How to Build Intimacy with Your Partner
Let's get real: Relationships are an active participation kind of thing. Date nights get stale. Texts get misread. Energies get out of whack. Schedules get busy. If you aren't actively building that closeness, everything halts. And you and your partner can end up on opposite sides of the planet, metaphorically speaking.
"Intimacy is extremely important and is one of the main aspects of a relationship that makes it nourishing, rather than a burden," says Alexandra Stockwell, M.D., a relationship and intimacy expert and bestselling author of Uncompromising Intimacy. "You can feel supported or respected in a relationship with someone who is polite, considerate, helpful, and collaborative. But without intimacy, it will feel more functional than passionate." You want to be in relationships with people who want to be with you, not those who sigh and settle.
"This is not to say that intimacy will help you 'keep' someone or ensure that it'll be a long-lasting relationship," says Davia Frost, a certified sex educator and intimacy coach, and founder of Frosted Pleasure. "This is because you're an evolving being and your needs, desires, and preferences most likely will change or alter a bit."
But it's certainly important in cultivating and maintaining a fulfilling relationship. Wondering what intimacy is, exactly, and how to build it with your partner? Also, is all intimacy the same? Read on to hear what experts have to say and the intimacy exercises they recommend doing with your partner.
What Is Intimacy?
Intimacy is simply interpersonal connection, says Kamil Lewis, A.M.F.T. and sex therapist. "It's the ability to develop a level of closeness with another person or people."
Usually, intimacy is mentioned in relation to romantic relationships, but it has no such bounds. You can be intimate with romantic partners, family members, friends, and (yes) pets. Intimacy isn't a term reserved for pillow talks with a partner or candlelit dinners. You can bask in it everywhere if you let yourself. Yes, intimacy with yourself counts, too!
"Widening your definition of intimacy can help you access it more easily," says Lewis. It can happen in any of your relationships and takes on many forms — physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and experiential. And they're all important.
Physical Intimacy vs. Emotional Intimacy
Physical intimacy isn't synonymous with sex. They're often mentioned synonymously but "you can have intimacy without sex, and sex without intimacy," says Lewis. You can be physically intimate — in a non-sexual way — through cuddling, kissing, hugging, and hand-holding. (See: The Scientific Benefits of Human Touch)
"One of the delights of being in a relationship with someone is feeling comfortable and enjoying the sense of ease that comes with knowing someone," says Stockwell. Emotional intimacy is about feeling comfortable enough in a relationship to talk about the deepest corners of your mind. A key part of emotional intimacy is the ability to be vulnerable with another person. Letting them in and sharing your heart with them.
Where Does Intimacy Come from?
"Real intimacy comes from a willingness to reveal oneself and be genuine, without intending to manipulate another person's perception of you," says Stockwell. Feeling safe in a relationship and trusting them with who you are as a person. That's real intimacy.
Without vulnerability, there's going to be a lack of intimacy.
"When you demonstrate vulnerability, it also shows that another person can also be vulnerable with you," says Lewis. It's a classic you show-me-yours and I'll show-you-mine situation. There's both give and take in a relationship. It shouldn't be more of one than the other.
Everyone Gets Intimate In Their Own Way
Building intimacy with your partner will be a learning experience. It'll take effort to roll with life and readjust. "Who you were at the beginning of the relationship isn't who you are in the present day, and that's okay," says Frost. "When you're able to be intentional about creating the intimate container for your relationship, you're investing emotional, energetic, and vulnerable currency — which is a necessity."
To continue building intimacy takes a hunger for connection that's "stronger than wanting to stay comfortable and protected," says Stockwell. The beginning of a relationship feels new and easy because you both make the conscious effort to create intimacy.
But "a lot of people then use 'life' as an excuse as to why they can't make the same effort now," says Frost. It becomes harder to re-connect because you stop intentionally creating room for intimacy.
Every person and every relationship has a different go of creating intimacy. Some types of intimacy are easier to build onto because of personal past experiences and communication styles. "No matter what feels more challenging to you, give yourself permission to take your time to develop safety and intimacy," says Lewis. It's worth finding those aha! moments with another person. (See: How Your Relationship Is Linked to Your Health)
Your Relationship Will Do Much Better with It
"Intimacy is very important in a relationship because it helps deepen and sustain the personal bond and connection," says Lewis. "True intimacy allows the relationship to feel safe."
Safety is a resounding theme in building a healthy relationship. People are vulnerable creatures, but many people don't have the easiest time sharing that vulnerability.
"In most interactions, people are protective of their inner world — from cautious all the way to armored, when interacting with others," says Stockwell. "One has to be willing to reveal some of their inner world experiences, either explicitly or implicitly." It's crucial to feel seen and heard in a relationship. (Related: This One Conversation Radically Changed My Sex Life for the Better)
Allowing yourself to deeply connect with another person is a skill. It takes practice, patience, and grace to share your ever-changing life with someone.
How to Increase Intimacy with a Partner
"Couples should continue to work on building intimacy because you're evolving beings," says Frost. Intimacy doesn't develop on its own or if only one person is trying. It needs to be nurtured. Below, insights from Lewis, Frost, and Stockwell on practical exercises to do with your partner.
Take care of yourself.
"Self-advocacy is actually a great way to build intimacy," says Lewis. Treating yourself with respect and making yourself feel safe can make you more open to being vulnerable with someone else. This can include taking a few moments out of the day to check-in with yourself to see how you're feeling. It can also include masturbating, traveling solo for a day or two, going rock climbing for the first time in months, or sleeping in for a few hours. "Engaging in replenishing activities makes anyone a better partner," says Stockwell. "You're able to be more present, available, and less likely to be triggered."
Discover your communication style.
Everyone has their own style of communicating that's influenced by their love language (aka how you prefer to express and receive love) and that influences their conflict-resolution style (aka how you handle conflict). Some people are comfortable pouring their thoughts into a journal, whereas other people say exactly what they're thinking when they're thinking it. "If you do your personal growth work on your own, and don't share it, your partner won't know it occurred and it lessens intimacy," says Stockwell. Try taking the 5 Love Languages quiz from Gary Chapman, Ph.D., to get insight into your love language. Understanding your love language is a great way to gain your bearings on how you prefer to communicate your needs in a relationship. Have your partner take it as well, and use them as a jumping off point to discuss your communication and affection preferences and needs with each other.
Be curious about each other.
Let your curiosity wander and engage each other's emotions and intellect. Topics can be playful or serious — anything goes. "The key is for the person asking to be genuinely interested in what the answer is," says Stockwell.
Questions to consider, courtesy of Stockwell:
- How is life different now than what you imagined when we met?
- If you could wave a magic wand, what's one thing you would change about our lives?
- What do you daydream about these days?
- What are your challenges at work these days, and what do you hope to learn from them?
- If you could be in a band, which one would it be?
You can also spend a night in and get truthful with a fun question game like We're Not Really Strangers or a deck from The Skin Deep collection that aims to get super intimate, super fast with the people you play with.
Create a check-in code word or phrase.
It's hard to talk about heavy topics sometimes. But pushing through the discomfort can teach you new things about your partner. "Be open to talking about the uncomfortable and challenging feelings and experiences that are happening for you," says Frost. Find a unique way to let each other know when something is going on and you need to check-in. A simple phrase like "mental check-in" or "where's your head at" can do wonders for making sure you and your partner are on the same page. Approach tough conversations from a place of resolution, not judgment.
You don't have to do everything together. Though, a few carved-out moments spent doing something without distractions can be powerful. Lewis suggests playing a game that requires both of you to move around because it leaves space for physical touch. (Or give partner yoga a try.) Other fun ways to enjoy time together include starting a hobby together or playing a new game of any kind because you get to "create new memories that feel uniquely yours," says Lewis. You can also try doing a puzzle, going for an interrupted walk, or cooking a meal together.
Slow things down physically.
"Slowing down can help couples tear down the walls of goal-setting during moments of physical intimacy," says Lewis. You can play around with the idea of touch in ways you normally wouldn't. Stockwell suggests practicing a warm, full embrace — without any groping — for 30-seconds. Slowing things down can also include trying mutual masturbation, cuddling, taking turns initiating sex, or a good old make-out session. "The point is to bring awareness into the present moment with your bodies and sexual energy, and slowing down together for a change," says Frost. There's a sense of vulnerability in the new, and vulnerability is intimate gold.
Practice Sexual Breathing.
Try this Chakra breathing, a sexual breathing exercise, courtesy of Frost. Sit either on your partner's lap, genitals to genitals or Yab Yum, or sit facing each other, knees touching. "This a sexual energy breathing exercise that can really charge up all of your chakras and connect them to one another," she says.
Start taking a few deep and relaxing breaths, slowly inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. Visualize and feel how you're drawing energy into your root chakra (base of your spine) and sacral chakra (just below your belly button) while thinking about releasing any tension that might be stored there. Place your right hand over your partner’s heart center, and the left over their hand creating a circuit; have them do the same thing to you. Then incorporate alternate breathing: As you inhale through your nose, your partner will exhale their breath through their mouth for you to “drink.” Then swap, exhaling as your partner inhales your breath. Practice this for a few breaths, slowly working up to several minutes of breathing.
Try Eye Gazing.
An eye-gazing session to create self-awareness and intensify intimacy. Eye gazing is a simple but super intimate tantric sex practice that you can practice both while relaxing (read: sitting and looking into your partner's eyes) or while you're being physically intimate (with, say, these tantric sex positions).
Here's how, according to Frost: Sit facing your partner in a Yab Yum position (cross-legged with one partner sitting on top of/straddling the other) or facing each other with knees touching. You can try placing a hand on each other's heart center, hold hands, or wrap your arms around each other. Close your eyes, and focus on your breathing. Allow yourself to breathe deeply, with a long inhale and a long exhale. "Take note of any thoughts or feelings that arise, and then breath through them," she says.
When both partners are ready, slowly open your eyes and meet eyes. Look into the left eye of your partner and have them do the same to you. "The left eye is considered the receptive eye, so gazing into the left eye allows each partner to let the energy in, and to be in a receptive mode," says Frost. "Plus, it will stop the quick darting from the left to right eye as you both try to focus and center your breathing."
Focus in on your partner and continue to breathe deeply. You'll notice that your breathing will sync up, and possibly even your heart beat, says Frost. Just take a few moments to sit still and find comfort with your partner.