Intimacy is one of the most complex, fascinating, and rewarding aspects of human connection. We usually talk about physical and emotional intimacy in romantic relationships, but people can share intellectual and spiritual intimacy as well. While the idea of intimacy is simple enough to understand, many different factors can contribute to an intimate bond.
Creating intimacy is forging an emotional bond with another person based on trust and vulnerability. Indifference and lack of involvement will not result in intimacy. If intimacy is such an important and rewarding part of a relationship, how do we develop it? Why doesn’t physical intimacy develop in all romantic relationships? Can we experience both platonic intimacy and romantic intimacy?
Trust and care do not always go hand in hand with attraction. But when two people invest their relationship over time, they can foster the trust necessary to build emotional intimacy. Physical intimacy is easier to come by, but emotional intimacy can be much more rewarding.
We express intimacy through tenderness and affection. Physical affection is touch or proximity that symbolises friendship, love, or sexual attraction: hugging, kissing, holding hands, caressing, and massaging—with or without sexual undertones—are all physically affectionate behaviours. Physical affection can also be expressed through small actions, such as removing a piece of lint from your partner’s clothing, deliberately letting your fingers touch when your partner hands you something, even just sitting close together.
Partners who are very comfortable with one another might display affection in more unique and playful ways. Some of these might be downright silly, such as tickling or biting (with no intention of causing harm).
Emotional affection is fondness for another person and care for their wellbeing. Feelings of love and affection can take different forms depending on the type of relationship.
An emotional bond between two people isn’t necessarily restricted to just one kind of love and affection—in fact, it’s usually a mix of several kinds of love, even if one feels dominant.
Being open and honest about your experiences, boundaries, and expectations requires trust, especially when things are difficult. The presence of emotional affection influences conflict resolution between partners—emotionally healthy intimate partners are more likely to look for a way to solve the problem than for a way to win the argument.
If you want to resolve an argument respectfully, understanding the other person’s reactions and limits is very helpful. And this goes both ways: if you are not heard or understood then there is a lack of respect in the relationship.
An important step in forming an intimate bond with someone is getting to know who you are in relation to that person. Growing close to someone changes you, and it is important to be aware of what within you is changing; any two people who spend time together will learn things from each other and influence each other’s tastes and opinions, but you want to be wary of giving up a part of yourself that you don’t want to lose. Being true to who you are and valuing yourself is crucial in any relationship—it is simply information you need to be able to be honest about your needs and set healthy boundaries.
It is just as important to know who you are bonding with. You can only truly get to know someone by spending time with them and seeing what they are like in different situations. Mutual trust can only grow from honesty and openness.
Communication is a two-way street: articulating your thoughts is equally as important as being an attentive listener. When communicating with someone, we pay attention not only to their words, but also to their nonverbal cues. Nonverbal communication provides valuable clues to what a person is feeling. Tone, gesture, posture, and facial expression all convey emotion.
If a person’s feelings don’t mean much to you (or vice versa), there can be no intimacy. Empathy—paying attention to your partner’s feelings and respecting them—is absolutely essential. And empathy must be reciprocal—openness and trust are only possible if both partners feel safe and understood. Feelings of security cannot endure under threat. In an abusive relationship what may look like trust is more likely to be the result of manipulation.
To some vulnerability can seem like a weakness, but it is simply another state of being—we are more relaxed and malleable when we take off the social armour we wear from day to day. Being vulnerable leaves us open to getting hurt, but also makes it possible to give and receive affection. We must let down our barriers if we are to let someone in.
Trust builds slowly. It takes time to learn about another person and to understand what we can expect from them. Predictability is important because having an idea of what will happen makes us feel in control of our lives. As we observe how our partner thinks and acts, we develop a sense as to how they will most likely think and act in future situations. If they appear to be consistent and to have our best interests at heart, we can believe they will continue to do so in the future; thus, we can trust them.
Openness, honesty, and trust are also present in true friendship, but romantic relationships have the added romance and sexuality (unless one or both of the partners are asexual).
Although there is no universal formula that can be recommended to everyone, there are some tried and true approaches for building a healthy relationship with another person.
Cherish the good things in your relationship. Remind your partner, in words and actions, how much you love and appreciate them, what you value about them and about the relationship you have built together. Do this even if they already know—we all need reminding. In the midst of life’s stressors and responsibilities, kindness from your partner goes a long way.
Respect all of the feelings you have for each other. We’re not always delighted by the discoveries we make about the person we love, but it’s necessary to accept the reality of the emotions we face. Ignoring difficulties won’t make them go away but recognising things for what they are gives us the agency to decide how we respond. An ‘enduring relationship’ is called that for a reason—it can endure the pressure of life’s unpredictability, inevitable misunderstandings, and difficult feelings, and grow stronger despite it all.
Create opportunities for intimacy. Take the time to be together as a couple, time that you can spend focusing on each other and on your relationship. The harder this is to do (because of children, work, or other commitments), the more important it is that you do it. You don’t need grand gestures; you just need to be consistent and fully present. Sometimes the smallest affirmations can mean the most.
Let some humour into your love life, even into the serious parts. To avoid intellectualising emotions, you need acceptance, and acceptance comes more easily when you can take heavy subjects lightly. Learn to accept the unique flaws in your relationship (every relationship has them) and to tolerate the inevitable stumbles. You can even cherish the beauty in these imperfections (for there is beauty to be found), as long as you don’t let your relationship be defined by them.
Talk openly about your feelings and what you want from the relationship. Don’t avoid the changes and challenges that will (always, always) come. On the contrary! Embrace them and move in a positive direction. If you don’t nudge yourselves towards the kind of growth you want, you might drift toward unintentional changes that might not be so healthy. This is easier said than done, but with time your courage and effort will reward you with freedom, optimism, and a loving partner by your side.
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