Intimacy and Sex Aren't Mutually Exclusive
Sex and intimacy typically go hand in hand, however, intimacy is where we feel truly seen, known and connected to our partner. Physical touch isn't the only method we can perform in our romantic relationships. It's important to get in tune with ourselves and our partners in a variety of ways—relationships are ever-evolving. When we focus solely on the physical, we're missing out on key connections.
"Intimacy is about closeness within a relationship," said Tasha Bailey, M.A., a United Kingdom-based psychotherapist. "Building it increases trust and security, so that both partners feel safe, seen and understood by the other. Intimacy strengthens the connection and allows us to feel vulnerable with each other when we need to."
Bailey explained that our first experiences with intimacy occur when we are babies feeling deep love, curiosity and the security of our caregiver. Connecting to a romantic partner in an intimate way strengthens the bond and creates a sense of trust.
"Intimacy is about closeness in a psychological and emotional way," Bailey said. "We can, of course, feel closer to someone through sexual activity, however, it is not the only way to feel intimacy."
Try new activities together
Date night is great, but have you ever gone to an amusement park with your partner? Spent the day on a paddleboat? Enjoyed a picnic in the park? Spending time together can spark intimacy without sex being involved at all.
"Taking part in activities which involve a lot of eye contact is a great way of building intimacy," Bailey said. "This could include dancing, drawing pictures of each other or deep conversation."
Try something new together, like taking a cooking class or going to the gym. Not only can you spend quality time with your partner, but you can also stimulate your brain and provide new topics for conversation.
"The overarching idea is that intimacy is about sharing, vulnerability, closeness/emotional closeness, safety and risk-taking, as it relates to being vulnerable," said Jeanae M. Hopgood, M.Ed., a marriage and family therapist in Pennsylvania.
Does your partner love to hike but usually goes alone? Make a date to do something they enjoy, together. Take risks together and try new activities with each other. Learning about each other's favorite pastimes not only gives you intimacy without sex, it also gives you more to talk about. There's not much better in life than seeing the face of someone you love light up when they're talking about something they enjoy. Get in on the excitement and try something together.
Pretend you're a new couple
This may seem counterintuitive to achieve intimacy without sex, since a lot of couples can't keep their hands off each other in the beginning of a relationship, but pretending you're a new couple again can help bring back that "new" feeling you may miss. Take each other on dates, sit down and talk about something you learned today, and write each other love letters. Bailey said anything that involves giving each other undivided time and being curious about your partner's life is a way to build intimacy.
Over time, you may feel as if there's nothing new to discover, but that's not true. When you make a habit of sitting down with your partner and talking about each other's day, or even delving into the past to bring up topics you've never discussed before, you're showing your partner that what they have to say matters. Shared silence between partners is often a sign of comfort, but if you're concerned the silence is because you have nothing left to say to each other, it's time to take the conversation deeper. Get to know one another again, even if you know them well.
There are so many aspects we begin to take for granted when we've been in a relationship for quite some time, but that doesn't mean we can't get back some of that new relationship intimacy today.
"[The] biggest takeaway is to remember that intimacy and sex are not interchangeable terms," Hopgood said. "They are two distinct categories that can overlap but do not always. Create and cultivate as many intimate relationships as you desire. Your life will be better for it."
In the end, being intimate can mean many things. How intimacy without sex looks for you and your partner will vary from everyone else, but the important part is actively working on it together. The day may come when sex can't be part of your life for one reason or another, so fostering intimacy on different levels prepares us for changes that can happen in our daily lives.
"Couples should want to build intimacy because meaningful human connection is the spice of life," Hopgood said. "It grounds, holds, soothes and satiates more than anything else we engage with as humans. A deeply intimate relationship supports better communication, better collaboration, better health—mental and physical—better foundations, better parenting, better sex and better community overall. It's the gift that keeps on giving."