What is Intimacy?

Intimacy is a close familiarity or closeness between two people. Due to cultural changes across the world, we have started to relate intimacy with sex or romantic relationships. Although these are some forms of intimacy, there are more types of intimacy as well. For example, when we feel loneliness or a lack of emotional closeness with others, our society encourages us to look for solutions through intimacy in marriages or marriage-like relationships. However, there are so many other types of intimacy that can help us with this! We can find this in our platonic friends, at work, through our volunteering, and even within our families.

Trevor Noah is a South African comedian and host of The Daily Show. In one of his most famous episodes, he spoke about how men confuse their loneliness as being caused due to lack of sex when it’s actually a lack of intimacy! In reality, the absence of emotional intimacy amongst friends, family, or even their partner can lead to such loneliness. Due to the way our society genders emotions, men have more commonly found it difficult to experience non-sexual intimacy with their friends. This lack of closeness or comfort can lead to feelings of isolation even in personal relationships. Compare this to how much more acceptable it is for women to be each other's confidants, express their vulnerabilities, and feel emotional closeness with their friends.

How To Build Intimacy?

One of the biggest challenges of building intimacy in personal relationships is being vulnerable to and with your feelings. It requires immense trust in any kind of relationship to express your true feelings. It is possible for this self-disclosure to not be reciprocated or accepted in the way we want. This is why many of us shy away from enabling this emotional closeness to build stronger personal relationships.

However, we encourage you to understand the different types of intimacy so that you can slowly but steadily create different relationships that can support you more holistically. It might be difficult in the beginning especially if you are not used to it but the destination will make the journey worthwhile. Think back to the time when a close friend or family member did not share their struggles with you even though you would have helped and supported them. It must have felt isolating for you, but can you imagine the loneliness they would have felt? This is also how others feel about you! This is your green light to start developing relationships where you feel seen and safe to express yourself and strengthen your bonds over time.

The 4 Types of Intimacy

There are 4 different types of intimacy: physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. Each relationship can have one or more types of intimacy co-existing. You can also build multiple relationships that provide you different types of intimacy so you are never left wanting.

Physical Intimacy:

Physical intimacy can be developed through bodily touch and physical contact. This could take the form of hugs, kisses, holding hands, back rubs, or caresses. The importance of physical contact begins early in our lives and is why many medical experts recommend skin-to-skin with mothers and their newborns.

According to UNICEF UK Baby Friendly Initiative standards, skin-to-skin calms and regulates both the mother and child, lowers stress (cortisol) levels in the baby, and ultimately helps the parents bond with their child. As we get older and develop friendships engaging in safe touches such as hugs with our friends or even sleepovers allows us to feel close to them. The simple act of touch has been shown to reduce perceptions of loneliness and support emotional communication.

Physical intimacy also encompasses romantic relationships and your sex life with your partner. Cuddling, foreplay, and kissing can be a great way to build closeness regardless if it ultimately leads to sex or not. Having said that, sexual intimacy is only one part of physical intimacy. You can experience non-sexual physical intimacy in your relationships too. It can be hugging your friends, going dancing with them, sharing space with your cousins, learning pottery with your partner, and more!

Of course, it’s always important to respect other people’s boundaries and be communicative about the types of touch people in your life are comfortable with. You don’t have to do anything that you feel physically uncomfortable doing.

Emotional Intimacy:

Developing emotional intimacy with one another starts with trust and transparency about our range of emotions. When two people are honest about their thoughts, worries, and dreams they can develop an open line of communication. This allows them to feel close to one another over a period of time.

Talking about our emotions proactively involves active listening and thoughtful responses by the other person. It cannot be one way — if you find yourself being ridiculed or judged by the other person, you will hold yourself back. That’s why it is important to find the right support system for us. It could be your family, your partner, your friends, your colleagues, or even your therapist!

One thing to be mindful of is avoiding trauma dumping. Relationships are two-way streets and sometimes the other person may not have the bandwidth to support you because they are going through their own struggles. Sometimes our friends and family need a place to vent and other times they want advice. If you’re not sure of what they would need, the easiest thing to do is to ask.

It’s also important to create a space where we feel safe to share our thoughts free of judgment. Many times emotional intimacy is the foundation of our friendships as we bond over a breakup or a fight with our parents. It is always comforting to know that we are all collectively experiencing both the good and bad in life and can do so together.

In romantic relationships, being honest and truthful with each other can open up the space to reflect. Many couples engage in end-of-the-day recaps to provide these spaces. You can also include affirmations to develop intimacy in your marriage or relationship further.

Intimacy is also strengthened when we share what the other person is doing that may hurt us or bother us in some way. Being able to communicate disappointments as well as joys will make future expressions easier.

Intellectual Intimacy:

Curiosity is one of the best qualities to have in order to cultivate intellectual intimacy. This form of intimacy involves the sharing and discussion of ideas, concepts, and perspectives. Expressing curiosity in learning new topics while remaining open-minded to each other's perspectives can be a great combination for intellectually invigorating conversations.

Think of the feeling during an exciting lecture where every student is sharing their thoughts and bouncing off of each point. The energy in the room when everyone is excited to talk about a topic can be extremely invigorating. We can see this with classmates, colleagues, mentors, and professors. This is also why being part of larger communities and alumni networks give us a sense of belonging. In classrooms where curiosity is encouraged, people don’t feel uncomfortable or judged. They don’t censor self-disclosure and express their thoughts and opinions freely for the sake of learning.

In our friendships or personal relationships, it could be simply discussing a topic in the news or expressing interest in the other person's career. We don’t have to be experts to develop intellectual intimacy. It’s about sharing thoughts in a way where we aren’t debating for the right answer but looking at all sides to grow together.

One way I like to cultivate intellectual intimacy with friends or dates is to ask them broad questions that can get their (and your) thinking muscles fired up. Some examples are discussing political beliefs, working on new things together, taking up a new class to learn a new language, going to lectures and workshops, and more.

Spiritual Intimacy:

Spirituality and religion are a single game in which each one of us is on our journey. Yet, all of us find a sense of belongingness. The ideas we individually hold about the purpose of life or our morality are the most intimate thoughts we hold. They allow us to navigate our life with a sense of direction and purpose.

Many people find this spiritual intimacy in the communities they belong to. In India, it’s also common to be a part of a guru system where people come together to worship or pray. Many also practice meditation and attend courses like Vipassana or camps that help them find this spiritual intimacy.

Especially now in a politically and religiously charged world, it can involve a lot of vulnerability and fear about expressing our spiritual beliefs. However, finding like-minded people that operate with a similar moral and spiritual compass as us can provide a lot of security about our place in the world.

Encouraging and Experiencing Intimacy

It’s interesting to see the different forms of intimacy and how some of our relationships are rooted in one form more than another. Just like there are different types of love languages, there are also different types of intimacies that we experience with people.

You might be thinking back to relationships where you’ve practiced all four forms of intimacy in the same relationship without even knowing it. One of the best examples is the relationship I’ve shared with my female friends. We bonded over school stress, comforted each other with hugs during tough times, and learned new things together. These laid the foundation of many of my early childhood friendships which I hold dear even today.

The relationships I’ve struggled with the most have been with my family and romantic partners. I think sometimes we get so caught up in the role the other person plays in our life that we forget they are also human. They may also need support and love from us.

In reality, nothing exists in a vacuum. The best relationships will be the ones where you can be all versions of yourself, to varying degrees but nonetheless. I encourage you to take note of the four forms of intimacy and try to work on the ones that might have been neglected.

Give your friend a nice big hug the next time you see them, ask your partner about why they chose their career, talk to your siblings about their views on religion, or wish your nervous colleague good luck before their presentation. I like to look at intimacy as an openness to the human condition, acknowledging in all the things we do that we are collectively figuring it out together.