Your Guide To The Types Of Intimacy & How They Can Affect Your Relationships

When we think of intimacy, we usually think of it in regard to sex. Intimacy, after all, is about being close and vulnerable with someone, and sex definitely includes these aspects. But it's certainly not the only way to be intimate with another person. Intimacy, as a definition and how we experience it with others, is more than just one thing.

"Intimacy involves the desire to deepen your connection in an authentic way," psychotherapist Alyssa Mancao, LCSW told Oprah Daily. "So while some might experience sex as the ultimate act of love, for others, it could be a means of avoiding closeness. Never assume that having sex automatically signals intimacy. It's about the intention behind it and the feelings surrounding it."

If we think of intimacy as an umbrella term for all the ways one can be intimate with their partner (or a close friend and family member), it takes the concept of intimacy out of its box and opens up new ways to experience intimacy — and even reclaim intimacy. Within that experience, couples can see how each type of intimacy affects their relationship and, if need be, make space to strengthen the types that might need some work. Intimacy isn't just something that's automatic in any relationship. It's something that takes time and effort. But it's also something that makes being in a relationship a safe and healthy place to be. 

Emotional intimacy

When you have emotional intimacy in your relationship, you can bear your soul in ways that are raw and real. You know you can put it all out there without fear of judgment or feelings of shame, and your partner can do the same. All emotions and feelings, the good and the bad, can be safely put on the table for you both to see and your relationship is better for it.

"Emotional intimacy could be defined as allowing yourself to connect more deeply with your partner through actions that express feelings, vulnerabilities, and trust," neuropsychologist Sanam Hafeez, Ph.D. told NBC News. "Part of a relationship is sharing your secrets, talking about your relationship, and telling your partner important news. A couple is generally happier when both parties can share and understand each other's feelings."

Emotional intimacy isn't something we can have with just anyone. It's something that builds out of deep and profound trust. Sometimes that trust can take a while to achieve, while in other cases, the connection is just right so it can happen relatively quickly. No matter when it enters the picture, it creates a safe space where no emotion and sharing of those emotions is out of place.

Physical intimacy

Before you start thinking that physical intimacy is all about sex, it's important to realize that sex is far from the only way that people can be physically intimate. What constitutes physical intimacy is on a spectrum and different for each person and couple — especially considering some couples don't have sex, at least not in the way that the media tends to portray it. But no matter how physical intimacy comes into play, it involves physical touch which in turn creates and strengthens emotional bonds.

"Physical intimacy can entail things like hand-holding, cuddling, sitting closely next to each other, or any other skin-to-skin contact that feels good to you," therapist Madeline Lucas, LCSW told Well + Good. "The goal of physical intimacy is again to create a feeling of closeness that feels beneficial to both parties."

According to a 2014 study published in Frontiers in Psychology, oxytocin is released when intimate touching occurs. Even what researchers call "low-intensity stimulation of the skin," like holding hands, stroking one's arm or face, or anything that involves a safe type of touch, can induce the release of oxytocin as a response. Oxytocin is paramount in creating bonds between people, whether they're lovers or mother and child. A strong bond is not only what keeps couples together but inspires them to want to do what it takes to make the relationship work.

Intellectual intimacy

One doesn't have to be an intellectual to have intellectual intimacy. Also known as cognitive intimacy, this is about being connected by sharing ideas and opinions, all while knowing that even if these differ, they encourage stimulation and mental growth. It's a sign of respect for the individuality of each person in the relationship, as well as their thoughts, fears, goals, and the past that made them the person that they are.

"A couple who takes the time and effort to build intellectual intimacy into their relationship is actually building a strong cohesive structure for their relationship and building commitment to each other for the future," counseling psychologist Gopa Khan told Bonobology. "Such relationships can survive storms, ill health, harsh circumstances and over time, become a strong partnership." 

Intellectual intimacy is the backbone of relationships because it involves a level of practicality and realistic expectations. As Khan points out, these relationships survive and strengthen because both partners know nothing is perfect and there's no such thing as smooth sailing forever. Rough patches and curve balls are inevitable. In knowing that from the get-go, you can mentally prepare, as opposed to having the rose-tinted glasses ripped from your eyes when you least expect it. It's about being fundamentally aware as a team and weathering what comes your way.

Spiritual intimacy

Contrary to the word "spiritual," this type of intimacy doesn't have to involve religion — although it could, if both you and your partner are religious people. Spiritual intimacy is about sharing beliefs and values, seeing the world and humanity in the same way, and being connected by that sameness. While intellectual intimacy is about respecting each other's differences in regard to thoughts and ideas, spiritual intimacy calls for both people to be on the same page. Although there's wiggle room for some debate, ultimately, trying to build a future with someone who doesn't share your values and ethics is going to be a whole boatload of difficulty. It would be on par with a pacifist trying to forge a loving, long-term relationship with a warmonger.

"Even if you don't have a spiritual practice that you already engage in, get creative in exploring ways you can foster safety and connection in your inner worlds," licensed professional counselor and relationship expert Elizabeth Fedrick, Ph.D. told TZR. Like religion, spirituality is a personal belief system, but it's an aspect of ourselves that we share in intimate relationships. It doesn't have to be steeped in the concept of a higher being or going to a place of worship once a week. It can be a belief system that is in line with the human experience right here on earth. It encompasses a way of living and participating in this whole journey and knowing you have a partner who's along for the ride.

Experiential intimacy

As the name suggests, experiential intimacy is about experiencing things together that not only strengthen a bond in the moment, but create memories. It's the fun stuff every relationship needs — some couples might define this as recreational intimacy. "Experiential intimacy is the type of closeness we feel to someone when we are having a special experience," therapist Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT told Brit + Co. "For example, when you and your partner go rock climbing together or see your favorite band perform. Experiential intimacy adds excitement and novelty to a relationship."

According to a 2000 study published in the Journal of Personal and Social Psychology, couples who partake in "exciting" activities together have greater relationship satisfaction. It's the novelty of experiencing something new together that affects the brain's reward system, therefore "altering your brain chemistry," which can enhance feelings of passion and romantic love, as anthropologist Helen E. Fisher, Ph.D. told The New York Times. "You don't have to swing from the chandeliers [...] Just go to a new part of a town, take a drive in the country, or better yet, don't make plans, and see what happens to you," said Fisher. If you focus on the concept of "new," it will help guide you in the activities you and your partner plan to explore and experience together.

Not all relationships can have these five types of intimacy perfected and that's okay. Because relationship satisfaction changes over time, according to research, you can't expect each type of intimacy to always be at 100%. But as long as the effort you and your partner put into these intimacies is 100%, that's what really matters.