When we discuss intimacy in a romantic partnership, what usually comes to mind are physical acts, such as holding hands, cuddling, kissing and even sex. While physical intimacy is integral in any romantic partnership — it’s one of the primary factors that sets it apart from any other type of relationship — fostering emotional intimacy is just as, if not more, important.
What is emotional intimacy and why does it matter?
“Emotional intimacy could be defined as allowing yourself to connect more deeply with your partner through actions that express feelings, vulnerabilities and trust,” says Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist in New York City and faculty member in Columbia University’s clinical psychology Ph.D. program. “Part of a relationship is sharing your secrets, talking about your relationship, and telling your partner important news. A couple is generally happier when both parties can share and understand each other’s feelings.”
Ultimately, emotional intimacy creates a deep sense of security within your relationship and an ability to be wholly yourself — warts and all — without feeling as if you risk the relationship itself. Without this intimacy, a relationship struggles in many ways. For example, you might feel bitter or resentful, experience hypersensitivity, have fears regarding your partner’s loyalty to you, or experience feelings of isolation or loneliness.
It's not sustainable long-term to have a romantic relationship without emotional intimacy.
“If emotional intimacy is lacking, [one or both of you] may feel a lack of safety, love, support, overall connection, and it also will most likely affect the physical intimacy in a romantic relationship. It's not sustainable long-term to have a romantic relationship without emotional intimacy,” says Rachel Wright, a marriage counselor and licensed psychotherapist. “If you think about emotional intimacy as the foundation of any relationship, it really becomes a no-brainer to invest your resources (time, money and energy) into building it and continuing to nurture it.”
4 immediate ways to improve emotional intimacy
Fostering emotional intimacy is an ongoing practice and, like many things, may take some time to master. However, there are a few things you can do — starting tonight — to improve the emotional connection you have with your partner.
Be strategically vulnerable to earn their trust
Even if we’ve spent an enormous amount of time with someone, it’s sometimes difficult to break down our personal walls. Though you cannot force another to become vulnerable, you can go out of your way to be vulnerable yourself.
“The practice of strategic vulnerability is critically important. Instead of trying to be vulnerable in every area of your life, pick one place to start,” says Paul Hokemeyer, a psychotherapist and author of “Fragile Power: Why Having Everything Is Never Enough”. This might translate to sharing something that happened at work you might not have otherwise discussed, expressing a feeling you’ve had in the past that’s been hard to share, or revealing a fact about yourself that you’ve been holding onto.
Give your partner daily affirmations and compliments
Whether you’re six months into a relationship or 60 years deep, it’s easy to take our partner’s positive attributes for granted and sometimes difficult to express how much we cherish them.
“Making a habit of giving specific compliments and affirmations to your partner can help you keep perspective as to why this person is special to you, and it can help them know you see them. You never want your partner to feel invisible because you forgot to share your appreciation,” says Hafeez.
These verbal affirmations can be as simple as saying, “I want you to know how deeply I love you” or “I really appreciate the time you’ve taken to do x, y or z.”
Prioritize sexual satisfaction
A study published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy found that couples reported having a greater emotional connection when they were sexually satisfied. In that sense, the two are inextricably linked. While having sex itself isn’t a cure-all for improving your emotional bond, taking the time to learn and explore your partner’s desires — and having the same reciprocated — can lead to greater feelings of emotional connection in and out of the bedroom, says Hafeez.
Make an effort to break out of your day-to-day routine
With how busy life gets, it’s easy to hit a comfort zone plateau in which we move past each other simply trying to scratch items off our to-do lists. This is in stark contrast to the beginning of a relationship, when everything we do seems new and exciting, and when we go above and beyond.
“This can mean that we have lost sight of the value of doing things for each other that generate joy or intimacy in the other person. We stop trying to impress, we stop trying to understand, and in such environments, vulnerability and feelings can get lost to the routine of the everyday,” says Hafeez. “It is incredibly important that we make time for each other in a more profound way than just dinner or bedtime together.”
Garner inspiration from those early courting days in a relationship. Maybe you plan a spontaneous beginners square dancing date night, you decide to go for ice cream and a stroll, you show up with “just because” flowers, or you sit down together and plan a weekend getaway.
More relationship advice
Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.