Demystifying the 'I' Word: The 5 Types of Intimacy
Have you ever experienced or seen a marriage or romantic relationship that has been characterized as “roommates sleeping in the same bed”? This is a relationship that lacks serious intimacy. Unfortunately, that “I” word has become so taboo that when couples get in a rut, they no longer remember (or in many cases- never knew) how to talk about the intimacy of their relationship.
Intimacy can diminish due to many causes including; infidelity, relationship conflict, sexual disorders, selfishness, trauma, illness, side effects of medication, and major life changes, including having children. While one should never “blame” the lack of intimacy on children, parenting and raising children takes away so much time and energy, which can have a damaging blow on a couple’s intimacy.
The good news is that it is never too late to reignite that spark that once was there.
How is this done? By talking about it!
Couples are beginning to understand how indispensable good communication is to a relationship, but it might be more difficult to achieve ‘good communication’ on a subject that might be difficult to talk about- such as intimacy. Well, it might help to know that intimacy is not synonymous with “sex”. There are actually five different types of intimacy - ALL of which are important to maintaining and sustaining a healthy marriage or romantic relationship.
Here are the five types of intimacy and tips for how to talk about each type:
Physical intimacy is any type of physical touch that is non-sexual. This can include hugging, holding hands, cuddling, caressing and just being close to each other. Obviously, these actions can lead to sexual intimacy but they don’t and should not have to lead to it all the time.
Tips for talking about physical intimacy
Couples can talk about how they feel about different types of touch and if they like it or not. You don’t have to be “touchy-feely” to enjoy good physical intimacy, but you might have to make more of an effort to engage in it, especially if your partner is very fond of it. Soft and soothing physical touch can also activate the parasympathetic nervous system, making you more relaxed (great for anxiety) and can cause the brain to release oxytocin, which is a very healthy chemical in your brain that makes you feel good, makes you feel loved and is good for brain development (in children)- Oxytocin is also sometimes called the “Love” brain chemical.
You can also talk about the frequency and duration of different types of touch. You can compromise if you find discrepancies in your preferences for physical intimacy needs, or when certain times of the day might be better for that kind of intimacy.
Social intimacy is about having fun together. Can you laugh easily with each other, do you like hanging out with each other, playing games with each other and being in each other’s company? If you remember your dating days and how much fun you had with each other, you will notice that this made you feel closer to each other. It made you want to be with each other. This is social intimacy.
Tips for talking about social intimacy
You can talk about social intimacy by “remembering the good ole’ days” or by talking about things that you think could be fun to do together.
You can also plan dates, vacations, and events that will help increase your social intimacy.
It is also important to talk about activities that you like and dislike; don’t assume that just because you did it before, it is something that your partner will want to do again.
Spiritual intimacy refers to the connection you and your partner have with a higher power or just something greater than yourself.
Tips for talking about spiritual intimacy
If you are religious, you can connect with your partner through religious rituals and activities such as praying together, reading scriptures together, listening to or watching sermons together, etc.
If you are not religious, you can still cultivate spiritual intimacy in your relationship by mediating together, going on nature hikes together, engaging in meaningful service together, and talking about those meaningful topics such as the meaning of life, finding purpose, and even talking about personal values.
As mentioned previously you can talk about those deep and soul searching topics but you can also plan some of those meaningful activities and rituals. This becomes a little more tricky when there are large religious differences between couples but it is not impossible to achieve this important spiritual intimacy. Couples can work to find some common ground between religious differences or compromise and engage in some of those religious activities that are different from your own religious beliefs for the sake of joining and connecting with your partner.
Sexual intimacy is the most obvious type of intimacy, but it does not always necessitate sexual intercourse. Sexual intimacy includes all types of touch and sexually arousing experiences that bring a couple together. This kind of intimacy is also one of the most fragile. Because men and women have different sexual response cycles it is easy to “miss the mark” or to make it very one-sided. In general research has shown that men can achieve an orgasm about 90 to 95% of the time while women are closer to about 60% of the time. This does not mean that women do not need to be considered because they are less likely to achieve an orgasm with a sexual experience; on the contrary, it probably means that it is easier for men to just focus on their own arousal and forget about what would feel good to their partner.
Tips for talking about sexual intimacy
It is probably difficult to talk about sexual intimacy because of our own sexual socialization and the discrepancies of those experiences that normally exist between couples. The fallacy that many couples need to overcome is that talking about sex (even during sex) will not diminish the sexual experience. In fact, couples can lead and direct each other to what feels better for them and enhance their sexual experience. This usually takes some practice but it will be totally worth it.
For homosexual couples it might actually be a little easier since the sexual response cycle is the same for both partners. But communication about each partner’s sexual experience is still paramount to improve sexual intimacy (for heterosexual or homosexual couples).
Sexual trauma can also complicate and impede sexual intimacy, but couples can address that sexual trauma with professional help and still improve their sexual intimacy.
Saving the best for last, emotional intimacy refers to the connection that couples receive with connection through their emotions. Interestingly, if you are doing all of the previous intimacies correctly, emotional intimacy will always be present. Simply put, this is the type of intimacy that you feel with your heart. Emotional intimacy can also be achieved as a “stand-alone” intimacy through deep and meaningful discussion. The difference between achieving emotional or spiritual intimacy through talking is that spiritual intimacy is limited to those meaningful things that go beyond oneself, while emotional intimacy includes meaningful things about own personal and emotional experience.
Tips for talking about emotional intimacy
To achieve emotional experience through talking, couples need to learn how to go beyond the causal conversation that typically characterizes a couples communicative interaction. Instead of just asking, “how was your day?” you can ask more meaningful questions such as, “how did you feel about what he said?”, “what was your experience about that?” or “what is going on for you right now?” Many couples will take a broad or breadth approach to their communication, and while this is not bad, it will usually take longer for couples to achieve that indispensable emotional intimacy. But when couples take a depth approach instead, they are more likely to achieve that emotional intimacy more quickly and efficiently. This can be done by staying on an important and meaningful topic and continue to talk about that same topic (starting with what you think about something, to what you think about what your partner thinks about it, to what you feel about it, to what you feel about how your partner feels about it and lastly to what your shared experience with it is).
While emotional intimacy can come natural to some people (usually to women more than men), for many couples, it requires a conscious and intentional effort to improve. Just as with exercise, the more you practice striving to achieve emotional intimacy, the better you will get at it.
If you find yourself feeling less connected to your spouse or partner, don’t be afraid to have a conversation about it. It is never too late to improve intimacy in your relationship. For the partner that is a little more reluctant to work at these 5 types of intimacies, you should know if you put forth the effort to help your partner feel more connected in those 5 ways, the end result will be an increase in your own sense of connection with them as well. If you are doing it right, both partners will always benefit from that intimacy. It might seem like a chore to some at first to actually sit down and talk about something “meaningful” but when done right, it will always be worth it.
If you have tried having these conversations, and are not having much success, a trained therapist may be able to help.
Roubicek & Thacker Counseling is Fresno’s premier provider of individual, couples, family, and group therapy. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.