Intimacy is a key element of relationship building and stability. When your relationship is healthy, you can grow and flourish both as individuals and as a couple, knowing that your partner has your best interest at heart.
When you think of intimacy, the first thing that probably comes to mind is physical intimacy or sex, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But intimacy isn’t just sex – while sex is a part of physical intimacy, many more factors contribute to building and sustaining an intimate relationship with your partner.
It’s no secret that addiction and mental health issues impact our romantic relationships. Healing your relationship will take more than just treating the reason that brought you or your loved one to treatment.
Having the support of those you love is essential to the recovery process. When you understand intimacy, you can better support your romantic relationship and overall well-being.
What is Intimacy?
The word intimacy is derived from the Latin intimus, meaning “innermost” or “deepest,” and the root word is a figurative reference to affections or feelings. Intimacy can be defined in many ways.
In its simplest form, intimacy is the degree of closeness and the bond that exists between you and your partner.
The quality of a couple’s intimacy is one of the most significant predictors of the relationship’s health and stability. Healthy intimacy is associated with happiness, commitment, and physical and emotional well-being.
Unsurprisingly, a lack of intimacy is one of the most common causes of distress for couples and can cause significant emotional turmoil. Couples often cite a lack of intimacy as a reason for divorce.
You can think of intimacy as the glue that holds a relationship together – it’s that bond that lets you know you’ve got each other. Healthy levels of intimacy help us feel safe, secure, and loved. Intimacy is multidimensional and affects several different aspects of a relationship.
The Five Types of Intimacy
While there are many ways to describe intimacy, we generally define it across five dimensions: physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and social.
Most people are familiar with physical intimacy or think it’s the only kind of intimacy. Physical intimacy can include sexual intimacy, which is an integral part of a healthy couple’s relationship.
However, physical intimacy also includes affectionate touching, such as holding hands, hugs, kisses, and cuddling. In fact, affectionate touch is closely related to high relationship satisfaction and plays a vital role in building feelings of closeness between two people.
We all have different needs when it comes to physical intimacy, and you can ask your partner about their needs if you need more clarification. Physical intimacy can change over time and wax and wane through different seasons – the most important piece is keeping open communication to ensure you both get your needs met.
Emotional intimacy is the degree to which you and your partner are willing and able to connect on a deep, meaningful emotional/feelings level. It’s more than just saying how you feel: emotional intimacy requires trust and willingness to be open and vulnerable in expressing deeper thoughts, feelings, and needs.
One way to connect emotionally is to share about your childhood or something personal (without crossing your boundaries with yourself). It’s essential to practice emotional intimacy outside of moments of crisis so that when something big happens, you and your partner have established enough trust, vulnerability, and awareness to support each other.
This type of intimate self-disclosure is key to building intimacy and closeness in relationships.
In its simplest form, intellectual intimacy is having a healthy curiosity and learning from each other. Healthy intellectual intimacy is characterized by feeling safe to discuss various topics and share your views and perspectives while being open to different perspectives.
Mutual respect allows you to connect and discuss topics beyond your usual day-to-day rapport, even when your opinions differ. You can practice intellectual intimacy by watching a cerebral film together, reading poetry, or venturing to art museums. Intellectual intimacy doesn’t have to be complex or deeply political – it’s about observing your differences and finding ways to connect.
Spiritual intimacy has many meanings because spirituality is uniquely personal. Generally speaking, spiritual intimacy is the degree to which you and your partner share your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and experiences about religion, spirituality, moral values, life after death, and other related issues.
Spirituality isn’t always about religion, although religious beliefs and practices can be part of one’s spirituality. Spirituality is a broader concept that encompasses your connection to something larger than yourself and the search for meaning in life.
A healthy degree of spiritual intimacy can enhance communication and feelings of connection. If you’re unfamiliar with spiritual intimacy or uncomfortable opening up about your personal beliefs, you and your partner can watch a documentary about spirituality or a specific religion and discuss what you found relatable. Work up to the more complex conversations over time – the goal isn’t to agree entirely but to have a healthy awareness of your partner’s beliefs and to feel safe expressing your own.
Social intimacy is the degree to which you and your partner share each other’s interests and spend time together as a couple. What kinds of things do you do together? Do you share quality time having fun?
Now, this doesn’t mean doing everything together or always doing your own thing. Social intimacy is about spending time together doing fun things balanced with individual time – you need both. When it comes to togetherness, more isn’t always better, and less isn’t always more.
One great way to build social intimacy is to try something new together. Cooking classes, learning how to dance salsa, trying a new restaurant, or taking a new yoga class together – when you come together on the same playing field with no previous experience, you’re able to be vulnerable and embrace the awkwardness of something new.
Intimacy doesn’t happen overnight: it is a closeness built over time by the experiences and interactions that two people share.
Simply being near someone or sharing day-to-day interactions doesn’t translate to deep or even healthy intimacy – the quality of your experiences is particularly important. The inverse is also true: we don’t immediately lose intimacy just because it’s lapsed in a few different areas.
Intimacy is about consistency, and if barriers to intimacy persist over time, we can feel a bit conflicted about our connection to a partner. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that a partner’s addiction or mental health issues can significantly impact the level of intimacy that two people share.
What Does Intimacy Have to Do with Recovery?
If you want a healthy relationship with your partner, intimacy has a lot to do with recovery.
Intimacy becomes one of the first casualties when addiction or mental illness enters a relationship. Losing that closeness disrupts the balance of your relationship.
It’s like a mobile that you’d see over a baby’s crib: touch one piece, and every other part is disturbed. The mobile wobbles and bounces, struggling to regain stability. The harder or more often you touch it, the more it moves. Like the mobile, it’s hard to maintain a stable, healthy relationship when trust, communication, and respect are constantly tested and disrupted.
A loss of intimacy can make supporting a loved one or being supported by a loved one difficult and, sometimes, impossible. For the person seeking recovery, having the support of loved ones, especially your partner, is a crucial component of the recovery process. And the person supporting their partner in recovery may need support, reassurance, and help to establish boundaries after potentially overextending themselves.
Rebuilding Intimacy After Treatment
Despite what you might think, the issues between a couple don’t just disappear after addiction or mental illness treatment. Addiction and mental health issues demand a lot from individuals and their support systems, and there may be wounds that need tending before moving ahead healthily. Left unaddressed, the problems that existed before treatment can remain and, surprisingly, for some couples, can continue to create conflicts even after returning home.
Many treatment programs include opportunities for a partner to participate in their loved one’s treatment program. In fact, research shows that including a partner in the treatment process can have a positive effect on treatment outcomes. Participation may include couples counseling and family education, especially if you plan to reunite following treatment. Each individual brings behavior patterns to the relationship, which can impact the relationship in unhealthy ways.
Whether your primary issue is addiction, mental health, or codependency and enabling, you will need to learn more healthy ways of interacting. Starting couples therapy while in treatment can help you begin that process: it’s a chance to talk honestly about the issues, rebuild the damaged parts of the relationship, and learn new ways of communicating with each other.
While attending couples counseling while in treatment won’t solve all of the issues, it offers a safe place to start talking about the hard things. You can continue working together as part of an aftercare plan.
Professional Support for Rebuilding Intimacy
At All Points North, we understand the importance of including partners and family in recovery and healing. Partners can participate in all the services we offer for couples, in-person or via telehealth.
If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction or mental health issues, our team of expert clinicians and addiction specialists are ready to help you take the next step toward healing and recovery. Call us at 855.235.9792 or complete our online contact form to learn how we can support you and your loved one as you navigate the path toward healing. We’ll help you find your way forward.
- Kardan-Souraki, Maryam, et al. “A Review of Marital Intimacy-Enhancing Interventions among Married Individuals.” Global Journal of Health Science, Canadian Center of Science and Education, 17 Dec. 2015, https://www.ccsenet.org/journal/index.php/gjhs/article/view/53109.
- Schaefer, Mark T., and David H. Olson. “Assessing Intimacy: The Pair Inventory.” Wiley Online Library, Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, Jan. 1981, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1752-0606.1981.tb01351.x.
- Jakubiak, Brett K. “Affectionate Touch in Satisfying and Dissatisfying Romantic Relationships.” SAGE Journals, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 2 Mar. 2022, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/02654075221077280.
- Ariss, Talia, and Catharine E. Fairbairn. “The Effect of Significant Other Involvement in Treatment for Substance Use Disorders: A Meta-Analysis.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, National Library of Medicine, June 2020, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7228856/.