This Is What Healthy Intimacy in a Relationship Really Looks Like

Lacey Johnson
Photo credit: Adene Sanchez
Photo credit: Adene Sanchez

From Oprah Magazine

If you find yourself hoping for deeper intimacy—an important element in any serious relationship—or want to breathe life into a marriage that's losing its pulse, stay with us. We spoke to the experts to discuss what the four types of healthy intimacy look and feel like—the emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical—and why intimacy is essential to our overall well-being. And, we gathered tips for how to foster—and sustain—its presence in your life. The first step? Lean into self-love and learn to be vulnerable. Next, begin to show up for your partner in small, thoughtful ways day to day, listen closely to their desires and needs, and give them plenty of breathing room to stretch themselves and evolve. Read on to better understand the meaning of intimacy, and how to have an intimate relationship.

In order to understand what intimacy is, let’s be clear about what it isn’t.

Intimacy means you're willing to expose the most private angles of yourself, while allowing your partner to do the same. “So much of intimacy involves shedding your ideas about who someone is or should be, and honoring their reality,” says Alyssa Mancao, LCSW, Los Angeles-based psychotherapist.

However, there is a swirl of misconceptions surrounding what defines an intimate relationship. “For one, intimacy is not a trauma bond,” she says. "A healthy bond can’t be built on shared trauma alone.”

Intimacy isn’t co-dependency or one partner acting as the other’s savior, either, according to Mancao. A healthy intimate relationship doesn't involve shutting out the rest of the world. Rather, it makes plenty of room for personal goals and fulfillment outside of the relationship, she suggests.

And while “being intimate” with your partner often refers to crawling under the bedsheets with them, sex is only one way to feel close. “Intimacy involves the desire to deepen your connection in an authentic way. 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,” says Mancao. “It’s about the intention behind it and the feelings surrounding it.”

Intimacy means allowing yourself to be honest and vulnerable.

To be in an intimate relationship, you have to allow yourself to be fully seen for all that you are and declare to your partner, "This is the truth about who I am and who I want to become."

Dr. Caroline Leaf, cognitive neuroscientist and author of Switch on Your Brain: The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health believes that, before you can experience intimacy, you must embrace all aspects of yourself and take full, compassionate responsibility for what you bring to the relationship.

Intimacy is not only important, but beneficial.

Humans are biologically hard-wired for connection, and Dr. Leaf says being intimate with loved ones hosts a world of benefits—from brightening our mood to promoting physical longevity.

Lydia Denworth, science journalist and author of Friendship, says there is a group of neurotransmitters that are activated by intimacy and released in the body: oxytocin, endorphins, dopamine and serotonin. “Put simply, they make us feel good and the evidence is starting to build that interacting with people you perceive as close is physiologically rewarding,” she says.

The first type of intimacy is emotional, which involves investing in each others feelings.

Emotional intimacy is the willingness to praise your partner when they land the job of their dreams, but also affirm and comfort them when they don't close the deal. It’s listening when they feel anxious, triggered or wounded in some way. Essentially, it’s operating from an attitude of care and support in response to whatever your partner is communicating to you through the lens of their emotions—even in instances where you may not understand or align with them.

“Emotional intimacy is showing your partner that you’re concerned with how they feel, and being willing to listen to all of it—the good and the bad,” says Mancao.

The second is mental intimacy.

Although the lines between emotional and mental intimacy are easily blurred, this one is about tapping into your shared interests and values. It might include talking about the books or films that intrigue you or the philosophies that resonate with you. Or, it could be topics as simple as hobbies or sports that enliven you. “You know you’re engaging in mental intimacy when you’re lost in thoughtful, meaningful conversations with your partner," says Mancao.

Spiritual intimacy is also key, though you don't have to share the same beliefs.

Where do you find meaning in your life?

The beautiful part about initiating spiritual intimacy is this: the only requirement is that you extend respect and support to this area of your partner’s life. In other words, your beliefs do not have to mirror theirs, only honor them.

Finally, theres physical intimacy, which is not exclusive to hot, passionate sex...

Yes, physical intimacy is worthy of celebration (though it might be enjoyed by some more than others, depending upon the individual’s love language), but it is generally no more significant than the emotional, mental, and spiritual facets of cultivating closeness. And while physical intimacy might involve sex, it's not limited to that.

Humans are diverse in nearly every possible way, which means some are more sexually-driven than others. “Sexual intimacy is often put on a pedestal, but we need to normalize that couples can be deeply in love and extremely intimate, but not be having sex all of the time,” says Mancao.

In other words, while pleasuring your partner is a worthy expression of physical intimacy, so is reaching for their hand while going out for dinner, stroking their hair as they fall asleep, offering a massage after they’ve had a stressful day, or pulling them close to you for a tender embrace.

So, then, what are the most common intimacy killers in a relationship?

Betrayal and mistrust—of the sexual and non-sexual variety. “Betrayal isn’t just about cheating, as is often assumed. It could mean lying about your finances or divulging embarrassing information about your partner. And it’s one of the fastest ways to destroy closeness,” says Mancao.

And then there is another big offender—gaslighting and manipulation. “If anything can destroy intimacy in a relationship, it’s having your reality be denied,” says Mancao.

But there are a slew of other behavioral habits that are much more sneaky, such as avoidance, stonewalling, and being overcritical, dismissive or close-minded with your partner.

If you fear your relationships intimacy is suffering, there are ways to resuscitate it

To begin, Mancao suggests carving out at least 30 or so minutes every week to go beyond the small talk and get real with your partner. “Ask deeper questions covering your emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual needs,” says Mancao. “Be honest about how you feel and about the specific things you desire—in the relationship and beyond.”

And if you’re struggling to find inspiration within this arena, UC Berkeley published a list of thought-provoking questions to get you started.

But don’t stop there. “Let’s say you've told your partner repeatedly that you want them to be more affectionate and you still aren’t satisfied. Be willing to consider that their interpretation of affection might be different than yours,” says Mancao. “So, instead, you could say, ‘I need you to kiss me before you leave for work,’ or ‘I need you to sit closer to me when we’re watching movies.’”

And finally, when your partner listens, show your appreciation—or else you risk creating a mixed bag of defeat and withdrawal. “Resist the urge to say, ‘Well, you’re just doing that now because I told you to.’ If you truly want to rebuild your intimacy, acknowledge that they're trying,” says Mancao.

Know that if you want intimacy to endure, you should give your partner the freedom to evolve.

The longer you're committed to someone, the more you'll have to unlearn who you believe they are, and relearn who they are becoming. Intimacy involves the willingness to accept the inevitability that your partner will experience shifts in interests and priorities over time.

Denworth says that the hallmark of true intimacy is a relationship that is positive and cooperative—even through times of change. On that note, to help intimacy grow, Mancao suggests that you never stop being curious about your partner. “Although you may have been with them for so long that you think you know everything about them, be willing to be surprised and learn something new,” she says.

But the ultimate secret to intimacy? Its how you show up in small, consistent ways.

The magical ingredient to creating a deep connection lies in the daily effort you put in.

It’s not about the big, dazzling moments, but the simple ones we often race through. For example, it could mean shooting a thoughtful text to your partner during their lunch break. Or, it could be that you set the coffee pot to brew and hang a fresh towel for them by the shower before bed. It’s knowing your partner’s needs, and being transparent about your own.

“Intimacy is about what happens in the day to day. From loving acts of kindness to sharing that you're excited to see them, its foundation is always trust and vulnerability,” says Mancao. “And, most of all, it’s loving each other through that willingness to trust and be vulnerable—whatever that uniquely means for you.”

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