Ask anyone “What’s the most important thing for a healthy relationship?”, and 9 times out of 10 you’ll hear ‘communication’ as the response.
Respectfully, they’re wrong.
Yes, communication is an important tool. But it’s not the most beneficial area to focus your relationship efforts.
So what is?
You guessed it – emotional intimacy.
Because according to the data, emotional intimacy is the single most important factor for a fulfilling relationship.* More than sex, more than shared interests, and more than good communication.
So what exactly is emotional intimacy? Why is it so important, and how do you get some in your own relationship?
Keep reading to find out.
What Is Emotional Intimacy?
Emotional intimacy refers to the deep connection and vulnerability shared between individuals, where they feel safe to express their authentic selves, share their innermost thoughts and feelings, and develop a sense of trust, empathy, and understanding in their relationship.
But this textbook definition falls woefully short of explaining what is one of the most beautiful, life-affirming experiences we can have as humans.
Because as social beings, we’re wired for connection. And when we cultivate that connection in our intimate relationship, it has a range of positive flow-on effects.
Benefits of Emotional Intimacy in a Relationship
- Builds emotional safety and trust.
- Creates a feeling of belonging in the world.
- Helps to foster deeper understanding and empathy.
- Supports a passionate, satisfying sex life.
- Creates a space for healing and growth.
- Builds the experience of loving and being loved in return.
- Improves communication and conflict management.
Emotional intimacy is not just a ‘nice to have’. It’s an essential.
In our marriage, it’s the glue that holds us together, and the basis upon which our whole relationship has been built.
Admittedly, it hasn’t always been easy. Truly opening up to each other can be scary AF. But the rewards you get from courageously leaning into the difficult moments are always worth it.
How Important is Emotional Intimacy in a Relationship?
Emotional intimacy in a relationship is important because it forms the core component of romantic love. It’s what makes you feel close and connected, and helps to foster trust and safety which are essential ingredients for a healthy relationship.
On the flip side, research* shows that lacking the necessary skills to build emotional intimacy leads to feelings of loneliness and dissatisfaction within the relationship. (Irrespective of whether there is physical affection or sexual intimacy between partners).
Emotional intimacy is the difference between feeling loved and connected, or feeling like strangers.
And it’s also a core human need:
As the book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Connect reveals, forming strong social bonds is one of our most basic developmental needs. We learn to bond with our primary caregivers way before we ever learn to cook or fend for ourselves.
What is Considered Emotional Intimacy?
Emotional intimacy can include talking about a personal challenge, sharing an update on your life goals, celebrating an achievement, or addressing a misunderstanding. The common factor is being open so that someone can see the real you, and creating space for them to do the same in return.
The 6 types of intimacy that we most commonly need and experience in relationships are:
- Emotional intimacy
- Physical intimacy
- Sexual intimacy
- Experiential intimacy
- Intellectual intimacy
- Spiritual intimacy
We’ve found that most couples have one or two types that they prefer over others. And while they all create intimacy to some degree, the research* shows that focusing on emotional intimacy helps ensure the longevity and satisfaction of a relationship.
(Want to learn which intimacy type you are? Take the 2-minute intimacy quiz to find out).
So how can you tell if there’s a high level of emotional intimacy in your relationship?
Signs of an Emotional Connection in a Relationship
Because all relationships are different, what emotional intimacy and connection look like will be unique to you. But generally, a healthy and connected relationship can be recognized by:
- A strong sense of safety and trust, where you each believe in the other’s reliability, loyalty, and honesty.
- Warm, affectionate touch (such as hugs, kisses, and cuddling) that’s not just about sexual desire, but also a means of expressing closeness.
- Feeling comfortable discussing your thoughts, feelings, and concerns with each other without fear of judgment or criticism.
- Consistently showing empathy and understanding toward each other’s experience, even if you don’t necessarily share the same perspective.
- Handling conflicts in a healthy and constructive manner, focusing on finding solutions rather than placing blame or escalating arguments.
- Understanding the importance of sexual intimacy and prioritizing connected, passionate sex.
- Being vulnerable with each other, sharing your fears, insecurities, and past experiences without reservation.
- The ability to collaborate, work together as a team, and turn towards one another during times of challenge.
- Prioritizing quality time together and engaging in activities that foster emotional intimacy, like deep conversations and shared interests.
What Does Emotional Intimacy Feel Like?
You feel heard.
Your thoughts, feelings, and concerns are genuinely listened to and acknowledged by your partner.
You feel safe.
You have a deep sense of emotional security, knowing that your partner will support and protect your feelings and vulnerabilities.
You feel understood.
Your partner comprehends your emotions and empathizes with your experiences. Even if you struggle to put that into words.
You feel accepted.
You are fully embraced for who you are, without judgment or the need to pretend to be someone else.
You feel loved.
Love is consistently expressed through both words and actions, reinforcing the emotional connection you share.
You feel emotionally fulfilled.
The relationship satisfies your emotional needs, providing a deep sense of contentment and happiness.
You feel a sense of belonging.
You know you have found your emotional home in your partner, where you feel welcomed, valued, and cherished.
You feel respected.
Your boundaries, opinions, and individuality are respected and honored by your partner.
You feel inspired.
The emotional connection motivates you to be a better person and pursue personal growth and happiness.
Overall, these feelings create a strong foundation of trust, connection, and satisfaction that help the partnership withstand challenges and thrive over time.
Let’s now look at how you can deepen that connection even more…
How to Show Emotional Intimacy
Displaying emotional intimacy involves sharing your thoughts and feelings, actively listening to your partner and empathizing with their experiences, and cultivating a safe, accepting environment where you both feel safe to authentically express your truest selves.
To show emotional intimacy, be open and vulnerable with your partner. And, be a present, compassionate listener for them to do the same. Let them know that you feel close to them and that they help you feel like you can be your true self.
One of the greatest gifts of an emotionally intimate relationship is that it can help you love yourself more fully.
This contradicts the common relationship myth that ‘you can’t love someone else until you fully love yourself’, but it’s true.
In our marriage, it’s through our vulnerable sharings that we’ve come to accept parts of ourselves that we thought were shameful or unloveable.
When our partner keeps loving and accepting us – despite our fears, shame, and insecurities – it gives us permission to do the same for ourselves.
It’s how a conscious relationship can be an incredible container for healing. And a path of self-actualization and self-love.
So if your partner helps you feel like this, be sure to let them know what a gift it is, and how much you appreciate it.
Want to feel even more connected in your relationship? These 9 transformative intimacy exercises for couples will bring you closer than ever before.
Why is Emotional Intimacy So Hard?
Emotional intimacy is hard because it requires vulnerability and personal disclosure. You have to let down your guard and trust someone with your true self. Which can be difficult if you’ve been hurt in the past or struggle with self-esteem issues. It also requires a specific set of communication skills.
The truth is, schools don’t teach us those skills. We often rely on what was modeled to us growing up. And if you’re anything like most people, that wasn’t always the healthiest.
And even though emotional intimacy is a core need, most of us end up developing plenty of blocks (aka emotional baggage) that prevent us from getting the intimacy and connection we crave.
We know this, because we’ve each lived it:
Before we met, we were both in relationships where we struggled with a lack of connection. We didn’t have the tools to fix it. And to be honest, we didn’t even have the words to describe what we were feeling:
While Jodie craved deep connection, she also had a fear that emotional intimacy would smother her freedom and autonomy. This led to an anxious-avoidant, push-pull dynamic in her dating life.
Meanwhile, Reece had a bucket load of past hurt and trauma that made him hesitant to commit and open up.
This all meant that we had a lot of work to do before we felt confident we could make this relationship work.
And when we first launched our coaching practice, we quickly realized that most couples faced similar challenges:
From a lack of communication skills and healthy role models, to unresolved hurt and outdated coping mechanisms.
So if you’re struggling with emotional intimacy, or you find it challenging, know that you’re not alone.
Signs of a Lack of Emotional Intimacy
- There’s a sense of loneliness and disconnection despite being together.
- Trust and honesty are compromised and you don’t open up to each other.
- Physical affection is infrequent or feels ‘cold’.
- You feel misunderstood or judged.
- There’s an increase in conflict and arguments without resolution.
- You avoid discussing important issues and walk on eggshells.
- There’s a breakdown in sexual intimacy.
- You feel resentful or lack empathy towards your partner.
- You don’t support each other’s hopes, dreams, and goals.
(Learn more about the toxic signs there’s no emotional intimacy in your marriage).
Yes, this all sounds rather bleak. But if this is you, know that it is possible to rebuild emotional intimacy in a relationship. Starting with understanding why it happens in the first place…
Reasons for Lack of Emotional Intimacy
- A lack of quality time due to busy schedules or distractions.
- Fear of vulnerability and difficulty talking about emotions or personal topics.
- Poor reflective listening skills that prevent empathetic communication.
- A breakdown in emotional safety and trust in the relationship.
- Unresolved conflicts or underlying resentments.
- A breakdown in other types of intimacy, such as physical and sexual intimacy.
Emotional intimacy is both a sign of a healthy relationship, and an experience that strengthens the relationship itself. That’s why a lack of emotional intimacy can so easily become a downward spiral.
The good news is that if you feel disconnected now, it doesn’t have to stay that way. By focusing on building emotional intimacy, you create a positive upward spiral and prevent your relationship from falling apart entirely.
Here’s an overall approach to rebuilding emotional intimacy in your relationship:
How to Repair Emotional Intimacy
To repair emotional intimacy, prioritize intentional quality time together, free of distractions, where you can have meaningful conversations together. Approach those conversations with openness, emotional vulnerability, curiosity, and respect.
- Build goodwill by verbally expressing your appreciation and affection regularly.
- Work on improving communication skills and learn the art of emotional validation.
- Clear any underlying resentment and address past hurts and conflicts with compassion.
- Be more open and vulnerable with your partner and share your feelings honestly.
- Avoid trying to fix each other’s problems, and focus on empathetic, active listening instead.
- Respect each other’s boundaries, opinions, and autonomy, even when disagreements arise.
- Support and encourage each other’s personal growth and self-development.
- Seek professional help if needed, like couples coaching.
Where to next?
If sex is a problem in your relationship, and you want more physical intimacy and connection, check out our complete guide to reigniting your love life.
Having arguments, conflicts, and fights you don’t know how to resolve? The Conflict To Connection communication course for couples is for you.
Or if you’re ready to step up and transform your relationship, schedule a time to learn more about our premium mens, womens, and couples coaching programs.
Sources & References
Hassebrauck, M. and Fehr, B. (2002), Dimensions of Relationship Quality. Personal Relationships, 9: 253-270. https://doi.org/10.1111/1475-6811.00017
Lieberman, M. D. (2013). Social: Why our brains are wired to connect. Crown Publishers/Random House.
Mund, M., Weidmann, R., Wrzus, C., Johnson, M. D., Bühler, J. L., Burriss, R. P., Wünsche, J., & Grob, A. (2022). Loneliness is associated with the subjective evaluation of but not daily dynamics in partner relationships. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 46(1), 28–38. https://doi.org/10.1177/0165025420951246
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 9 years coaching singles and couples, their no-BS advice has been featured in Today, The New York Times, Yahoo!, Insider, Cosmopolitan, and Men's Health.
Book in for a complimentary online video call to discover how their men's, women's, and couple's coaching programs can support you.