Intimacy in Relationships: Sex Isn’t Enough

A major issue for many couples entering therapy is a breakdown of intimacy.  According to Yoo, et al (2014) emotional intimacy is an important indicator of relational satisfaction.  Often times, as a relationship progresses, moments of intimacy are sacrificed due to any number of issues: work, parenting, illness, family needs, etc.  Whatever the cause, sooner or later many couples begin to measure their level of intimacy by how frequently (or not) they are having sex. 

Sexual intercourse can certainly be an important aspect of intimacy in a relationship, but many times it is only one facet of relational intimacy.  Intimacy itself is usually a feature of a sexual encounter but it can just as often be lacking.  Intimacy itself is much harder to define, it can be as grand as a surprise vacation Hawaii that has always been the dreamt of, or as small as a shared glance from across the room at a party.  Intimacy is an invisible bond between people, not just in romantic relationships.  Laurenceau and Kleinman (2006) have gone so far as to say that this sense of closeness to others is a necessary component of human wellbeing.      

The good news for those who feel that intimacy has been lost is that it can be rebuilt.  It takes a lot of effort, from everyone involved in a relationship, but once restored it will yield dividends.  Here are some examples of how to rebuild intimacy: 


  • Spending time together is the most obvious.  Creating, or adapting, daily routines to include more time together can be a great first step.  Does it work to go to bed at the same time?  If not, can you get ready together in the morning?  Can an occasional date night be set aside to recapture the feeling of courtship? 


  • Making time to catch up each day can be a great way to reconnect.  Knowing how a partner’s day went, or what they have coming up can help build a sense of solidarity.  Finkbeiner, Epstein, and Falconier, (2013) found that this type of daily assessment can mitigate other relationship stress. 


  • Non-sexual physical touch can be an effective way to attune to a partner mood.  For example, snuggling, a hug as you pass in the hall, or holding hands are all great ways to establish a connection. 


However it is approached, intimacy must be built slowly and consistently.  


Finkbeiner, N. M., Epstein, N. B., & Falconier, M. K. (2013). Low intimacy as a mediator between depression and clinic couple relationship satisfaction. Personal Relationships, 20(3), 406-421. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2012.01415.x 


Laurenceau, J. P., & Kleinman, B. M. (2006). Intimacy in personal relationships. In A. L. Vangelisti & D. Perlman (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of personal relationships (pp. 637 – 653 ). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. 


Yoo, H., Bartle-Haring, S., Day, R. D., & Gangamma, R. (2014). Couple communication, emotional and sexual intimacy, and relationship satisfaction. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 40(4), 275-293. doi:10.1080/0092623X.2012.751072 

Photo by 
Jack Moreh from Freerange Stock

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