influence. 25

Consent is a cornerstone of a respectful and caring sexual relationship. It’s about ensuring that both partners are comfortable, respected, and excited about the experiences they’re sharing. Remember, consent isn’t a one-time event—it’s an ongoing process that can be given, withdrawn, or modified at any point.

Learn more about what consent looks like in relationships!

8. How can you share your sexual fantasies with your partner?

Sharing your sexual fantasies with your partner can be a positive step toward deepening intimacy and understanding each other’s desires. Here are two important tips to keep in mind when it comes to discussing sexual fantasies with your partner.

Create a safe space: Start by setting the stage for a comfortable and non-judgmental conversation. Choose a time when both you and your partner are relaxed and can have each other’s full attention.

Share your fantasy and encourage your partner to do the same: When you’re ready, share your fantasy with your partner. Understand that it isn’t a requirement to do everything that’s discussed—it’s about exploring and understanding each other’s desires. Also, make sure to listen to your partner’s fantasies without judgment or criticism.

For more advice on how to share your sexual fantasies with your partner, check out our comprehensive guide on how to talk about fantasies in relationships!

9. How do you create a safe space in a relationship?

Creating a safe space within your relationship is essential for fostering open communication, trust, and intimacy. How does one go about creating such a space?

Here are four essential tips to help you establish a safe space for open communication in your relationship:

1. Active listening: Make an effort to truly listen to your partner when they’re sharing their thoughts or feelings. Give them your full attention and avoid interrupting or judging. This encourages open dialogue and fosters a sense of being heard.

2. Respect boundaries: Everyone has personal boundaries and limits. Respect your partner’s boundaries and communicate your own as well. This mutual understanding promotes a feeling of safety and shows that you value each other’s comfort.

3. Avoid judgment: Create an atmosphere where both partners feel free to express themselves without fear of judgment. Acceptance and understanding, even when you don’t agree, can go a long way in fostering a safe space.

4. Honesty and vulnerability: Be honest about your feelings and thoughts, and encourage your partner to do the same. Vulnerability is a powerful tool for building trust and deepening your emotional connection.

Learn how to create a safe space in your relationship with our comprehensive guide!

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Author picture of Amy Clark
Relationship Expert

Amy Clark

Amy Clark is a freelance writer who writes about relationships, marriage, and family. She has been happily married for over ten years and loves her husband and three kids. Before …

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