Understanding Emotional Intimacy: Your Guide to More Fulfilling Relationships | Nonmonogamy Academy

Let’s break down what emotional intimacy really is when it comes to our nonmonogamous relationships! It’s important not to get it confused with affection, physical intimacy, new relationship energy, and having shared trauma (because trauma bonding is real!). Knowing the difference can help you have more fulfilling and healthy relationships. 

Here is a little guide to emotional intimacy so you never have to feel fooled by anything masquerading as the real thing again!

Intimacy isn’t just about connecting with others. It is also very important to have a connection and intimacy with yourself. Relying entirely on your partner to provide you with all of your connection needs is codependency. Learning how to connect with yourself will actually help you become better connected in your relationship as well.

The Difference Between The Types Of Intimacy

There are actually multiple types of intimacy that may or may not be showing up in your relationship. It can be a good idea to do a thorough inventory of the ways you experience intimacy, as well as how you connect to yourself and others. Below are a few examples of different intimacies. What stands out to you about each of these? How do they show up in your life? 

Spiritual Intimacy can include any sort of connection with nature or with yourself, ritual practice, mindfulness, or religion. This may show up as going to a religious establishment together, doing yoga together, or sitting in nature together quietly. You might find that this overlaps with mental or energetic intimacy, or that something that feels like a spiritual intimacy for one of you is fulfilling an energetic energy for the other.

Physical Intimacy is for everything outside of sex: cuddling, kissing, hugging, or even grooming each other. Sometimes people lump sex and physical touch together and aren’t quite sure which one they are actually wanting. Being able to identify the difference between the two can sometimes relieve some tension when dealing with desire discrepancy problems in relationships. There can also be a lot of overlap with sexual intimacy, but not always.

Mental Intimacy could include intellectual conversations, taking classes together, or watching documentaries together. One of the difficulties here comes when the things you like to nerd out about are about different things. If one of you really enjoys discussing the nuances of European politics and the other enjoys watching documentaries on space exploration, your forms of mental intimacy may just not line up. There can be some overlap with emotional intimacy if you really enjoy having difficult conversations about your inner workings with your partner. There can be some overlap with spiritual intimacy if you are discussing things related more in depth or analytically. 

Energetic Intimacy comes with doing physical activities together like hiking, biking, dancing, riding roller coasters or watching sports. This can have some overlap with spiritual, creative, or physical intimacy, depending on the activity.

Creative Intimacy can come from doing projects together, creating art or music together, cooking together, or taking classes that involve learning creative skills together. This is another intimacy that can look like other intimacies, and if you don’t have the same creative passions as your partner, may end up being something you do on your own.

Emotional intimacy is all about having the ability to express your feelings honestly and candidly with another person while being heard, understood and accepted as you are without any judgment or criticism. Being vulnerable with someone else and sharing even your least desirable aspects can be incredibly empowering. And that’s what emotional intimacy is all about.

Sexual Intimacy is all about feeling confident to talk openly and honestly with your partner about sex and pleasure. It’s also often related to emotional intimacy, as many of us feel embarrassed discussing our desires in the bedroom. So why not set aside any shame and strike up the conversation as it could really enhance your experience.

Often, I come across difficult situations in sex therapy where people don’t know how to easily transfer the communication skills they’ve gained from either sexual or emotional intimacy to the other. Even if you solved one hurdle, there’s still another challenge – bridging the gap between the two! This can be helped by practicing the skills, regardless of in which capacity you have learned them, and seeing the ways they can be cross-applicable to many parts of your life. 

In any relationship, whether it is monogamous or non-monogamous, there can be a disconnect between sexual and emotional intimacy. Bridging this gap requires a willingness to open up and communicate with your partner(s) about your wants, needs, and desires both in and out of the bedroom. Spending time together with the intention of deepening your emotional connection can lead to greater sexual intimacy. Taking the time to physically and emotionally explore your romantic partner(s) and prioritize creating intimacy can lead to satisfying and fulfilling relationships. It is important to remember that emotional intimacy takes time, effort, and vulnerability, but the rewards are well worth it.

The Roles That Vulnerability and Past Trauma Play Within Intimate Relationships  

Everybody is unique when it comes to vulnerability. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ here! Biology, psychology and social factors all play a role in just how sensitive we are to the same objective circumstances. Some of us are more prone to developing PTSD while others possess protective factors like growing up with loving parents who were supportive, and able to be present with us in our feelings. Others have developed great coping strategies over the years, and still other folks might just be generally less emotional and able to handle more stress. In short, we’re all wired differently. That’s what makes each one of us so special.

You simply can’t judge the “appropriateness” of someone’s reaction to an event based on how you think you’d react. Let’s face it, unless you are inside their head, you don’t know! Your biology, circumstances, and life experiences will all drastically affect your experience of the same event. So when somebody’s having an emotional conversation and spilling their vulnerabilities to you, put judging their reaction aside. Simply listen and try to understand what it’s like to have those complicated emotions. They are doing the very hard work of being vulnerable, your work may be listening, and asking clarifying questions, without judgment or filtering it through how you think they “should” be communicating. 

Surviving a lot of traumatic experiences often leaves people in two groups: Those who put up walls to protect their vulnerability, and those who lay it all out on the table to see if others can handle the crushing weight of it. Neither of these choices is particularly helpful to building a trusting emotional relationship. In the first scenario, you might find yourself consistently in relationships with people that don’t validate you when you do try to be vulnerable. This just confirms what you’ve always believed, that you can’t trust anyone anyway. You end up staying in those relationships because that is what is familiar to you, even if it isn’t in your best emotional interests. In the second scenario, you might find yourself consistently rejected by people who are overwhelmed by the vulnerability dumping. Then you have confirmation that you can’t trust people with your vulnerabilities, and that keeps you locked into a space of distrust. This confirmed sense of being “too much” prevents you from feeling like there may be anyone who wants to understand and be supportive of you. It isn’t that you are “too much”, but that people may not have the capacity to attend to your emotions, and need that kind of information spaced out a bit to give them time to process it. 

Signs That a Relationship is Emotionally Intimate

Great relationships don’t rely solely on sexual connections. Plenty of asexual folks have awesome relationships too! No matter what type of relationship is – a couple, roommates, co-parents – if they have been together for a long time, have formed strong ties with healthy boundaries, communicate well, and have shared visions for the future everyone involved can feel very satisfied with their bond.

Not sure if your romantic relationship is healthy and intimate? Here are some questions to help you figure it out! Thinking about these questions can provide great insight into your relationship health.

  • Does my primary partner completely accept me as I am?
  • I can openly share my deepest thoughts and feelings with this person at any time?
  • Does this person make me feel cared for?
  • Would this person willingly help me in any way?
  • Are my thoughts and feelings understood and affirmed by this person?
  • Is this person willing to make compromises for the benefit of our relationship?
  • Do we have a shared understanding of how we want to live our lives together?

It’s crucial to recognize that establishing an intimate relationship is a two-way process. If you want your partner to meet all these criteria, then make sure you’re showing them the same consideration. There are many different types of relationships out there, and as long as both parties are happy, there’s no right or wrong way to have an emotionally intimate relationship. So don’t be afraid to let yourself be vulnerable!

Emotional Intimacy and Nonmonogamy

One of the great things about non-monogamy is that you can have different partners with different intimacy profiles. No one partner needs to fill all of your intimacy needs. If you are the type of person that likes to go to concerts, go on long hikes, have long discussions about politics, and spend a lot of time having sex with cuddles, you don’t need to give up your relationship with your partner who works very hard at their job and then comes home and mostly just wants to cuddle and occasionally go to a concert, or spend a few weekends hiking every now and then. You can find other partners who enjoy those things with you. Granted, people aren’t one-to-one substitutions for each other, so this doesn’t always work if you have nothing in common.

When it comes to non-monogamous relationship satisfaction, remember it takes two (or more) to tango when it comes to emotional intimacy. All partners have to contribute to the relationship’s success. You can’t build a strong bond if only one partner does the heavy lifting. You need everyone involved to step up for balance and longevity if that’s what you are looking for.

Want a closer bond in your non-monogamous relationship? Spend quality time together and be ready for conversation. Listen actively, share and listen with empathy, and create a safe space. This is what it takes to build an emotional connection built on trust. Communication is key! Open up so you can truly understand each other.

Make sure to stay involved in your relationship and show genuine interest in what matters to each other. Quality time together, doing enjoyable activities, will help build a stronger bond. Along the way, you can explore different emotional and intimate boundaries together, plus be there for each other’s self-discovery. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it.

Cultivating a strong emotional connection is essential for any committed relationship to thrive! It takes time, effort, and energy to create a healthy, supportive, and understanding space. Put in the work for an emotionally intimate relationship though and you’ll be rewarded with a satisfying one!

When Emotional Intimacy May Not Be What You Are Seeking

The other great thing about non-monogamy is that not every relationship requires emotional intimacy. Plenty of people are out there having relationships based entirely on sexual intimacy, and that’s okay. Just make sure you know that’s what you are looking for and that you are clearly communicating that to the other party so that you’re all on the same page. 

The place where this often becomes a problem is when people first open up their relationships and promise or think they aren’t going to develop feelings for people they are having sexual relationships with. We can’t always help how we are feeling. This is when you need to get real clear on if the intensity of the emotions you are having are because you feel sexually connected to this person, or if you genuinely are having an emotional connection to this person. Our bodies often like to trick us into thinking we are having emotional connections when it’s really just the orgasms releasing a lot of dopamine and oxytocin into our systems. It’s always good to look at those signs listed above when you are in the early stages of a relationship to determine if true emotional intimacy is being established. Just because you’re experiencing a rush of chemicals into your system, that does not mean you aren’t also building a connection, but it may not be as deep or permanent as your system is telling you in those moments. It takes time and intention to build those relationships, and to sustain them. Refer back to our posts about NRE for a refresher on this topic.