5 Types of Intimacy and How to Build It In a Relationship

Intimacy is a feeling of closeness between two or more individuals. People often equate the word "intimacy" with physical closeness, such as sex. However, they are not the same thing. Sexual intimacy occurs when you combine the physical act of sex with emotional closeness. 

There are many nonsexual types of intimacy within romantic and non-romantic relationships. Deep conversations, hugging your kids, going on special outings, and providing support during a difficult time are all examples of building intimacy.

This article reviews different types of intimacy, how to build it, benefits, problems, and improving intimacy.

An illustration with information about how to build intimacy

Illustration by Zoe Hansen for Verywell Health

Intimacy in Relationships: What Are the Five Different Types?

Experts typically define intimacy within the following five dimensions.

Emotional Intimacy

Emotional intimacy with someone means you feel safe expressing your feelings, thoughts, or beliefs. You can openly discuss hopes for the future or difficult topics, such as fears, past trauma, or relationship issues. 

Physical Intimacy

Physical intimacy involves touch and includes hugging, holding hands, cuddling, kissing, and intercourse. While sex is one type of physical intimacy, there are many nonsexual examples of physical intimacy, including:

  • Children laying their heads on their parent's shoulder 
  • A mom looping her arm through her son's as they walk 
  • Best friends nudging each other as a sign they are being silly
  • A daughter touching her aging father's hand for comfort
  • Spouses touching their heads as they cope with unexpected news

In addition, you can have sex without intimacy and intimacy without sex. However, in romantic relationships, combining sex and intimacy can help create a stronger bond.

Intellectual Intimacy

Intellectual intimacy involves sharing knowledge, opinions, thoughts, ideas, and interests. This might involve:

  • Discussing financial goals
  • Sharing views about a news story
  • Reading the same book so you can talk about it later

Experiential Intimacy

Experiential intimacy is about spending time together and experiencing common interests. This type of intimacy might occur through a mutual love of sports, hiking, comic books, or board games. Bonds can also strengthen when a pair tries something new together, such as:

  • Taking a cooking class together
  • Going on a trip
  • Trying a new activity, like tubing

Spiritual Intimacy

Spiritual intimacy allows people to explore their inner beliefs, values, or philosophical views. It has many variations, such as:

  • A common religion
  • A belief that a higher power exists
  • Similar values and ethics  
  • Talking about the purpose of life

Examples of How to Build Intimacy 

How you build intimacy depends on the type of relationship. But, generally, it involves prioritizing the relationship, communicating, showing trust, and sharing quality time. 

Communication and Quality Time

You can build emotional intimacy by sharing emotions and experiences, both positive and negative. Enriching your communication can help you avoid misunderstandings and problem-solve more effectively.

Some people prefer to schedule times to have talks, while for others, communication occurs more naturally during shared activities. For example, couples may communicate best during pillow talk in the morning or before sleep. Parents and kids may find it natural to talk while driving home from school. 

The following tips can help make talking more meaningful and effective:

  • Minimize distractions (silence electronics)
  • Actively listen (listen with the intent to understand, not reply)
  • Try not to judge or be overly critical
  • Provide validation and reassurance

If you spend time apart, consider phone calls or sending a card, picture, video, or news story to touch base. 

Quality time is also essential. But, the definition of quality time differs between individuals. One person may see cuddling on the couch while watching TV quality time. Others may want to turn off electronics and instead talk or take a walk together.

Do Something Fun or New Together

You can spark experiential intimacy by doing things together. Ideally, activities should vary and occasionally include new adventures and scenery. 

Sometimes planning and anticipation are part of intimacy building. It can help you feel close as you prepare for the adventure and share the excitement. 

The following are ideas for new and old relationships alike: 

  • Take a class together (art, cooking, dance, yoga).
  • Go to a live music event.
  • Try rock climbing.
  • Go camping or sit out by a fire.
  • Explore nature.
  • Take a drive to somewhere new.
  • Play board games and listen to music.

Create Daily Rituals

Many families and couples have daily rituals that help strengthen their connection. Examples include:

  • Saying "good morning" first
  • Hugging when you leave for the day or return home
  • Eating dinner together
  • Texting throughout the day

Weekly rituals can provide anticipation for fun and provide a time to reconnect. This might involve:

  • Sunday brunch
  • Church 
  • Saturday morning cartoons 
  • Date night
  • Friday night movies and popcorn
  • Tuesday night bowling 

Nonsexual Physical Touch in Romantic Relationships

For those in a romantic relationship, try showing nonsexual physical affection. This might involve dancing in your living room, giving a back rub, hugging, or holding hands.

Additionally, it helps to work together as a team to get chores and errands done. This can help you reserve energy and carve out time for sexual activities.

Benefits of Relationship Intimacy 

Other types of intimate relationships can also provide social support. This may be through practical resources such as giving a ride home or offering the phone number of a good mechanic when your car breaks down. 

Close friends and family also build each other up during hard times. For example, when you're feeling low self-esteem, it might be helpful for your friends and family to remind you of your professional skills after a layoff.

Social support helps you cope with stress, have better health, and confront life challenges. In romantic relationships, healthy intimacy levels make life more enjoyable, provide more emotional stability, and enrich sexual interactions.

Why Someone Might Have Intimacy Problems

Some people may have problems with intimacy because they are unwilling to invest the time and energy to develop it. However, intimacy problems may stem from the following:

A person's closeness to their parents during childhood can also affect intimacy. People who felt safe with their parents during childhood tend to be more comfortable with intimacy than those who did not. However, people can learn intimacy in other relationships, such as friends or partners, and can come to feel safe in intimacy.

Signs of intimacy problems may include:

  • Isolation
  • Difficulty discussing feelings
  • Attempting to control a partner's behavior
  • Avoiding physical or sexual contact
  • Being overly suspicious or critical of a partner
  • History of unstable relationships
  • Anger issues
  • Low self-esteem

Some of these signs can work both ways, meaning that you either observe them in your intimate partner or you experience them yourself.

Mental Health and Chronic Pain

Mental health disorders and chronic pain can negatively affect intimacy by:

  • Reducing emotional thresholds
  • Distracting away from the partner
  • Causing feelings of numbness
  • Making one overly negative or pessimistic
  • Making it less desirable to do anything fun
  • Leading to substance abuse
  • Causing trust issues
  • Decreasing sexual desire
  • Not being able to enjoy closeness or social reward
  • Insecure attachment

The opposite is also true; intimacy problems can lead to mental health challenges like depression and anxiety.

Sometimes people with mental health challenges or chronic pain can have a hard time caring for other people. For example, someone with anxiety can seem selfish, but really can't consider another person's emotions because of their own racing thoughts.

Identifying Intimacy Problems

In general, you can assess the level of intimacy between yourself and others by body language, eye contact, and feelings of openness. Some signs that intimacy may be reduced include:

  • Lack of physical contact 
  • Lack of eye contact
  • Avoiding emotional conversations
  • Unwillingness to confide in each other 
  • More frequent frustration with each other's behavior 
  • Lack of trust

Do Men and Women View Intimacy Differently?

Research indicates that women initiate and maintain intimacy with their partners more often than men. 

Improving Intimacy: Support and Resources 

The first step in improving intimacy is identifying the underlying problem. For example, if painful sex is the underlying problem due to vaginismus, your healthcare provider may suggest treatment options that could include vaginal dilators; if the underlying problem is vaginal atrophy after menopause, your healthcare provider can discuss the suitability of estrogen creams with you.

If you're struggling with depression, a healthcare provider may recommend medications, talk therapy, or changes to your diet and exercise routine.

Overcoming Communication Problems

If you struggle with opening up verbally, you might consider:

  • Reading books or watching videos about communication
  • Consistently attending therapy sessions with a licensed provider
  • Journaling to process thoughts and emotions
  • Participating in communication training (course that enriches communication, conflict resolution, team building, and active listening skills)
  • Getting family therapy

Working Through Past Sexual Trauma

Past sexual trauma can make all types of intimacy, especially sexual intimacy, triggering. It’s very important that you go at your own pace and find a partner who respects your boundaries and makes you feel safe. 

However, even with the most gentle and kind partner, developing intimacy can bring up emotional scars you may need help tackling. You may benefit from a mental health provider, such as a psychotherapist or a certified sex therapist, or attending a support group. 

While there is no single right way for mental health experts to help, treatment may involve weekly therapy, practicing mindfulness, or a body map exercise.

Overcoming Fears

If you fear intimacy, you may find it helpful to identify defensive patterns and seek more constructive behaviors. 

It may help to reframe your thoughts the following process.

  • Identify and catalog critical thoughts
  • Gain insight into overly self-critical thoughts
  • Respond to the thoughts
  • Take action against those thoughts

Journaling can help you identify and challenge that critical inner voice. Through journal exercises, you can investigate how and why you resist intimacy and guide yourself through self-intimacy and personal discovery.

Here are a few journal prompts to begin your personal discovery:

  • What are my views about intimacy, including sexual intimacy? Are there any I’d like to change?
  • Do I have feelings of unworthiness? Where do they come from?
  • What are five things I love about myself?
  • How do I judge myself negatively? How can I change that?


Self-intimacy makes you more aware of your thoughts and desires. It helps you show yourself and others compassion and acceptance, make life decisions with insight, and be more authentic. Practicing self-intimacy means spending quality time with yourself. While this won’t be the same for everyone, you can try:

  • Journaling
  • Warm baths
  • Enjoying nature
  • Reading
  • Sitting by the fire with a cup of hot chocolate
  • Quiet leisure time (painting, pottery, gardening, etc.)


People often wonder how many dates it takes to develop an intimate relationship. This varies depending on previous life experience, the nature of the relationship, and the willingness of each person to open up and build trust. 

Mental Health Resources

The following strategies can help you maintain or improve your mental health, which can help improve intimacy:

RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline

If you are a survivor of sexual assault, you can contact the RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 to receive confidential support from a trained staff member at a local RAINN affiliate. 


Intimacy describes a sense of closeness in personal relationships. There are five types of intimacy; emotional, physical, intellectual, experiential, and spiritual. Intimacy is built through communication, quality time, and building trust. While many people use sex and intimacy interchangeably, they mean different things. Sex is only one aspect of physical intimacy. 

Problems with intimacy can be due to fears, chronic illness, abuse, and more. Interventions for intimacy problems or fears are specific to the underlying problem but may include therapy, journaling, or self-awareness exercises.

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By Brandi Jones, MSN-ED RN-BC
Brandi is a nurse and the owner of Brandi Jones LLC. She specializes in health and wellness writing including blogs, articles, and education.