The Challenges Of Emotional Intimacy (And How To Address Them)

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated July 3, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Emotional intimacy generally refers to the close emotional connection between partners in a relationship. This type of intimacy can occur in all types of relationships but is often particularly important for romantic ones. You may improve emotional intimacy with your partner by putting down your phone, making yourself emotionally available, spending time with your partner, and finding a healthy balance between yourself and your relationship. You might also seek a mental health professional specializing in couples therapy online or in person to help you and your significant other improve your emotional intimacy.

What is emotional intimacy?

is your relationship lacking emotional intimacy?

According to a 2013 study, emotional intimacy usually encompasses the close connection experienced by partners in a romantic relationship. Both partners are likely to feel loved and safe, can trust each other completely, and feel they may communicate freely. 

While it can be possible to form an emotionally intimate connection with other people outside of your romantic relationship, such as family, colleagues, and close friends, this article generally focuses on the link between romantic partners. 

“Forming intimate relationships is a fundamental human motive. Emotions play a critical role in intimate relationships - they are central to the development and maintenance of these bonds, and these very bonds can influence both individual and interpersonal emotional dynamics across time.”—Emotional Dynamics in Intimate Relationships

Recognizing emotional intimacy

In an emotionally intimate relationship, you and your partner will likely:

  • Empathize with each other and provide consistent emotional support

  • Feel safe, loved, understood, and valued

  • Partake in meaningful conversations, planning your future together and discussing hopes, feelings, goals, and fears

  • Show a willingness to try something the other suggests, like trying a new restaurant

  • Talk about your days, listen, and validate the other’s feelings

  • Consistently show interest in the other’s experiences, emotions, and interests

  • Prioritize spending time together and genuinely enjoy being around each other

Benefits of emotional intimacy

Establishing and maintaining emotional intimacy in your relationship can bring many benefits to you and your partner, potentially including the following:

  • As a couple, you may develop a growing sense of physical and emotional safety as you trust each other to help through the most vulnerable moments.

  • You may gain confidence in your ability to overcome relationship challenges together. Conflict is often inevitable in a relationship, but if you and your partner have a high level of emotional intimacy, you will likely understand each other well enough to work through problems. 

  • Your relationship can serve as a shield from the harmful effects of loneliness. 

  • Realistic expectations may develop over time, leading to fewer disappointments. 

  • It can be easier to experience spontaneous joy when partaking in emotional intimacy with your partner. 

  • Beyond the romantic aspect of your relationship, you may be friends with your partner. 

  • You likely look forward to speaking to each other and discussing the details of your time apart. Your partner is usually the first person you want to tell when something important happens. 

  • You may entrust your partner with your secrets and keep theirs. 

  • You may regularly show non-intimate love gestures, further strengthening your connection. 

  • Knowing when something is wrong or bothering your partner may be easier.

  • As a couple, you and your spouse or partner may inspire each other to new heights and offer support. 

Identifying a lack of emotional intimacy

Many couples don’t notice the decline in emotional intimacy until the problem becomes significant. It can be easy to fall into a routine and take your partner’s presence and affection for granted, potentially allowing your efforts at emotional intimacy to fall behind other commitments. Successful relationships usually take continual effort, and people often grow apart, creating emotional distance, when they don’t actively work to maintain their connection. 

You may notice signs of an emotional intimacy issue in your relationship if you frequently feel lonely and lack support or if you believe that your partner doesn’t care about your innermost feelings. If you find that you and your partner aren’t discussing important events, showing physical affection, or experiencing more conflict, consider taking a break to reflect before discussing your relationship openly to work on building emotional intimacy.

Other types of intimacy in relationships

Intimacy extends beyond just an emotional connection. There are other ways to build a stronger bond through other forms of intimacy. For example, you might build a deep intellectual connection with an individual by bonding over common interests. Other types of intimacy besides emotional intimacy include the following:

Sexual intimacy

This type of intimacy involves sexual activity and sensual stimulation. Also known as physical intimacy, sexual intimacy may be more meaningful with a deep sense of mutual trust between partners. In a marriage, sustaining sexual intimacy may help contribute to overall life satisfaction.

Experiential intimacy

Experiential intimacy might involve common interests and experiences. This type of intimacy can be built through common activities, such as hiking or attending concerts, allowing individuals to explore new facets of their relationship beyond conversation. It strengthens bonds by creating memories that matter, even years down the line.

Intellectual intimacy

Intellectual intimacy is based on deep conversations and discussing ideas that stimulate the mind. This form of intimacy involves a mutual understanding and respect for each other's thoughts and opinions, which can lead to a stronger connection in platonic relationships or with a family member. It encourages partners or friends to express their thoughts freely, without fear of communication problems.

Spiritual intimacy

Spiritual connections involve connecting through beliefs regarding a higher power. This type of intimacy goes beyond just having the same beliefs; it involves supporting each other's spiritual growth and having empathy for the other's spiritual journey. In relationships, it can act as a foundation for managing stress and emotional turmoil, helping partners or family members act based on common values and goals.

Why some people fear emotional intimacy

People may fear or avoid emotional intimacy for many reasons. Previous adverse experiences in relationships can frequently lead to a person fearing rejection and holding themselves back so they won’t be hurt. Some worry that the relationship will consume them, and they may fear losing their identity as the connection strengthens. Others may be afraid they will be abandoned by their partner and avoid giving the relationship the power to hurt them to prevent that potential pain. Mental health conditions, such as avoidant personality disorder, anxiety disorders, and attachment issues, can also lead to a fear of emotional intimacy. 

How to improve emotional intimacy with your partner

While the methods likely to be most effective in your relationship can be as individual as the people involved, researchers suggest several ways to create a healthy emotional connection with your partner. If you feel like you’re not on the same wavelength as your partner anymore, you might try some of these methods to improve your emotional intimacy. 

Put down your phone

You’re not likely to build emotional intimacy with your partner through your phone. Instead, you might choose to turn off the electronics and focus on your face-to-face connection. Technology can interfere with relations between a couple if one partner feels the other is paying more attention to their phone, a 2016 study found. 

“Want to enhance your family life and relationships? Put down your phone! You will be surprised how enriching it can be.”—Dr. Steve Maraboli 

Make yourself emotionally available

It can be challenging to expose yourself to potential pain or ridicule by making yourself emotionally available—and therefore vulnerable—in a relationship, particularly after being hurt by someone else. True emotional intimacy typically flows in both directions, and when one partner feels they are doing all the emotional work, problems can arise in the relationship.   

Prioritize time with your partner

It can be beneficial to put spending time with your partner at the top of your priority list and follow through with doing it. You might plan a regular date night and rotate picking locations. For example, you could pick up pizza and your partner’s favorite movie for a romantic night in or plan a trip together. You may have countless ways to spend time together, and talking about experiences can bring you closer. 

Find a healthy balance between yourself and your role in the relationship

As important as it can be to devote yourself to your relationship, maintaining your individuality can also be crucial. According to a 2016 study, many successful long-term couplings involve partners who have a healthy balance between their own interests, support network, and social circle in addition to what they discuss with their significant other. 

is your relationship lacking emotional intimacy?

More tips to build emotional intimacy

  • Make a list of fun activities you both enjoy and take time to cross them off together.

  • Get involved in structured organizations focused on couples. 

  • Speak to a couples counselor to grow with professional guidance.

Finding support for an emotionally intimate relationship

If you're struggling to form or maintain an emotional connection with your partner, consider reaching out to a licensed therapist for support and guidance on building communication skills and learning to connect emotionally.

Whether you are interested in couples therapy to work through issues you and your partner are experiencing or to seek treatment to overcome emotional challenges, assistance is available. Speaking to a licensed therapist online through a virtual provider can offer a convenient method to gain the aid of a professional as you strengthen the emotional intimacy between yourself and your partner. 

Couples therapy can help you and your partner identify the issues causing conflict and find healthy ways to communicate your needs and emotions, especially after you both decide to commit to the process. Studies show that online couples therapy tends to be equally as effective as face-to-face therapy, and it often comes at lower costs with greater availability. 

Takeaway

Emotional intimacy is the close emotional bond that typically exists between partners in a relationship. You may increase this type of intimacy by prioritizing time with your partner, making yourself emotionally available, putting down your phone, and striking a healthy balance between your relationship and yourself as an individual. It can be helpful to work with a couples therapist in person or online to address any issues with intimacy and grow closer.
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