What Are Effective Ways to Discuss Intimacy With Couples?


    What Are Effective Ways to Discuss Intimacy With Couples?

    In our latest feature, we delve into the delicate subject of rekindling intimacy among couples with guidance from relationship experts. From normalizing the experience of drifting apart to repairing trust, we present valuable insights from a panel including Relationship Therapists and Clinical Psychologists. These professionals share their successful interventions to help couples bridge the emotional gap.

    • Normalize Experience and Define Intimacy
    • Identify Missing Intimacy Types
    • Broaden Intimacy Beyond Physical
    • Repair Trust for Emotional Safety

    Normalize Experience and Define Intimacy

    First, I typically normalize this experience for couples in long-term relationships and remind them that this doesn't mean the relationship is 'doomed.' 'Intimacy' can be a loaded, abstract, or ambiguous word for many folks. So, I usually begin by exploring each partner's definitions of 'intimacy,' and then I provide psychoeducation on the five different types to broaden their scope: physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and experiential intimacy. I guide the couple to self-assess their strengths and growing edges for each type of intimacy, and then we use this information to collaborate on setting more specific goals for how they want to improve their intimate relationship.

    Allison ColaianniSex and Relationship Therapist, Center for Modern Relationships

    Identify Missing Intimacy Types

    Remember that intimacy can refer to so many different types of connections—emotional intimacy, intellectual intimacy, physical intimacy—so it may be worth considering what each member of the couple feels is missing. For example, one may find it necessary to rebuild emotional intimacy before increasing physical intimacy, but their partner may not have the same need.

    One strategy for rebuilding intimacy is to create novel experiences together. When new couples begin dating, the novelty of new experiences releases 'happy hormones' such as dopamine and oxytocin. Even when couples have been together for a long time, it's important to facilitate the production of these hormones to strengthen emotional intimacy.

    Laura Sgro
    Laura SgroLicensed Therapist, Laura Sgro, LCSW

    Broaden Intimacy Beyond Physical

    I encourage clients to explore a broader definition of intimacy. Often, when we think of intimacy, we think of sex; however, there are so many ways we can engage in intimacy that is not physical at all. I typically have my clients examine their emotional intimacy, safety, and trust within their relationship. If any of those areas are needing attention, we start there. Once those areas feel strong and established, we begin to think of physical intimacy in terms of a spectrum, moving at a pace that feels good for each partner and getting creative in ways they can explore their physical connection.

    Kylie Sligar
    Kylie SligarLicensed Clinical Psychologist & Co-Owner, All In Bloom Therapy

    Repair Trust for Emotional Safety

    The most important thing is to remember that intimacy doesn't have to mean sex. Intimacy is a deep, emotionally supportive connection. This requires there to be enough safety in the relationship to be vulnerable—with our thoughts and feelings, as well as our bodies. Intimacy, sexual or not, requires partners to feel seen, heard, and figuratively held.

    For couples who have drifted apart, almost always, trust has been ruptured—for some, in major ways, e.g. lying, cheating, abuse; and for others, in smaller ways, over time, e.g. through dismissal, minimization, one partner's needs being treated as less significant, lack of follow-through, lack of dependability, etc. Very often, when trust has been ruptured, one or both partners no longer feel emotionally or energetically safe enough to broach the topic of their hurt feelings, their needs, or their boundaries. Not surprisingly, this experience can pinch communication or shut down meaningful connection altogether.

    Without connection and a feeling of true belonging in the relationship, true intimacy cannot occur; emotionally, energetically, or sexually.

    To get back to intimacy, start with your partner's primary love language—not yours, theirs! So, if your partner understands touch as love, be sure to hug them hello and goodbye, lay a hand on theirs when they're sharing with you, hold them when they're hurting. Or, if your partner understands quality time as love, set up a date that might excite your partner, or carve out 10–15 minutes in the morning and at night to check in with one another about how you're both feeling, how your days were, what's on your minds, and listen to understand, not to respond. These small acts can really begin to foster trust and emotional safety in the relationship, as leaning into your partner's love language says, 'I see you, and I understand you.'

    Emotional safety is the foundation needed for vulnerability, and vulnerability is the key ingredient in intimacy. Starting small can lead to big developments in the way of reconnecting, rekindling, and repairing whatever ruptures led to the drifting and disconnection.

    Jean Ricks-Ayer, LPCLicensed Professional Counselor & Alternative Healing Practitioner