Emotional intimacy is one of the most beautiful, fulfilling things the human experience has to offer. It’s one of our core fundamental needs, and it’s a key reason we seek out and enter into relationships:
- To experience loving and being loved
- To share and connect through our inner worlds
- To be known, and to know another deeply
Yet despite its importance to us, exactly how to build emotional intimacy is often confusing, frustrating, and overwhelming.
But building emotional intimacy is a skill. And just like any other skill, it’s one that can be developed.
In this blog, you’re going to learn:
- What exactly emotional intimacy is
- Some of the most common signs of emotional intimacy
- And perhaps most importantly, 14 practical mindsets, habits, and techniques to create emotional intimacy in a relationship
And bring you closer than ever before.
Let’s get started.
What Is Emotional Intimacy?
Emotional intimacy is a feeling of closeness and connection with someone. It’s a sense of being deeply seen, known, and understood. It requires vulnerability, empathy, a high level of trust, and finely-attuned communication skills.
Or as popular researcher (and all-round vulnerability bad-ass) Dr. Brené Brown says in her book The Gifts Of Imperfection:
What Are Signs of Emotional Intimacy?
- A feeling of safety and trust in your relationship
- Physical affection and warmth
- Feeling that you know each other on a deep, meaningful level
- A sense of fun, playfulness, and shared humour
- A willingness to communicate and share your inner worlds
How this looks in every relationship is unique.
In our marriage, we know that we feel emotionally intimate when:
We’re cuddling in the kitchen, spending quality time together on our weekends, laughing over silly jokes that only we find funny, and when we feel safe turning towards each other with our problems and challenges.
How Long Does It Take To Build Emotional Intimacy?
Well apparently complete strangers can do it in less than an hour:
In one famous study,* husband and wife team Arthur Aron, Ph.D., and Elain Aron, Ph.D, brought together groups of strangers to study closeness and emotional intimacy.
They crafted 36 questions that participants asked each other (popularly known as the 36 Question To Fall in Love).
In just 45 minutes many participants reported feeling as close as (and in some cases, closer than) their “closest, deepest, and most involved relationships.”
In other words:
The more you reveal about yourself through meaningful discussions, and the deeper you genuinely listen to the inner world of your partner, the closer you feel emotionally.
So building emotional intimacy can happen as fast as a single conversation.
This means that almost every interaction you have with your partner is an opportunity to create intimacy.
Are you ready to deepen the intimacy in your relationship?
How To Build Emotional Intimacy In A Relationship: The Complete Guide
HOW TO BUILD EMOTIONAL INTIMACY #1:
Genuinely Give A Shit
But let’s take a moment to get real here: do you consistently approach your partner with genuine care and regard?
- When they speak, do you listen with presence and compassion?
- Do you respect their opinions, even if they’re different?
- Do you actively check in about what’s going on in their life, and how they feel about it?
Are you putting in the effort? Doing the little things to prioritise the health of your relationship, to be a team player, and to help your partner feel loved?
Or have you become complacent and are taking them for granted?
Look, it’s easy to get so absorbed in your own world that you forget you’re sharing in the world of another. So consider this your stern-but-fair reminder to Genuinely Give A Shit.
HOW TO BUILD EMOTIONAL INTIMACY #2:
Up The Appreciation
Yes, we bang on and on about the importance of appreciation. It’s one of the most simple and effective ways to build emotional intimacy.
As relationship expert John Gottman,* Ph.D., explains,
“There’s a habit of mind that the masters have… They are scanning their social environment for things they can appreciate and say ‘thank you’ for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully.”
While on the other hand…
“Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.”
Be a Relationship Master, not a Disaster.
Identifying actions to be thankful for is Level One. (Yes, even the things that are ‘their job’.)
To take it up a notch, try these suggestions:
- Share how the action impacts you. How does it contribute to you? Why exactly are you appreciating it? (“Thanks for taking out the trash. It makes my life so much easier knowing that I don’t have to deal with bin germs”)
- Share the qualities or values the taking of the action reveals about them. What specifically are you appreciating about them as a person? (“I appreciate how much effort you put into raising our kids. I think you’re an amazing parent, and I love how much you prioritize their wellbeing”)
HOW TO BUILD EMOTIONAL INTIMACY #3:
Dredge Up The Past
Bet that wasn’t the relationship advice you were expecting.
But no, this isn’t permission to dig up that fight from 5 years ago and use it as ammunition in your current disagreement.
Instead, you can draw upon your favourite memories and re-live them together.
To help you do this, we invented a super-simple intimacy game that’s become part of our everyday relationship banter.
It starts with the sentence stem, “Remember when…?”
We then fill-in-the-blank with a delightful memory we share, ranging from the obscure to the ridiculously obvious:
- “Remember when… we swam with whale sharks in the Caribbean?”
- “Remember when… we got married on a beach in Thailand with our family and friends?”
- “Remember when… we slept under the stars out in the desert and woke up covered in ants?” 🐜😲😂
We’ll surprise each other at any time of the day with a random “Remember when…”. Just because it’s lovely.
Why This Works
“Remember when…” works by utilizing the Positive Psychology concept of ‘capitalizing’:
It’s “the relational process of savouring positive life events by sharing them with responsive relationship partners.” *
Reflecting on treasured memories reinforces the shared meaning in your lives, builds positive feelings, and creates deeper emotional connection.
HOW TO BUILD EMOTIONAL INTIMACY #4:
Contemplate Their Death
OK, getting a bit dark here. But stay with us.
Reflecting on your mortality as a way to be more present and grateful is an ancient Stoic practice that dates all the way back to Socrates.
You can take this principle and apply it to the context of your relationship.
What we’re suggesting is that you feel into the emotional impact their absence would have on you. To use their mortality as a powerful reminder that:
Having your partner in your life is a precious gift.
But it’s a fast wake-up call to jolt you out of the petty hurts most people hold onto in relationships so you can make the most of your precious time together.
HOW TO BUILD EMOTIONAL INTIMACY #5:
Create Connection Rituals
Whether it’s your morning coffee or your after-work gym session, routines and rituals are the building blocks of life.
Yet how often do you apply the mundane magic of routines to your relationship? You can build emotional intimacy by focusing on the right kinds of small, easy, and meaningful actions:
- A glass of wine together after work
- A brunch date on the weekend
- A scheduled relationship check in
- A long, slow kiss when you leave the house in the morning
- A kitchen dance party while cooking dinner
Here’s the thing:
Connection Rituals are less about the actions, and more about what they represent to you – that you’re prioritizing time with each other in meaningful ways.
No matter what rituals you create, that focused intentionality will build emotional intimacy and help you both feel cherished and chosen.
HOW TO BUILD EMOTIONAL INTIMACY #6:
Get Better At Conflict
Duh. Easier said than done, right?
But there are ways to improve your communication and conflict management skills so that difficult conversations end up bringing you closer together, not further apart.
Don’t believe us?
To help us turn conflict into connection in our relationship, we created a simple, practical framework that’s been described as “revolutionary”. Grab it here:
Conflict To Connection
The Couple’s Step-By-Step Guide To Having Difficult Conversations That Resolves Arguments & Brings You Closer Together
Everyone can get better at conflict. And it’s one of the the most valuable skills you can invest in to build emotional intimacy.
HOW TO BUILD EMOTIONAL INTIMACY #7:
Get Off Auto-Pilot
Are you trudging off to work each day to suffer through a boring, unfulfilling job? And then coming home and expecting to feel passionate and emotionally connected in your relationship?
Long-term, this won’t work.
Healthy relationships involve helping meet each other’s needs. But just as essential is meeting your needs for yourself. Otherwise, you end up burdening your partner with that responsibility.
So if you’re going through life on auto-pilot and wondering why you’re not feeling emotionally intimate in your relationship, consider this a wake-up call:
Start paying attention to where you can become more connected and fulfilled in your life generally. That way you show up in your relationship as the fullest version of yourself, with a richer world to share with your partner.
HOW TO BUILD EMOTIONAL INTIMACY #8:
Feed The Fire
You’ve probably heard the “try new things together” advice over and over again. It’s a good perspective, but here’s the actual point:
It’s less about finding new things, and more about experiencing excitement together.
Yes, that might look like getting out of your comfort zone and doing something different. But it can also be the ‘same old thing’ that still gets the juices flowing.
Theory In Practice:
On a date night a few years ago we randomly went to our first tennis match together. To our surprise, we absolutely loved it. Who knew we’d turn out to be massive Tennis Nerds? 🎾🤓
Now, that first time was new and exciting. But after the 100+ matches we’ve watched since, it’s really not new any more. That doesn’t matter though because it still feels exciting to us:
Every time we watch our favourite players we still get super pumped up. And those feelings help bring us together and build emotional intimacy.
HOW TO BUILD EMOTIONAL INTIMACY #9:
Let Yourself Be Seen
OK, here’s where we get a little more vulnerable.
Letting your true self be seen means sharing your opinions, your dreams, and your fears. It also means sharing the parts you think your partner might disagree with. And even the parts you think are unworthy or unlovable.
This can be scary at the beginning of a relationship. And it’s surprisingly difficult for long-term couples too:
The more someone means to you, the more their opinion of you matters. This makes sharing your inner world feel super vulnerable (and yeah, kinda terrifying). But this level of authentic revealing is also where the deepest level of emotional intimacy comes from.
You have to be willing to be truly seen in order to be truly known. No hiding. No editing. No people-pleasing. Just the unfiltered truth.
HOW TO BUILD EMOTIONAL INTIMACY #10:
Ask Better Questions
Ever find yourself getting stuck in the everyday ‘life admin’ conversation ruts?
You know the ones:
- Organizing tasks for the weekend
- Updating each other about the kids
- Deciding on what to eat for dinner (Gah – it never ends!)
No doubt that stuff’s important. But it’s also surface-level information:
‘Life admin’ conversations don’t reveal your true self, or the workings of your inner world. And surprise surprise, they don’t help you to build emotional intimacy.
So instead of the usual sleep-walking conversations, use these connection-boosting questions to help you build emotional intimacy:
HOW TO BUILD EMOTIONAL INTIMACY #11:
Don’t Initiate Sex With Affectionate Touch
Yep, the way you initiate sex can negatively impact the level of emotional intimacy in your relationship. Here’s how:
First, initiating sex with affectionate touch is not clear.
- Your partner might think you want to cuddle. But really you’re trying to initiate sex.
- Or they think you’re trying to initiate when all you want is to snuggle.
Confusion, misunderstanding, and frustration follow.
But the science* on this is clear:
Affectionate touch helps to create strong emotional bonds in relationships.
But not if that touch comes with an expectation that it leads somewhere.
Let affectionate touch be purely affectionate and find better ways to initiate sex. If you need a little help with that, check out Reignite Your Love Life – The Ultimate Guide To Initiating Sex.
HOW TO BUILD EMOTIONAL INTIMACY #12:
Listen To Understand (Not ‘Fix’)
When you share how you feel about something, does your partner ever jump in with how to ‘fix’ it?
Or do you ever try to ‘help’ your partner out of their difficult emotional problems?
Newsflash: this doesn’t build emotional intimacy. Unfortunately it often leads to defensiveness, shut down, and isolation.
But the fix for fixing is simple: listen to understand.
Your parter is coming to you for understanding and connection, not solutions. If they want help fixing, they’ll ask.
HOW TO BUILD EMOTIONAL INTIMACY #13:
Get Better At Feeling ‘Bad’ Things
Letting yourself be seen… Listening to understand… Embracing empathy and vulnerability.
Generally things we’re not very good at.
Our culture finds it hard to accept and embrace difficult feelings. Even to the point of encouraging toxic positivity*.
But avoiding or suppressing our ‘negative’ emotions not only has dangerous consequences for your mental health* , it’s also a missed opportunity to build emotional intimacy.
How does that work, we hear you ask?
Learning how to feel and regulate ALL the emotions means you don’t have to hide from them, or hide them from your partner.
And the better you get at being with your own emotions, the easier it becomes to be with another’s.
HOW TO BUILD EMOTIONAL INTIMACY #14:
Get A Fresh Perspective
When you’re in a relationship, it’s hard to see things clearly. Which is why it’s helpful to get an outside perspective.
Turning to your friends and family doesn’t always go the way you’d like:
- Sometimes it’s difficult for them to remain impartial.
- Other times they judge you or your relationship.
- And sometimes they don’t have any helpful advice at all, because they’re facing their own challenges.
But that doesn’t mean you have to struggle alone.
So if you’re here on our blog and like what you’re reading, then reach out for a complimentary, no-obligation discovery call. We have years of experience supporting hundreds of men, women, and couples build emotional intimacy and have healthy, connected relationships.
We’ll help you identify your blindspots, break through any unhelpful patterns, and support you with the practical tools to get your relationship back on track.
And it’s way more fun than you might think 😉
Sources & References
Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E., Vallone, R., & Bator, R. The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0146167297234003
Aron, E. Ph.D. (2015, January 14) 36 Questions for Intimacy, Back Story. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/attending-the-undervalued-self/201501/36-questions-intimacy-back-story
Brené, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Hazelden Publishing.
Cullen, M. (2020, January 30). How to Regulate Your Emotions Without Suppressing Them. Greater Good Magazine, Berkeley. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_to_regulate_your_emotions_without_suppressing_them
Ellingsen, D. M., Leknes, S., Løseth, G., Wessberg, J., & Olausson, H. (2016). The Neurobiology Shaping Affective Touch: Expectation, Motivation, and Meaning in the Multisensory Context. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 1986. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01986
Ferris, T. (2009, April 24) On The Shortness of Life: An Introduction to Seneca. Tim Ferris. https://tim.blog/2009/04/24/on-the-shortness-of-life-an-introduction-to-seneca/
Holiday, R. n.d. “Momento Mori”: The Reminder We All Desperately Need. Daily Stoic. https://dailystoic.com/memento-mori/
Mager, D. (2020, November 13) There’s Nothing Positive About Toxic Positivity. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/some-assembly-required/202011/there-s-nothing-positive-about-toxic-positivity
Otto, A. K., Laurenceau, J. P., Siegel, S. D., & Belcher, A. J. (2015). Capitalizing on everyday positive events uniquely predicts daily intimacy and well-being in couples coping with breast cancer. Journal of family psychology : JFP : journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000042
Oppland, M. (2020, September 01). How Mindfulness Can Grow Emotional Intelligence, PositivePsychology.com https://positivepsychology.com/mindfulness-emotional-intelligence/
Parker, W. (2020, February 04). 40 Questions to Help Build Intimacy in a Relationship. VeryWellMind. https://www.verywellmind.com/questions-to-build-intimacy-in-relationships-1270942
University of California – Los Angeles. (2007, June 22). Putting Feelings Into Words Produces Therapeutic Effects In The Brain. ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/06/070622090727.htm
Reece Stockhausen & Jodie Milton have made improving people’s lives and relationships both their passion, and their career. With over 25 years experience in the Personal Development industry, and 7 years coaching singles and couples, their no-BS advice has been featured in Cosmopolitan, Bustle, and HuffPost.
Book in for a complimentary online video call to discover how their men's, women's, and couple's coaching programs can support you.