What Is Intimacy? (And How to Cultivate It)

The magical combination of presence and vulnerability.

One of the greatest desires of couples is to experience more intimacy between them. That is understandable – intimacy is a fundamental human need that we love to fulfil in our relationships. Unfortunately, Hollywood portrays an often effortless connection and depth with “the right person,” while we are living in our realities of work, kids, friends, groceries, and making sure we get to that yoga class. The time and space for intimacy is often the last on our list. And yet, we carry this unfulfilled wish for a profound connection with our partner.

The good news is: You can create more intimacy between you. The not-so-good news: It takes a conscious decision to do so. It doesn’t happen automatically. And many people don’t actually know what this intangible thing of intimacy is. What does it mean? What are you talking about? But don’t worry, I’ve got you. Let’s dive into it!

Physical and Emotional Intimacy

Your first thought of intimacy might come from ‘intimate relations,’ meaning sex. But if we confine intimacy to the physical aspects of the bedroom, we are missing out. While physical intimacy is amazing, what most of us actually long for is emotional intimacy, a form of deep connection. In my work as a relationship coach, I see how emotional intimacy is a prerequisite for truly wonderful physical intimacy. So we’ve got to start with opening our hearts before we are ready to open our bodies.

And our exploration of emotional intimacy includes our bodies because every emotion lives in the body, and everyone has their own sense of their embodied feeling of intimacy. Maybe it’s the warmth and joy that comes from feeling seen, heard, and understood. Or it’s the relaxation that comes when you feel supported. Or it’s the sense of connection that comes from a meaningful conversation with your loved one. Or the feeling of love and care when you are truly understanding and supporting another person.

Maybe you have no idea what intimacy feels like, and all that comes up when hearing that term is tension, fear, or numbness. That is completely okay too. Intimacy is not something that we commonly learn about as we grow up. We are often left to figure all of this out on our own. Which makes relationships more difficult to navigate, as we have two people with their own unique understanding of what intimacy means and how to create it.

Red heart looking out from a meadow

How to Create More Emotional Intimacy

There are many practices and tools that can help you get closer to each other and feel that beautiful, heart-opening feeling of emotional intimacy. My personal favourites are using the methods from Authentic Relating and Nonviolent Communication, two wonderful modalities that focus on bringing us into depth with each other. 

But the beauty of intimacy is that it can happen at any moment, in any life situation – as long as we are creating the right conditions for it. And even more important than certain activities or practices, you have the power to create the conditions for intimacy to thrive. All it takes is for you to bring in two ingredients: presence and vulnerability.

The Key Ingredients for Intimacy

What opens up a space for intimacy is presence. Especially in today’s busy world, we are often more focused on our phone and our to-do list than on the other person. Presence means truly being with your partner in this moment, with your full attention. 

And the always insightful author and researcher Brené Brown calls vulnerability the key to unlocking intimacy. Only when we are brave enough to take off our armour, can we come into true contact with another person.

When we bring presence and vulnerability together, we naturally create intimacy in our lives. Because we are fully here, just as we are. And so is the other person. It’s that simple – but it’s not easy. So let’s examine these two components that make up this magical mix.

Couple looking into each other’s eyes while holding each other

Ingredient No. 1: Presence

Presence is being in the moment, being right here, with a soft focus. Your attention and energy are directed to this situation and not to what happened yesterday, what you want to do tomorrow or all the other things that are going on in your life. You bring yourself to the now. To this interaction with another human being. 

We all have experienced people who are half-listening. Who are distracted when we talk. Or who touch us absentmindedly or in a robotic way. Even though it might have a loving intention, it just feels empty. An absence of presence means the absence of an intimate connection.

To become present, take a deep breath. And another one. And become aware of your body. The easiest way into presence is to get out of the mind and into your physical experience. What do you notice in your muscles? Your posture? Your face? Your belly? We all have a body, and the more we practise being aware of it, the more we are in the here and now.

Many tools can help you to become more naturally present, such as meditation, conscious breathing, or loosening your body through stretching and shaking, but also sports and physical activity. Presence is a skill – even if your thoughts drift off again and again, don’t worry. Bring yourself back, and over time, it will become easier to be present with what is going on right here, right now.

Many of us have a habit of being more present with another person than with ourselves. We might be great at reading our husband’s body language or understanding our kids’ needs. But for intimacy to flow, you need to be present with yourself first. What is here for you? What are you feeling? What do you need? Only then are you able to be present with what is alive between the two of you?

Presence is also important because intimacy lives in the moment. It is created over and over again by two people who are engaged and present with each other. And even though intimacy builds over time, we only get to enjoy it fully when we are actually aware of this moment.

Woman holding hands over her heart

Ingredient No. 2: Vulnerability

The second ingredient of intimacy is vulnerability. Vulnerability literally means “making yourself available to be wounded.” In interactions, it comes with true openness, authenticity, honesty. Brené Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. But vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our most accurate measure of courage.”

It indeed takes a good amount of courage to make yourself vulnerable, because as you do, the mind knows that there is a chance of being hurt. And usually, we do our very best to avoid being hurt, we implement our survival strategies of being strong, being independent, being a caretaker, being funny, or also being careful and shy. Vulnerability means acknowledging our instinct to either hide ourselves or overplay what’s inside, and actually show ourselves, show our emotions, our bodily sensations, our thoughts.

You probably have had moments in your relationships (be it with your partner or parents or friends), when you suddenly had a deep conversation. Truth was spoken. Emotions were revealed. What had previously been hidden was finally brought to the light. As humans, we fear the truth, but we also love it. Because when we ourselves or other people are brave enough to name what is going on, we move to a deeper level of connection. It’s like we are bringing each other into our respective worlds.

You get to see who the other person actually is. And the beautiful thing is – all people are amazing. At their core, when people reveal themselves, we get to see their humanity, their longings, their fears, their trauma, their dreams. And that is the power of vulnerability. And how intimacy is created – by dropping into each other’s humanity.

Couple holding hands while walking on the beach

Practising Intimacy

Keep in mind that presence, vulnerability, courage, and the ability to connect are all fundamental human qualities. No matter how challenging it might seem right now, we can learn them. And that can be lots of fun! First of all, notice for yourself: Is it easier for you to be present in the here and now, or to vulnerably share what is going on inside? This shows you which of the two skills to focus on as you grow.

If all of that sounds great, but you’re still wondering what to do – here are some suggestions for how to bring presence and vulnerability into your day to day interactions: 

  • When you are at dinner or driving in the car, take a breath, become present to what is going on inside you right now, and share that with each other.
  • Take three minutes in the morning and before going to bed to purposefully be present with each other: Hold hands, look into each other’s eyes, and share how you are feeling and what you need right now.
  • Share your appreciations with each other. Pay attention to the small things that the other person does or says, and tell them how that makes you feel and why you love it (stick to the positive!).
  • Ask each other curious questions and really listen for the answer. You might ask about childhood memories, favourite places, friendships, work challenges and aspirations, as well as hopes, dreams, and wishes for the future.
  • Especially when you have a conflict: Take a moment to breathe, bring yourself into presence and then reveal how you are in this moment. And hear each other out with awareness.

And what about physical intimacy? The same applies! I invite you to try: 

  • Touch each other with full presence and your full attention. Be slow and intentional. See how it’s different from your usual.
  • Share openly with each other how that touch feels to you, and then honestly talk about what else you might love, and why.
  • Notice each other’s attempts to physically connect, bring your awareness to what you both want right now, and see if it’s a match – or what else you could do. 

Finally, don’t worry if it doesn’t immediately flow. All of these things take practice. If you were not raised to express yourself fully, and to open up to intimacy with another person, it will take some time. Be gentle with yourself and each other, and just keep on opening bit by bit, going at the pace of where you are at right now. Each small step will bring you closer together. 


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The 5 Relationship Issues Therapy Can’t Fix

Fraught and Complex

Couples often turn to therapy as a means to navigate through their issues and rebuild their connection. While therapy can help improve many aspects of a relationship, there are certain issues that therapy may not be able to fully resolve. We explore five common relationship issues that therapy may struggle to fix. Let’s see why they persist and alternative approaches to addressing them.

1. Lack of Fundamental Emotional Compatibility:

The word ‘fundamental’ points to the level of incompatibility that turns up in communication styles. Like, difficulty expressing emotions or clashing attachment styles. These days there are tons of videos on Instagram explaining how attachment styles sometimes lead to this issue being unfixable. The truth is that while therapy can certainly provide tools and techniques to improve communication, it may not be able to alter deep-seated emotional differences. It is best to seek support from experts who specialize in individual emotional growth. The next step would be to explore if the relationship’s emotional limits can be reconciled.

2. Fundamental Values Misalignment:

When couples have differing beliefs and values regarding major life decisions, therapy faces its limitations. These include starting a family, having children, steering the development path of a child, looking after their own individual career goals, around or religious practices (not to mention fanatic political views). The challenge is to reconcile deep values that impact the direction and fulfilment of each individual’s life. Take the time to consider if a compromise is possible or if the misalignment is too significant for a successful long-term relationship. Usually, later is the case.

3. Unresolved Past Trauma:

Trauma experienced by one or both partners can alter the relationship dynamics. Therapy can help individuals heal and provide a safe space for discussing their trauma within the context of the relationship. However, unresolved trauma may continue to have a ripple effect on a couple’s relationship. This ends up leading to recurring patterns of emotional distress and difficulty in fully trusting one another. The trust is neither formed nor do the individuals allow for trust to form. The patterns create blockages as well as manifestation of more traumatic experiences within the couple which leads to a complete breakdown. In such cases, individual therapy or trauma-specific therapies may be necessary to fully address and heal from past traumas.

4. Constant Power Struggles:

In some relationships, power struggles become an ongoing pattern that hinders intimacy and growth. Add to that, the pressure of family dynamics, egotistical expectations and selfish career choices. It’s a sad situation in the life of this couple because even though therapy can provide strategies for improving communication and resolving conflicts, it may not be able to fundamentally shift the dynamics of power imbalances. Power struggles often stem from deeper-rooted issues such as a lack of respect, parental avoidant behaviour in childhood, control issues, and other unresolved childhood experiences. Drug abuse and substance overuse adds to the problem. Additional support, such as personal growth work or couples coaching, may be beneficial.

5. Irreparable Betrayal:

Betrayals, such as infidelity or a breach of trust, can rock the foundation of any relationship. While therapy facilities open dialogue and forgiveness, it may not be enough to repair the deep wounds caused by betrayal. With the blame game that often becomes a pattern in such situations, rebuilding trust takes time and a commitment from both partners to actively work on restoring the relationship.

When it comes to relationship challenges, therapy also has its limits. It’s crucial to recognise that certain issues, such as those listed above, may require alternative approaches or support beyond traditional therapy. Remember, every relationship is unique, and finding the right combination of support and strategies is key to overcoming obstacles and discovering a path towards a healthier and happier future together.



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