Intimacy is a complicated word and it refers to much more than you might think. Some of us might think of “being intimate” with someone as having sex with them, but physical intimacy is just one of the four types of intimacy.
Four Types of Intimacy
Dr. Carolina Pataky, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Clinical Sexologist, and Certified Sex Therapist, says that “intimacy is an essential component to the human experience as it encapsulates the closeness individuals seek in personal relationships.” She continues that “intimacy tends to be erroneously linked to sex. In reality, sex is merely one component.”
So what are the other types of intimacy besides the one sex gives us? According to psychotherapist Alyssa Mancao, LCSW, there are four types of intimacy: physical intimacy, emotional intimacy, mental intimacy, and spiritual intimacy.
There is also platonic intimacy you can have with a friend, but this article focuses on the four types of intimacy you can have with a romantic partner.
Clinical psychologist Daniel Sher says the simple definition of physical intimacy is “using touch to foster closeness.” This touch can involve holding hands, cuddling, massaging, hugging, kissing, having sex, or any other kind of touching.
Touch is not inherently intimate一it must be intentional. (Think of brushing your shoulder against a stranger’s walking on a busy sidewalk. There is no intimacy created there just because you touched.) Sher continues that “physical and emotional intimacy go hand-in-hand,” explaining that sex is only intimate when there is “an emotional component to it.”
Couples therapist and author Katherine Bihlmeier agrees with Pataky above that people misidentify sex as intimacy automaticallys: “Just because you had sex with someone doesn't at all mean you had intimacy. It just means you had sex.”
Make your sex more intimate by communicating with your partner about your feelings around sex, staying present in your body during sex, and developing the three other forms of intimacy together.
“Emotional intimacy is allowing someone to see the parts of yourself that you're not proud of, that are not curated to present a specific image of yourself,” says marriage and family therapist Sara Stanizai. “Deep down we are all afraid that if someone sees the ‘real’ us, they will run screaming for the hills. When you are vulnerable enough to let someone see an uncurated version of yourself, that builds intimacy.”
While emotional intimacy uses communication through words instead of touch, author Dr. Oleg Svet believes that adding some physical touch can help deepen emotional intimacy, like if one partner is hesitant to share something personal or emotional in a conversation, “the partner can hold their hand to signal, ‘You're in a safe place. You can express yourself to me.’”
On a day-to-day basis, there are many ways to foster emotional intimacy. Svet shares that checking in emotionally with your partner with a “Are you OK? Just wanted to make sure” can go a long way, especially when you’re both busy or your partner is being unusually quiet. He also suggests carving out time and space for your emotional bonding every day by creating rituals. ”This can range from stretching out or meditating together in the morning, to have a hard-stop on everything related to your career by seven o'clock in the evening.”
Stanizai’s advice for couples looking to build emotional intimacy? Practice showing a side of yourself that you usually don’t. Pick a topic to talk about that you usually avoid, “whether it's work, family relationships, your personal fears, a memory that you regret, or anything else that is usually glossed over,” and share that. This will build trust and vulnerability, which are key for cultivating intimacy.
Dr. Oleg Svet continues that emotional intimacy is unlike mental intimacy even though they both involve language. Mental intimacy “often centers around topics beyond the couple's relationship like politics, books, movies, sports, or intellectual subjects.”
Also called “intellectual” or “cognitive” intimacy, Dr. Carolina Pataky says mental intimacy is “when a couple is comfortable sharing and exchanging thoughts and ideas” and “is part of how a couple aligns their values, learns from each other, and finds ways to push each other forward.”
Pataky says that to practice this type of intimacy, remain respectful of one another’s differences while you communicate, and enjoy hearing one another’s point of view.
As you might guess, “spiritual intimacy includes the sharing of our higher beliefs and values,” Pataky shares. However, she says it does not need to be our religious views: “It can be a journey of inner growth, a mindfulness practice, a group affiliation, or a shared belief.”
Like mental intimacy, it connects to something outside of the couple, but like emotional intimacy, it is about sharing something personal about yourself. Share your own beliefs with your partner, and ask about theirs to become more spiritually intimate.
The Sweet Spot
When you combine all four forms of intimacy, you’ll take your relationship to the next level. It’s OK for a couple to have a preference for one or two of these forms over others, but true intimacy is achieved when all four types are explored deeply with trust and honesty.
Sher believes that communication is “the single most effective tool that you have at your disposal in order to deepen intimacy on all levels. Speak openly and honestly about your feelings regarding intimacy in your relationship. If needed, enlist the help of a relationship therapist to help ensure that these conversations are as productive as possible.”
Bihlmeier cautions that all kinds of intimacy are actually not really about your relationship or your partner: “Intimacy always starts with yourself. If you are not willing to be present with yourself and receive with total allowance what is going on in you on all levels - emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual - you can't have intimacy.”
The bottom line
Ultimately, all four types of intimacy are about connection一connecting with your partner and yourself on new levels and in multiple ways. Make yourself vulnerable by opening up physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually with your partner and you’ll be on your way to building a stronger and more intimate relationship.