What is it that makes you feel closest to your partner? Here at Lion’s Den, we look to help build positive sexual wellness knowledge and techniques through our motto of “Pleasure, Passion, Romance.” But through all of these qualities, they share one common thread: intimacy.
Intimacy can be experienced by everyone in unique ways, some of which have hard definitions while others are simply experienced and felt. It’s important to keep a level of intimacy going in a relationship to keep sparks alive. It isn’t inherently sexual, and there are simple and effective ways to pick up on subtle forms as well. So what are these different forms of intimacy and how can they impact your understanding of relationships and help you benefit more from them? Let’s take a deeper look at intimacy.
Dr. Mariana Bockarova, a researcher at the University of Toronto, examines what she believes to be the seven elements that help define intimacy in an age where casual relationships are often very common in society. While teaching this subject, they found it to be the most well received idea of relationships studied within her Psychology course work. To students plagued in a climate of “ill-defined” relationships, the idea of intimacy became increasingly important.
One thing that sets apart casualty and intimacy is the depth of knowledge that is present in an interaction or relationship. Personal information, stories that only we have experienced, and other details that we may not be comfortable sharing with others are all factors that play into the knowledge we have of one another.
Dr. Bockarova acknowledges that within intimate relationships, couples tend to be much more highly interdependent on one another. She argues that this is where “each partner influences the other meaningfully” and comes in the form of decision making. This can be where the needs or desires of one can greatly influence the decisions of another, like moving locations to another state due to school or work, family, where to go for dinner or other variables and decisions in one’s life. Essentially, the needs of their partner match the needs of themselves.
The consistent effort of caring for your partner is another important aspect of healthy intimate relationships, Dr. Bockarova argues. However, this level of care exceeds the care that would be provided to someone outside of an intimate relationship. While you may care for friends and family, the care you put into an intimate or romantic partner may look extremely different in comparison. In its rawest form, showing concern for well-being and comforting when feeling distressed. Another quality of this is the overall effort to keep one another safe from harm, both physical and emotional. But while these elements of care can be presented to anyone, the difference between the care shown to intimate partners, Dr. Bockarova says, “tend(s) to display genuine, selfless care for each other.”
Arguably holding the other six components of intimacy together is trust. But while trusting one's opinions and confiding emotions and other personal aspects in someone is important, Dr. Bockarova describes it differently. “Trust is the confidence we place in another human being,” argues Dr. Bockarova. This confidence comes from the ability to believe that your partner will not bring you purposeful harm and that within your relationship, you can rely on them to act in a way beneficial to the both of you.
Being responsive to the needs of your partner is also incredibly important. This can be through simply recognizing when things are wrong and properly responding with the best methods of comfort. But ongoing support and understanding through both positive (e.g., new job, graduation) and negative (e.g., being laid off, money troubles) situations allows for a healthy intimacy between people. When these needs are met by both partners, the feelings of appreciation and love flourish.
For many people, when they are successfully navigating an intimate relationship, Dr. Bockarova notices a change from the individuality, to the cohesive nature of the relationship where “I” becomes “we”. Instead of saying “(Them) and I,” you substitute it with “we”. This collective nature shows a deeper connection within the relationship where the internal and external view becomes subjected to the collection of the two rather than the individual. While still defined individually by your own thoughts and interests, you become cohesive with your partner at the same time.
When intimacy flourishes, Dr. Bockarova recognizes the mutual stepping stone to commitment and the desire to continue for the foreseeable future. Within this time, it allows for the other six components to continue to grow indefinitely. With a continued relationship and consistent growth of these components, a couple can feel secure in the relationship and the intimacy shared between them.
Now that we have defined intimacy, let’s explore how we experience it.
The Four Types of Intimacy
Lifestyle journalist for Well+Good, Mary Grace Garis, analyses sectors of intimacy described by Alyssa Mancao, a therapist based in Los Angeles. These sectors are emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical. Individually, they present their own facets of intimacy, though many times they can overlap due to similarities or combinations of these sectors.
(Image courtesy of @alyssamariewellness on Instagram)
When people hear spirituality, it is often misunderstood for some religious meaning, though spirituality and intimacy can intersect in ways both including or never mentioning religion at all. Garis’ interpretation exposes the idea of spirituality including similar ethics and morals, while Mancao describes it as a respect for one's beliefs, a shared purpose or an ongoing initiative to be in touch with one another on a level that brings peace to one another. These shared values bring higher levels of spiritual intimacy through the mutual understandings they hold.
Mental intimacy can come in various forms on its own as well, though it normally associates itself with ongoing subjects or ones that consistently challenge you. Dr. Brenner describes this as something that can be “great wit and repartee” with these challenges, while for others, it can simply be engaging in thoughtful conversations over similar interests or life details. These passions behind a person’s personality are what feed into mental intimacy, and while it is mental, these passions can be stimulated with action as well. Activities that are shared interests can bring about mental intimacy when they are mutually enjoyed.
Garis describes emotional intimacy as being broken down into three parts: “slow down, keep it simple, and share what is hard to say.” These parts combine to process deep understandings of emotion and feelings that can impact a relationship or interactions with others. By conveying these emotions, you are communicating a deeper form of intimacy that shares vulnerability and exposes how you feel and how things impact you. Dr. Brenner stresses the importance of being earnest with these feelings. Granting yourself this level of vulnerability allows for emotional intimacy to be reached. As Dr. Brenner explains, “You can’t simultaneously protect yourself and be emotionally intimate.” Mancao expands on this idea by assuring that affection, care and ongoing affirmation of each other's feelings is equally as important.
The form of intimacy that is most known is physical intimacy, though this doesn’t necessarily mean sexual intimacy. This can come from simply being in close proximity to one another or through non-sexual touching like hugs or holding hands. Mental intimacy combines with physical intimacy a lot as mutual interest activities bring people together mentally and physically. Ultimately, this comfort that comes from the physical presence of one another builds connections and excitement between people, according to Dr. Brenner. There is a component of sexual touch to physical intimacy as well. This component could potentially link all four sectors of intimacy, allowing for there to be a spiritual, mental and emotional connection all at once while engaging in this physically intimate act. With physical touch and quality time both falling within physical intimacy, there may be potential links to love languages as well.
With all of these different ideas of intimacy and methods of recognizing or building deeper elements of it within relationships, it becomes increasingly apparent that it is only sexual is false. Intimacy allows for relationships to grow in a healthy, mature, and satisfying way by creating an element of comfort and bond with your partner. While it can be viewed and understood in multiple different ways, intimacy is a necessity for these relationships to grow and continue to benefit the people within them.