When we think of intimacy, we often think of sex. However, there are at least four types of intimacy that don't involve sex or touch at all—but are just as impactful in a romantic partnership.
Ahead, therapists break down all five types of intimacy and why we need to foster them all to create a more holistic connection and closeness with your partner.
What is intimacy in a relationship?
Intimacy is the feeling of closeness and interconnectedness with another person, and it's the bedrock of a strong, long-lasting relationship. Intimacy can exist in all types of relationship, from friendships to family relationships to romantic ones.
"The best way to describe intimacy is to think of it as a connection," certified sex therapist Kristie Overstreet, Ph.D., LPCC, LMHC, CST, writes at mbg. "If you want to be intimate in some way, you want to connect."
While people associate intimacy in a relationship with sex, that's truly just one type of intimacy: the physical kind. Sex can be an important part of committed relationships, but they also require sustainable rapport beyond just chemistry in the bedroom.
Without types of intimacy besides physical, "the relationship can start to drift apart or remain at a very superficial level," says marriage therapist Hilda De La Torre, M.A., MFT.
As psychologist Karin Anderson Abrell, Ph.D., previously told mbg, intimacy in relationships creates a feeling of social support. "A myriad of studies1 find those of us with solid and reliable social support fare better in a variety of realms—including our emotional and psychological well-being and even our physical health," she notes.
The 5 types of intimacy in a relationship:
Intimacy and sex are widely considered synonymous, and it makes sense why: Intimacy is about closeness, and intercourse is about as close as possible to another human that we can physically get.
Physical intimacy is about creating feelings of closeness and connection through using your bodies and physical touch, which can include sex as well as non-sexual touch, such as kissing, various types of hugs, and just cuddling.
According to marriage therapist Kiaundra Jackson, LMFT, touch is important to relationships because it triggers the release of oxytocin and other feel-good hormones. "Oxytocin is known as the bonding hormone. That hormone is the same hormone released between a newborn baby and its mother, which is why skin-to-skin contact is highly recommended for bonding after childbirth," she previously told mbg.
- Sexual intercourse
- Oral sex
- Holding hands
- Sitting close together
- Any type of skin-to-skin contact you ordinarily wouldn't have with someone
Emotional intimacy involves candid, authentic sharing of thoughts and feelings. It involves being able to tell each other your deepest fears, dreams, disappointments, and most complicated emotions, as well as feeling seen and understood when you do. Emotional intimacy means both you and your partner feel safe and comfortable with this type of uninhibited expression around each other. This "safe space" is cultivated by each person refraining from judgment or contempt when the other is sharing.
We confide in people whom we trust. That doesn't mean they always tell us what we want to hear, but we believe they won't repeat anything we share in confidence. We also don't expect them to embarrass or belittle us.
- A couple has a long, tender conversation about what they want out of their relationship, as well as what's still scary to them right now. They emerge from the conversation feeling closer than ever and more understood by each other.
- A woman comes home and tells her partner all about a stressful incident she experienced at work, including feelings she didn't feel safe expressing to her co-workers at the time. Her partner asks questions to help her process the experience and validates her emotions.
- A man expresses that his partner maintaining relationships with exes makes him uncomfortable. His partner works to empathize with his concerns instead of making the case that he's paranoid.
- A woman confides in her spouse that she's unhappy with her body after having a baby. She trusts her partner to offer comfort and help her come up with solutions if desired rather than dismiss her feelings.
- A person shares with their partner that they were bullied as a child. Their partner is attentive, takes the situation seriously, and offers a ton of emotional support.
Comfort with communicating beliefs and viewpoints without worrying about potential conflicts creates intellectual intimacy. Each person in the relationship has the freedom to think for themselves and believes that their opinions are valued—instead of feeling pressured to agree. This atmosphere encourages stimulating conversation. You feel closer to the person who cares for you independent of differences and respects your voice.
- Partners debate the importance of a college education. Neither feels the need to be "right." They just enjoy hearing the other person's rationale.
- A couple disagrees about which actor played the best Joker. Each person understands that their theory is strictly opinion-based and enjoys the back-and-forth.
- Spouses discuss the purpose of existence. They don't believe there's a concrete answer to the question, "What's the meaning of life?" Each entertains ideas they may not have considered otherwise.
- A couple reads and discusses a book together. The two are eager to compare their takeaways instead of telling one another what the author meant.
The term sapiosexual refers to someone who finds intelligence sexually attractive or arousing. Allowing for thought-provoking conversation that challenges each person's ideas is another formidable method of bonding in a relationship—as long as no one feels personally attacked.
Shared experiences lead to inside jokes and private memories that can intensify a connection. The act of teamwork and moving in unison toward a common goal while creating an experience also establishes a feeling of closeness. This bond is the result of experiential intimacy.
"Our memories are closely linked to our senses," relationship coach Kingsley Moyo tells mbg. Moyo references how we can recall the odor of burned rubber even if we haven't smelled it in a while. He likens experiential intimacy to social media actions, stating that "we tag people and events with an associated sense." Moyo goes on to explain that recalling moments triggers involuntary sensory reactions. If the moment was pleasurable, it prompts that same energy when relived.
- A couple trains for and runs a marathon together. This allows them to support and push each other toward a confidence-building achievement.
- Partners cook a joint meal. One prepares the entrée, and the other makes dessert or side dishes to help foster teamwork.
- A couple goes for an extended bike ride. Someone is responsible for planning the route while the other packs snacks and water.
- Two lovebirds visit a city neither person has been to before so that both will discover it for the first time, together.
Religious practice isn't necessary for spiritual intimacy, though it can serve the purpose. This closeness forms when you share poignant moments with your partner. Though praying and worshipping as a couple could qualify as one such moment, there are many other examples of spiritual intimacy.
- Partners watch the sun rise (or set) together, jointly marveling at the phenomenon.
- A couple takes a walk through the park while holding hands—enjoying the beauty of nature, as well as each other.
- Spouses connect as they stand in quiet awe, overlooking the Grand Canyon.
- Partners discuss their ethics, sense of purpose, and personal definitions of spirituality. The discussion deepens their understanding of each other.
- A couple reads a few passages from their religious text before bed every night. Doing so helps them relax and feel mutually attuned with a power greater than themselves.
Spiritual intimacy allows for transcendent connection—beyond logic and conscious thought. It helps to be deliberate in improving this type of closeness. Although, sometimes, these instances may just happen since they can occur outside your realm of influence.
How to build intimacy in a relationship:
Increasing physical intimacy:
In addition to making sex and physical touch priorities in your relationship, there are many ways to have more romantic sex too, such as making use of eye gazing, kissing, and more intimate sex positions with your partner. Some people also draw a distinction between "making love" and having sex, which can help you think about the ways in which you infuse intimacy into your sexual experiences.
Increasing emotional intimacy:
You can foster emotional intimacy in your relationships by engaging in deeper, more introspective conversation together, talking about emotions and experiences you don't usually share with others. Likewise, ask your partner thoughtful questions and be curious about the way they think and feel. Listen to understand rather than waiting to respond. Always be careful not to invalidate their feelings, so that you can establish an environment conducive to open, honest dialogue.
Increasing intellectual intimacy:
You can create more intellectual intimacy by sparking discussions where you and your partner have different perspectives. Make a conscious effort to have these talks without growing defensive or angry. Disagreement isn't a requirement, however. You can also discuss ideas and abstract concepts that you're exploring together. This type of intimacy is about connecting through logic and philosophical expression.
Increasing experiential intimacy:
Embark on new adventures with your partner to increase experiential intimacy. Plan activities that you haven't yet done together. Or schedule a standing date to meet at the same restaurant so that it becomes your spot.
Each person in a couple can have separate lives. You don't have to collaborate on everything, but it's crucial to have shared experiences. This way, your intimacy is interwoven with memories and acquired knowledge. It exists in multiple spaces.
Increasing spiritual intimacy:
Talk about spirituality with your partner so that each of you can discover experiences that the other considers awe-inspiring. Then, regularly schedule time to engage in those and similar endeavors. The good thing about spiritual intimacy is that you don't have to exert much effort aside from creating opportunities. Let the moment do the work.
What to do about fear of intimacy.
If the vulnerability required to achieve intimacy feels scary or foreign, you're not alone. "Fear of intimacy holds a purpose, and most likely it's protection," De La Torre says, but all that means is that you need alternative ways of feeling safe.
People who are afraid of being intimate often have the desire, she says, but the fear of being hurt and disappointed is stronger. The first thing she does with clients in this situation is to explore what's getting in the way. Often, the client is holding on to a negative experience. De La Torre's advice for overcoming fear of intimacy is to "start with building an intimate relationship with yourself," so that you can get comfortable with the feeling.
(Here's more on how to overcome being scared of love.)
The nonphysical types of intimacy listed here are four types of relationships that you can have with the same person. Healthy relationships involve relating on multiple levels, not just physical. Learning to engage in open, truthful communication, as well as working to understand your partner, will help establish the intangible feeling of closeness that will strengthen your love life.
Acamea Deadwiler, M.S., is a freelancer writer, speaker, and the critically acclaimed author of Single That: Dispelling the Top 10 Myths of the Single Woman. She has a bachelor's degree in public and environmental affairs from Indiana University Northwest and a master's degree in marketing and communications from Valparaiso University. She's a former Top 100 Contributor on Yahoo! with more than one million page views, and her work has been featured at New York Post, Blavity, FOX, and elsewhere.