People use the term “intimacy” very loosely, but, what exactly is it?

The meaning of intimacy varies from relationship to relationship. To me, it has to do with feeling a connection with another person. It requires empathy: the ability to stand in another person’s shoes.

Intimacy is both the ability and the choice to be close, loving and vulnerable. You have to know yourself in order to share your self with another. Knowing yourself makes it possible to be in an intimate relationship without taking over the other person or losing yourself to them.

Not so easy to do…

This ability to be separate and together is what I call healthy intimacy. It’s not obsessive, clingy or controlling. Unhealthy or unskillful intimacy typically results in problems like: getting too close too fast; struggling to set healthy boundaries, having problems sustaining a loving/friendly connection; fears of vulnerability and rejecting/fearing friendship with other people.

Most of us know that intimacy can be emotional and physical, but have you ever considered intellectual and spiritual intimacy? There’s a lot more to intimacy than you may have thought. Let’s look at the different ways we can connect and be close to someone – whether they’re a friend, family member or romantic partner.

Emotional Intimacy

Being emotionally intimate with someone means that you trust them and allow yourself to be open and vulnerable with them. You can talk to them about your most personal (and embarrassing) thoughts and share your joys and pain. You know each other’s worries, hopes and dreams.

Obstacles to emotional intimacy include anxiety, depression or anything else that makes it hard for you to maintain an emotional connection with someone you want to be close to.

Intellectual Intimacy

You may not have thought about this. But, our minds – as well as our hearts – want to connect with like-minded folks. Exchanging ideas and thoughts about things you think and care about helps build emotional intimacy. For example, you could talk about your favorite songs, books, poems, art or travel destinations as your minds connect in all kinds of fascinating ways.

Physical Intimacy

Lots of people think that physical intimacy is the same as sexual intimacy. It’s not. Physical intimacy is about affection, not sex. It may eventually lead to sex, but it’s about stuff like hugging, holding hands, cuddling on the couch or even kissing. It may be erotic, but it’s not about getting off.

Lots of people aren’t too good at this, and then wonder why their romantic/sexual relationships go flat so fast. Luckily, this is a skill that can be developed: start by paying attention to your physical reactions to others as well as your thoughts when you are physically close to someone you like.

Experiential Intimacy

This may be a new term to you, it means sharing experiences (and no phones, please) like taking a walk, biking, seeing a movie, or even sitting in a park or garden with another person. Notice if you feel connected or isolated. Just because we’re doing something with someone, doesn’t mean that we’re connected to them. Anyexperience has the possibility of intimacy: actually being present with the person you’re with is essential. Are you 100% with them, or are you thinking about something else? Are you listening to them, or rehearsing what you’re going to say?

An Intimacy Tune-Up

If you feel disconnected from people you love (or want to be close to), you may be in need of an intimacy tune-up. You could start by talking to the person/people you want to be closer with. Ironically, talking about intimacy can actually build intimacy in friendships and romantic relationships!

Being close, intimate and connected to other people is a skill. We are not born with great intimacy skills, we LEARN how to be intimate.

If you’re already good at it, that’s great. If not, know that you can begin to develop this skill by trying some of the above suggestions. If you do, don’t be surprised when you find yourself enjoying better-and-better relationships with friends, family, colleagues and lovers.