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  • Writer's pictureAnnelisa MacBean

Defining Intimacy

The word intimacy is derived from the Latin word "intimus," which means 'inner' or 'innermost.'

'Intimate' refers to a person's innermost qualities. Intimacy allows people to deepen and bond with each other in ways that go beyond the more superficial social niceties and everyday doings.

Upon hearing or reading the word, you may have quickly jumped to thinking about physical intimacy, but other forms of intimacy are just as important, especially when it comes to partnering relationships.

Physical intimacy IS important and is probably the primary medium of intimate exchange between humans. While a hug or holding a hand are both examples of physical intimacy, physical intimacy is most commonly a reference to sex. And while sex is vital in relationships, physical intimacy can be expressed through kissing, holding hands, cuddling, and skin-to-skin touching, stroking, massage, hair brushing, foot rubbing, and other creative means.

While some of these small physical demonstrations of affection may seem mundane, they can help partners cultivate a feeling of closeness. Small, intimate gestures create the foundation and prepare the nervous system for greater expressions of connection and presence.

Emotional Intimacy

Emotional intimacy is also a critical factor in relationships. Emotional intimacy is characterized by being able to share your deepest personal feelings with another. When partners experience emotional connection and intimacy, a sense of safety or security is fostered. Each person can be more motivated to share and reveal their tender insecurities, knowing that they will be received, affirmed, and cared about.

Examples of emotional intimacy might include having conversations about what you both want in the future, talking about things that you are worried about, exposing something painful that occurred in the past, discussing a stressful event at work or revealing a self-criticism or self-shaming tendency.

Intellectual Intimacy

Intellectual intimacy involves being able to share ideas, opinions, questions, and other thoughts with another person. You might not agree on everything, but you enjoy challenging each other and are able to consider the other person's perspective.

Talking about a book you have read, or a movie you've seen, talking about political philosophy or spiritual concepts and comparing your beliefs and reactions are all examples of intellectual intimacy in a relationship.

Experiential Intimacy

While couples don't have to be joined at the hip, shared experiences are important in healthy relationships. They're also often the way that relationships begin, so experiences can add an element of nostalgia to intimacy for long-term partners.

Spending time together, pursuing activities together, and participating in hobbies together are just a few ways that people can deepen this type of intimacy.

Spiritual Intimacy

While this type of intimacy can refer to religious ideas and beliefs, and it can also mean something more profound, like sharing actual beliefs and values. Your values and beliefs can align with religion but may also refer to values and principles of health and wellness, or parenting. Regardless, it's important to explore these critical aspects of your life with your partner.

Examples of spiritual intimacy include participating in religious practices, discussing topics like dying or death, or spending time together in nature and sharing a your wonder in the presence of the redwoods or the sea.

Obstacles to Intimacy

Sometimes intimacy can be difficult. A previously strong sense of intimacy may fade over time without proper nourishment.

Some circumstances that may impair intimacy include:

  • Conflict: It can be challenging to feel connected, engaged and intimate when you are always arguing with the other person. Feelings of resentment, anger, disdain or disgust and lack of trust can challenge your capacity to feel open, vulnerable and willing to be close to another person.

  • Stress: Life stresses such a work, illness, finances, children, and other issues can also erode a couple's intimacy.

  • Poor Communication: It's hard to feel close when you withhold your feelings and needs or are disconnected from yourself. Talking to your partner and listening to what they have to say is essential for building and maintaining intimacy. Learning to ask questions and receive the response without taking it personally is key.

  • Fear of intimacy: Sometimes, past relationship experiences or trauma can make it difficult to form meaningful connections with other people. When you unconsciously expect the past to repeat in the present or the future, it can be difficult to see that your partner is not your parent, and may likely be a safe and responsive resource.

Benefits of Intimacy

Intimacy occurs in a relationship as a result of each person being self-aware and personally responsible. Being intimate with yourself first forms the basis for connection and communication with another. It ensures that you will be OK, safe and self-caring whether or not the other person is entirely able to meet you, receive you and understand you. Intimacy is delicious when each person feels understood and both are able to be themselves. Intimacy with self first ensures that each person gets the care and comfort that they need and creates the foundation from which you can care for each other without expectation or the projection of your own need. Significant effects of intimacy include:

  • Increased sexual desire: In long-term romantic relationships, couples that develop and cultivate emotional intimacy experience higher levels of sexual desire and sexual activity.

  • Greater relationship satisfaction: Couples who prioritize intimacy with self, meaning they pay attention to their needs and are able to recognize how their partner's unique expressions of love supports them; these couples have deeper connections and tend to be more satisfied with their relationships.

  • Better physical health: People who foster intimacy in relationships tend to have better physical well-being. Being in a happy relationship can influence health to the same magnitude as diet and exercise and actually lowers the risk of chronic illness and death.

  • Improved mental health: Having close, intimate relationships is also pivotal for mental health. These connections provide social support that is imperative for well-being. It can also combat feelings of loneliness and help people better manage the extenuating stresses that accumulate in life.

In the next few blogs posts I'll share more on the ways couples can develop the skills and the capacity for intimacy with self, first, and then with each other!

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