Intimacy. We have all heard of it and we may even know it’s important in relationships but what is it and how do we create and maintain it? Intimacy is defined as a close familiarity or friendship; closeness. While it may seem this applies to romantic relationships, intimacy is important in non-romantic relationships as well. It is essential to forming connections with others that are deep, lasting, and healthy. We are first taught intimacy as babies when our parents hold us and give us affection. From there we begin to develop intimate relationships with others, offering them our vulnerabilities in order to build trust. Intimacy is actually good for our health. Those of us in intimate relationships tend to have stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, and decreased levels of stress.
Intimacy is often thought of as sex, but it’s more than that. At times we may want our partner to hold our hand or hug us. This demonstrates intimacy. There are actually 6 types of intimacy we will discuss here. I will share examples from my work with actual individuals and couples (names and details have been changed to protect privacy).
1. Physical Intimacy
This is the form of intimacy most people envision when hearing the word. It involves touching, cuddling, holding hands and yes, sex, kissing, etc. Physical intimacy is crucial to healthy and lasting romantic relationships. We must be able to touch one another to experience physical intimacy.
When Bo began to snore, Tammy tried to put up with it. She used earplugs, pillows over her head, and even wore headphones to bed hoping to drown it out. Eventually when none of these methods worked and she began to have restless nights, she eventually started sleeping in the guest room. Over time it became known as “Tammy’s room” where, like clockwork, she retreated each night. Over time, this took a toll on their relationship. They had less sex because it didn’t happen naturally in bed and it was tough to schedule. They used to sleep next to each other and would touch throughout the night. The absence of physical intimacy affected their closeness and they began to fight. Once they made it to counseling, we were able to determine that this had a part in their issues. Bo went to a sleep clinic and got a sleep apnea diagnosis and machine which resolved the snoring. Tammy moved back into the bedroom and their relationship began to improve.
2. Emotional Intimacy
While physical intimacy is displayed by physical touch, emotional intimacy is demonstrated through words and communication. This is not always easy as it requires vulnerability. It involves the perception of closeness to another person which allows for sharing of thoughts and feelings with an expectation of understanding and support. Emotional intimacy depends on trust and involves sharing our deepest selves with each other.
Tara was afraid to share with her husband Jeff some of her deeper fears that their blended family wasn’t going to thrive. She confided in me that she felt the mere mention of the issue might make it worse. She was also afraid of Jeff’s response which she perceived to potentially be negative. We worked through the pros and cons of being open, honest, and vulnerable. She finally decided that sharing her fears with Jeff was a good idea. She discovered Jeff actually felt the same and they were able to move forward more in sync and their connection of emotional intimacy strengthened.
3. Intellectual Intimacy
This is an area of intimacy many couples don’t consider. It occurs when we share ideas with each other in an attempt to exchange thoughts and views. Respectful back-and-forth discussions about topics further our intellectual intimacy with others. In couples counseling, I often suggest both people read the same article then get together to discuss their thoughts.
With the recent events in America surrounding race and the BLM movement, one couple told me in the first five minutes that they “blatantly disagreed” with one another in this area. They proceeded to argue about “black lives matter” vs. “all lives matter.” As always, I kept my personal opinions to myself and observed how they cut each other off and nearly yelled over one another. Both of them were clearly getting upset. We came up with an idea where each will gather two articles that best explain their point of view. They would exchange these articles then discuss them. Though I haven’t seen them since we came up with this plan, the wife emailed me and said “things are better” in terms of the two of them seeing more eye to eye. It is my hope that they’ll come to a place where each can respect the other’s view if nothing else. Just the mere sharing respectfully of their thoughts will strengthen their intellectual intimacy.
4. Creative Intimacy
This is another less-often discussed type of intimacy but one that is still important. Creative intimacy refers to expressing ourselves through our passions. This may be in the form of art, music, dance, physical activity like sports or some other creative outlet. When we engage in creative intimacy, we are opening up our creative side to someone else. We are sharing our gifts, talents, and passions and in turn, sharing ourselves.
Bruce and Patti didn’t think of themselves as particularly creative. However, during quarantine, Patti began to do paint-by-number pictures. She grew to love the quiet time spent painting and thinking. Bruce had no real desire to join in despite her asking. In one session, they complained that they “were doing so well with regular date nights until everything shut down.” We searched for ways for them to have a pseudo date night at home. Patti again asked Bruce to try painting with her. He was reluctant but agreed. They actually had so much fun that the next day Bruce went online and ordered some new pictures for them to paint together. Now it’s a hobby they both enjoy. Their shared creative intimacy has grown and they are exploring other ways to connect as this was a success.
5. Experiential Intimacy
This occurs when we share new experiences together. COVID-19 has brought many couples to experiential intimacy as they have been “forced” to experience things together. Sharing in these experiences brings us closer. This can occur in romantic relationships as well as friendships.
I see a woman who was trying to strengthen friendships when March rolled around and things began to close. She had joined a gym and a weekly class and was beginning to get to know the other ladies. Once the gym was no longer an option, we churned over different ideas on how she could continue with her goal. She decided to practice social distanced walking with a friend from the gym. With masks and distance, they began to walk together (yet apart). They could still talk while walking and were able to get to know each other better. This client reports that she now considers this woman a friend and is looking forward to finding other creative ways to make friends.
6. Spiritual Intimacy
Though this may sound as though it refers to religion, it is much more than that. This concept refers to the sharing of ideas of a higher level such as beliefs and values. While this could be through religion, it could also look like the sharing of mindfulness, personal growth, or meditation. It covers our need to look for meaning in this world. When we connect through spiritual intimacy, we are sharing these ideas with someone and hearing their points of view.
One of my regular clients has really embraced meditation. He shared that his whole family (“With the exception of my dad”) has picked up the practice and are benefitting. His mom’s blood pressure has decreased significantly, there is less arguing within the family, and this shared practice has brought them closer.
Though it is not always easy to develop intimacy, being open and vulnerable is the first step. Trust, honesty, acceptance, and compassion all important aspects of sharing intimacy with others. Therapists are trained to help clients look for blind spots. We all have them. If you could use help locating these blind spots, reach out to us and a licensed therapist will help you and your partner (or you on your own) develop more intimate relationships. Feel free to email me directly with any questions: email@example.com.
Sam Nabil was featured in many prestigious publications. Check out his interview with Aljazeera English, The Washington post, The Boston Globe, Fatherly magazine, Women's health magazine, Cornell university , Yahoo News, USA Today, Marriage.com
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