When we think of intimacy in a relationship, physical intimacy (hello, sex!) is typically the type of closeness that first comes to mind. But, according to relationship experts, intimacy goes beyond the physical. “Intimacy is the knowing of the person that we are with on multiple levels that bring us closer to them,” explains Tracy Dalgleish, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and relationship expert. “It’s a sense of being seen and understood — emotionally, mentally, physically, and sexually.”
So to feel as close, connected, and safe as possible within a relationship it requires more than just a healthy sex life, says Elizabeth Fedrick, Ph.D., a licensed professional counselor and relationship expert. Rather, to create a lasting relationship, couples must foster five types of intimacy: physical, emotional, intellectual, experiential, and spiritual. “When couples pay attention to and put efforts towards all five types, versus only physical, they develop a much deeper connection, closeness, and alliance,” she says. Read on to learn what each type of intimacy entails, why they’re important, and tips on incorporating them into your partnership.
Physical intimacy does, of course, include sex and address your sexual needs, but Dr. Dalgleish and Dr. Fedrick note that it also encompasses other forms of touch such as hugging, kissing, holding hands, cuddling, playful touch, back rubs, or other kinds of skin to skin activity. “Touch between partners releases a chemical hormone called oxytocin, which is also released during orgasm, and results in greater bonding and connectivity,” Dr. Dalgleish says. Dr. Fedrick adds that physical intimacy helps create safety and desire in the relationship and provides nurturing, fun, and novelty.
To help build more physical intimacy in a relationship, Dr. Dalgleish suggests creating a daily ritual around the type of touch that feels good for you and your partner. That can look like hugging and kissing in the morning, putting your head on your partner’s lap while lying on the couch, or holding hands while walking. And for strengthening sexual intimacy, Dr. Dalgleish recommends having honest conversations about sex including each other’s preferences, fantasies, and desires.
Arguably the most crucial type of intimacy, Dr. Fedrick says emotional intimacy focuses on vulnerability, trust, and honest communication, which creates a stable, secure partnership. One way to promote emotional intimacy is with weekly relationship check-ins. “These check-ins are scheduled for the same day and time each week and are about an hour of sacred time that is solely for checking in on the relationship,” Dr. Fedrick explains. “This includes getting to know each other on a deeper level, talking about what is going well, exploring areas of needed improvement, and collaborating on ways to continue to strengthen the relationship.”
Dr. Fedrick defines intellectual intimacy as mental stimulation amongst a couple. That can include thoughtful conversations, going on museum dates, or gently challenging each other’s perspectives. In other words, intellectual intimacy is about sharing your ideas and opinions, Dr. Dalgleish says. Here’s why this matters: “Intellectual intimacy is important for a relationship because it keeps partners from getting stagnant in learning and growing individually, which is crucial to keep a relationship fresh and interesting,” Dr. Fedrick says.
To build intellectual intimacy in a relationship, Dr. Dalgleish suggests planning date nights without devices and sharing your opinions about hot topics. “You might listen to a podcast together and discuss the ideas or read the same book and explore your reactions to the themes,” she says. The key, Dr. Fedrick adds, is that you choose an intellectual activity you both enjoy and in which you both feel safe sharing your true thoughts freely.
No matter how long you’ve been in a relationship, be sure to add adventures together to the top of your priorities list. This is referred to as experiential intimacy, which Dr. Dalgleish explains creates a sense of connection and provides opportunities to step out of the monotony of everyday life. Dr. Fedrick adds that experiential intimacy keeps both partners interested and excited and prevents the relationship from becoming boring, stagnant, or predictable.
Dr. Fedrick recommends shooting for at least two to four new experiences per month for a healthy dose of experiential intimacy. The exact details of what constitutes a “new experience” will differ from couple to couple, but some examples Dr. Dalgleish shares include taking a trip together, exploring a new city, playing a game you’ve never played before, cooking a new recipe together, or taking a different hiking path. To help keep things even more interesting, Dr. Fedrick suggests taking turns planning the new experience or adventure.
Spiritual intimacy allows couples to connect on a deeper level about something bigger than themselves, adding another layer of knowing one another, Dr. Dalgleish says. According to Dr. Dalgleish and Dr. Fedrick, spiritual intimacy can look many different ways depending on the couple. Examples include participating in religious practices, worshipping together, or having conversations about your spiritual beliefs and values. That said, Dr. Fedrick notes that spiritual intimacy is not limited to religious practices. It can also include mindfulness activities such as meditation or breathwork that involve being present and grounded together. “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,” Dr. Fedrick says. So no matter the activity, the important thing is that you engage in spiritual intimacy together, which helps strengthen the bond in the relationship.