- Emotional intimacy is important for resilient relationships and personal well-being.
- Intimacy occurs when people feel understood, accepted, and cared for in a way that is reciprocal and balanced.
- Successfully building intimacy in relationships requires continuous effort, skill development, and commitment.
- Start by listening to both the content and emotion of what someone is saying, then relay your understanding.
Emotional intimacy is important for resilient relationships and our general wellness. People who enjoy close relationships have greater health and well-being and a 50 percent greater likelihood of living a longer life (Holt-Lunstad, 2010) than those who don't. And research consistently finds that "people are most likely to thrive when they feel intimately connected to significant others.” (Pietromonoco, 2017).
Intimacy occurs when people feel “understood, accepted, and cared for” (Pietromonoco, 2017), Laurenceau, 1998; Reis, 1988), and can include both emotional and physical intimacy. Intimate behavior builds trust, warm feelings, and a sense of belonging and acceptance.
How do you cultivate intimacy, where others feel understood, accepted, and cared for? The following strategies could help. Like all other skills, they take practice and trial and error to enable greater competency over time. Commit to your practice and learning, and watch your relationships thrive.
6 Strategies for Intimacy
1. Seek first to understand.
Though it’s not your fault if no one taught you to be a good listener, listening is an important skill to develop if you wish to foster healthy relationships.
Effective listening requires focus. We should make an effort to not allow ourselves to be distracted by our phones, thoughts, or other concerns, and give our undivided attention to the speaker. Allow pauses in the conversation to give them time to share more, if they wish.
We should listen to understand both the content (what they actually say) as well as the meaning and emotion underlying what was said. For example, if someone says “I’m OK” but is unable to provide any elaboration, or their facial expressions are showing grief or sadness, then they may not be telling you the complete story.
You can listen beyond their words to get a more complete picture. What are they not saying? What do their body language and facial expressions tell you? Given what you know about them and their lives, what can you infer about their situation?
It’s important to avoid making assumptions, rushing to fix things, or running away (physically or emotionally) from a challenging situation. Instead, consider leaning into the conversation, use curiosity, ask questions, avoid judgment, and create a space for them to share and receive support from you if they wish.
2. Demonstrate concern and understanding.
It’s one thing to demonstrate our interest and concern by offering our undivided attention with body language (eye contact, nodding head, leaning in), verbal affirmations (appropriately placed “uh-huh,” “I see,” or “wow”), and curiosity (“You’re OK?” or “Tell me more”). It’s another to demonstrate that you heard accurately.
Reflective listening involves periodic summaries that demonstrate to the speaker that you heard accurately. On one level, summarizing the content in your own words shows that you heard what they said. On a deeper level, communicating how you make sense of the events shows that you’ve processed the implications of the narrative.
For example, “What I heard you say is that when you went to the store to buy a birthday present, a car T-boned you in the intersection, and now you are having chronic pain and financial issues” summarizes what might’ve been a story about their recent trauma. “This accident has caused a major disruption in your life, on multiple levels, in ways that I can’t imagine” demonstrates a deeper understanding of the story.
Communicating understanding should also include emotional content when it’s an emotional topic. If they state their feelings, include that in your reflective listening summary, “… and you stated that this makes you feel vulnerable and uncomfortable.”
3. Practice empathy.
Oftentimes, the speaker does not share their feelings. Though you might imagine how you’d feel in a certain situation (sympathy), imagining how they might be feeling and what they need (empathy) means that you can possibly be supportive in a way that matters to them. When someone is struggling, stating that you can’t imagine how it must feel for them is one way to express empathy for them.
People who are naturally empathetic, who literally feel the emotions of others, may have an advantage in that they can connect to the speaker’s emotions effortlessly. However, the empathic listener must also be careful to avoid confusing others’ emotions with their own. Check in to make sure you’re reading their feelings correctly.
Those who are not naturally empathic in this way may instead choose to ask. For example, “I believe I would feel outraged by that. How do you feel?” Or, “Your facial expression makes me think you’re feeling frustrated. Did I get that right?”
4. Offer affirmation and support.
After you’ve summarized content and emotion, it can also be valuable to check in to make sure they’ve said everything they wanted to say and that you heard them correctly. “Is there anything else you want to tell me?” and “Did I get that correct?” are easy ways to check in to make sure that you interpreted accurately.
Affirming their perspective and feelings, even if you disagree with the narrative or do not share their feelings, can help to further build trust. However, if the line of logic does not make sense to you, ask whether you may ask a clarifying question. The line of reasoning and resulting emotion should make some sense to you. Pause to let the feelings sink in and state that (given their view) that their response makes sense, that you get it.
If you wish to offer support, be specific about how you can help. For example, “I can’t imagine how challenging this must feel. Would it be helpful to join me one day for coffee so you can tell me more about it? Or if I came by to help with some babysitting?”
5. Share your personal truth without judgment.
This can be challenging if they perceive that you’re partly responsible for their circumstances. However, once they feel seen and heard, they may be more open to hearing your perspective. Remember that there is no absolute right or wrong when it comes to the subjective interpretation of facts.
Speak from a place of your personal truth and your own feelings, while avoiding negative judgments or criticisms. If you wish for them to behave differently in the future, be specific and clear about your request. Reiterate areas of agreement and commonality, and phrase differences as understandable and natural. Remember that agreeing to disagree is a success too and ultimately often the most sensible solution.
6. Reciprocity, growth, and commitment
Successful intimate relationships have balance, both a give and take in a way that avoids scorekeeping. Each party gives more than 50 percent since misunderstandings, misalignments, differences, areas of ignorance, and oversights take their toll.
Each contributes from their area of strength while also attending to their opportunities for growth. Therefore, the formula for each relationship will look very different and is not conducive to keeping score.
Commitment also implies that each person understands that a good relationship takes ongoing effort, patience, the benefit of the doubt, and forgiveness. There will be setbacks and misunderstandings, and commitment to making it work motivates each to keep trying.
These six areas might be collectively beneficial during periods of emotional intensity. Individually, these skills also benefit relationships on an ongoing basis, both in terms of gaining skill competency and investing in relationship success.
Though building intimacy is often hard and challenging work, the alternative is to resign yourself to disintegrating relationships wrought with conflict and stress. Committing to fostering intimacy instead helps us to understand, honor, and respect each other in light of our differences, which can be enriching to our relationships, worldview, sense of purpose, and ability to foster the solutions that are so needed in our modern lives.
Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB (2010) Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. PLOS Medicine 7(7): e1000316. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316
Laurenceau J-P, Barrett LF, Pietromonaco PR. Intimacy as an interpersonal process: The importance of self-disclosure, partner disclosure, and perceived partner responsiveness in interpersonal exchanges. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1998; 74:1238–1251. https://doi.org/ DOI:10.1037//0022-35126.96.36.1998. [PubMed: 9599440]
Pietromonaco, P. R., & Collins, N. L. (2017). Interpersonal mechanisms linking close relationships to health. The American psychologist, 72(6), 531–542. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000129
Reis, HT., Shaver, P. Intimacy as an interpersonal process. In: Duck, S.Hay, DF.Hobfoll, SE.Ickes, W.Montgomery, BM.Duck, S., Montgomery, BM., editors. Handbook of personal relationships: Theory, research and interventions. Oxford, England: John Wiley & Sons; 1988. p. 367-389.