- Physical and emotional intimacy share some essential ingredients.
- Partners may value each types of intimacy differently.
- If these two expressions of intimacy are separate or disjointed, a couple may be unable to evolve.
Intimacy—that feeling of closeness, connectedness, and togetherness shared between people—is one of the most important and rewarding components of a healthy romantic relationship. When I work with couples who want to improve their marital satisfaction, I always end up referring to both types of intimacy that you hear about: physical (or sexual) intimacy and emotional intimacy.
What this means is:
- For the couple who say sex is great but they feel distant from each other, we use therapy as an opportunity to explore emotional and physical intimacy.
- For the couple who say they feel a deep sense of love and appreciation for each other but that their sex life has fizzled to the point that their relationship borders on platonic, we (you guessed it) use therapy as an opportunity to explore emotional and physical intimacy.
I lay this out simply to show that both types of intimacy truly are essential. Here are three things I consider to be important truths about physical and emotional intimacy that all couples should know.
1. You really can't have one without the other (at least not if you're looking for long-term commitment).
Physical intimacy and emotional intimacy both matter, and one is not more important than the other...at least not when it comes to having a healthy long-term relationship.
To be clear, you definitely can have physical intimacy without an emotional connection. For many couples, physical intimacy or sexual attraction often precedes emotional intimacy as the thing that gets both partners to "buy in" to the relationship (triggering what some call the evolutionarily driven "urge to merge"). Likewise, it's possible to feel emotionally intimate and connected with someone without being physically attracted to them.
But when these two expressions of intimacy remain separate or disjointed, a couple is effectively unable to evolve into a mature, loving relationship. Because, while physical intimacy allows people to express and enjoy their connection on a sensual level, emotional intimacy is necessary for people to feel safe enough to build (and maintain) a lasting connection in the first place.
I encourage couples to think about emotional and physical intimacy as components that work in tandem with each other to create a healthy and fit relationship. Improving the strength of both will improve and balance out the health of your relationship overall.
2. Physical and emotional intimacy share some essential ingredients.
To be physically and emotionally intimate with someone demands several prerequisites. Both partners need to be able to offer:
- Trust: the sense that you won't let each other down and will respect your boundaries
- Vulnerability: the willingness to be honest about your biggest fears, insecurities, desires, and dreams
- Communication: the ability to give each other mindful, present, and focused attention while discussing small and big things (which means going above and beyond the more surface-level questions like "How was your day?" or "Who's picking up the kids tonight?")
If you struggle with things like trust, vulnerability, and communication within your marriage, couples counseling can help.
3. Partners may value each type of intimacy differently.
It's not uncommon for partners to view physical and emotional intimacy from different perspectives.
For example, one partner may value physical intimacy more, so they may express their love primarily through physical touch and feel the most loved when their partner does the same. The opposite can be true, too: One partner who places a high value on emotional intimacy will feel extremely fulfilled and close after a deep conversation, but may feel a little disconnected after sex (especially if the other partner doesn't want to talk right away).
The thing is, prioritizing or "preferring" one type of intimacy over the other isn't necessarily a problem, as long as two partners recognize that both types of intimacy hold equal weight in the marriage. This might mean one partner has to make more of "an effort" to have sex, while the other has to make more of "an effort" to have those deep conversations. If this sounds like your marriage, try to be patient with each other...and keep those honest lines of communication open.
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