When we talk about being intimate in a romantic relationship, we often equate it to sexual intimacy. But sex is just one form of intimacy.
“Intimacy is a process whereby we feel truly seen, known by and connected to our partner,” said Jennifer Kogan, LICSW, a psychotherapist who provides individual and couples counseling in Washington, D.C.
And this can manifest in many ways. Here are other types of intimacy and how you can nourish each one.
Being emotionally intimate with a partner means that you can talk to them about your innermost thoughts, said Michael A. Giordano, LICSW, a psychotherapist, who specializes in couples, sex therapy and non-traditional relationships in Washington, D.C.
You’re able to share your joy and pain with your partner. “It’s the person you can cry with.”
Kogan agreed. “Truly understanding your partner, being able to be vulnerable, and share feelings is key to emotional intimacy.”
She cited John Gottman’s Sound Relationship House, which features seven components of healthy relationships. One component is building love maps, which is how well we know our partner’s psychological worlds, their history and hopes, and their worries and joys.
You can build love maps by asking open-ended questions and really listening to your partner’s responses. Kogan shared these examples of questions: “What has it felt like for you being a father to our new baby? Where do you see yourself living or working/retiring in 5 years?”
Giordano also stressed the importance of being honest with ourselves. If you’re feeling emotionally disconnected from your partner, explore what might be underlying this disconnection. “It could be a host of reasons. It could have something to do with your partner or yourself.”
For instance, one of Giordano’s clients wasn’t emotionally connected to their partner because they were drinking every night. Maybe you’re feeling disconnected because you’re still upset about something your partner did or you’re keeping a secret.
Other issues such as anxiety, depression or any kind of ongoing stress can affect an emotional connection, he said.
This includes “exchanging ideas and thoughts about things you think and care about,” Kogan said.
For instance, to deepen your intellectual intimacy, you might share your favorite songs, poems or books, she said. “You can even have an intimate book club for two where you read a book and discuss.”
You also might share your thoughts about life in general or interests such as volunteering and places you’d like to travel, she said.
Physical intimacy is not the same as sexual intimacy. It’s essentially being affectionate with each other, which can include everything from hugging to holding hands to kissing to cuddling on the couch.
Again, if you’re feeling a disconnect here, Giordano suggested exploring why. For instance, if your partner tries to massage your neck, but you’re shrinking away, consider where this reaction is coming from, he said. Pay attention to your thoughts and the reactions you have to your partner’s touch.
It’s also helpful to talk about it (or to talk with a therapist), he said. If your partner is the one who seems to be disconnected from you, ask them about it. Avoid “creating a story about what’s going on with them.”
First, ask your partner when they’d like to talk. This way they “can be prepared and don’t feel attacked.” Approach the conversation with kindness. If either of you finds your emotions are escalating and you can’t be kind anymore, take a break, and agree to talk another time, he said.
Also, when talking to each other, have a “spirit of inquiry and understanding.” For instance, Giordano suggested these statements: “I’d like to hear more about that. How would you feel about that? What’s that like for you?”
Couples don’t have to do everything together, but it’s important to share some experiences (without any distractions, such as electronic gadgets), Kogan said. For instance, this might include taking a walk, biking, seeing a movie, or even sitting in a garden, she said.
Spiritual intimacy is sharing awe-inspiring moments together, Kogan said. This might mean “worshipping as a couple” or “walking hand-in-hand in nature.”
If you feel disconnected from your partner in any of these areas, again, it’s important to talk to them (or see a therapist). In fact, talking to your partner about intimacy can actually build intimacy, Giordano said.
In other words, if you’re able to be open and honest with each other, to listen to what your partner is saying and to try to understand where they’re coming from, then you’re already nurturing your connection.