What you need to know about intimacy in a relationship

In the context of a romantic relationship, intimacy can be difficult to define. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines it simply as “something of a personal or private nature.” But that doesn’t even begin to tell the whole story.

Intimacy in a romantic relationship is about emotional connection, about feeling comfortable enough to fully let one’s guard down. This gives you and your partner the freedom to share innermost secrets and feelings, a process that can be incredibly beneficial, even (or perhaps especially) to those with the hardest outer shells.

Intimacy is also very elusive, with true intimacy only coming about after long periods of dedication and trust-building. Sexual intimacy may be the headline-grabber, but it’s not possible without emotional, mental, and even spiritual intimacy.

Here we’ve researched and compiled a pocket guide to intimacy in a relationship. Although this is by no means comprehensive or ideal for every couple–only you and your partner can determine your ideal–it does provide basic guidelines for understanding and making yourself more open to intimacy. Intimacy is by no means limited to romantic relationships, but that’s where we’ll focus here, with the caveat that many of these ideas can in some form apply to friends, family members, or even work colleagues. Let’s get to it.

Communication is critical

Some couples have difficulty achieving intimacy, or perhaps it appears but doesn’t stay around long.

This can be the case for many reasons, but many can be explained by communication, or a lack thereof. Trust is the foundation upon which intimacy is built, and the foundation of trust is communication.

Communication involves both talking and listening. In the context of intimacy, talking means expressing your feelings, thoughts, and needs, including those you wouldn’t necessarily share with the pizza delivery guy. Likewise, listening means paying close attention when your partner shares his or her feelings with you–and doing so without disrespect or judgement. After all, if you don’t feel properly heard during a conversation in the living room, how can intimacy be expected to magically appear in the bedroom?

Fortunately, the solution is just as common as the problem–talk to each other! And if a lack of consistent intimacy is the proverbial elephant in the room, don’t be afraid to turn and face it.

Not every conversation needs to be a two-hour confession session. Trust can build in small bursts, so treat every conversation as a chance to better understand, or be better understood by, your partner. Remember also that trust is built in happy moments as much as serious, so don’t be afraid to keep things light. No reason this can’t be fun.

Intimacy is built up over time

Trust, and the intimacy that results from it, cannot be built in a day.

There’s no magical timer here. The time it takes depends on you and your partner’s relationship dynamic, your individual tendencies, and the investments you both make (or don’t make) in communication.

To help build intimacy, look for opportunities to do so. Again, any time is a good time. Progress isn’t always predictable or linear, and that’s OK. The important part is remembering that you’re together on the journey and simply taking the steps.

It can’t just be sex

Sex is an important way to unlock intimacy in your relationship. The natural closeness, literally and figuratively, that sexual intercourse necessitates is a natural means of developing bonds.

It may be tempting to put all of your intimacy eggs, so to speak, in the basket of sex, expecting this powerful act of love to do all the heavy lifting when it comes to developing intimacy with your partner.

But relationship experts agree: sex can’t do it all on its own. Partners need to know they are in a safe space where they can be vulnerable–a key step in developing intimacy. Without the emotional closeness and trust that only comes from lowering your defenses, sex cannot foster true intimacy.

Intimacy can be hard to find in some relationships, though for others it can be easy. But the level of ease or the amount of time are beside the point. When it comes to intimacy, the proof is in the pudding. If you both stay patient and work hard to cultivate your relationship, and you are indeed compatible overall as romantic partners, your reward will be trust and intimacy not just in the bedroom but every room in the house.

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