smiling couple staring into each other's eyes: ways to create intimacy in a relationship even when you don't feel like sex

In a recent couples workshop, I asked the zoom audience what intimacy means to them; selecting one of the following answers:

  • Intimacy means emotional, spiritual, intellectual, sexual, and physical connection
  • Intimacy means what we do physically and sexually
  • Intimacy means how close we are as a couple, how much we tell each other etc.
  • We don’t feel close or connected anymore in any of the above ways

While most people selected #1, there was still a large portion of the 40+ couples attending that selected one of the other options. And while #2 and #3 are indeed intimacy, true intimacy is not just one aspect in our relationship, like sex.

Perhaps you can ask your partner the same question, and see what they think intimacy looks like. Most often, when there is a big difference between partner’s definitions of intimacy, it indicates the need for more conversation and exploration on how intimacy is experienced between the couple.

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What exactly is intimacy?

In order to create intimacy in our relationships, which isn’t solely focused on sex, we need to understand the different pillars of intimacy:

  • Emotional intimacy: Truly understanding your partner and accepting their emotions as their own, being able to be vulnerable and share feelings
  • Intellectual intimacy: Exchanging ideas and thoughts about things you think and care about, showing genuine interest in your partner for who they are as a person rather than just what they do
  • Physical intimacy: Being affectionate with each other, which can include everything from hugging to holding hands to kissing to cuddling on the couch.
  • Experiential/recreational intimacy: Couples shouldn’t do every, single thing together, but it’s important to share some experiences (without any distractions, such as your phone). For instance, this might include taking a walk, biking, going for breakfast, or even sitting in the garden at the end of a long day.
  • Spiritual intimacy: Sharing awe-inspiring moments together, focusing on self-growth and awareness. This might mean worshipping as a couple, walking together in nature, or even listening to a podcast together.
  • Sexual intimacy: This refers to far more than intercourse… it’s the true meaning of making love. It’s touching, stroking, kissing, caressing, pleasing and being pleasured. It’s about pleasure and permission, not performance and pressure

Knowing what the pillars of intimacy are, can you and your partner review each one and rate how intimate you think you are in each one, out of 10?

It’s impossible for couples to be 10/10 in every pillar, but perhaps a simple exercise like this will help you recognise which areas of intimacy need more work.

heart rate monitor shaped like a heart: how to create intimacy even when you don't feel like having sex

How to create more intimacy in your relationship (and no, that doesn’t just mean having more sex!)

Once you’ve done this, the next step is to draw up a list of ways to be intimate according to each pillar. Having a list (which you can add to at any time) is really helpful and takes a lot of the ‘in-moment’ work out of it. You can add to your list at any time! Having a list means that you can be intentional about how and when you connect intimately.

In therapy speak, we would break the word intimacy down, in to – into me you see. True intimacy, encompassing all the above pillars, is truly allowing someone in and being seen, while also seeing someone as they are. It’s a rather scary experience for most people and surprisingly people tend to neglect or avoid getting truly intimate with their partner, especially in times of stress.

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Think of how you are doing nearly 2 years into the pandemic? Most couples have struggled in some areas of intimacy simply due to external stressors and constant uncertainty, especially sexually. The context in which desire develops has not been helped by the emotional distress, ongoing burnout, and persistent frustration we’ve been facing throughout the pandemic.

It’s completely normal to not feel like sex that much right now… but the intimacy in your relationship doesn’t have to suffer just because desire for sex has taken a knock.

Catriona is an accredited clinical sexologist, psychotherapist, sexuality researcher & speaker. She is an expert in the field of sexual behaviour, intimacy, relationships and mental well-being, with a particular interest in helping people create or reestablish sexual intimacy and empowering women to embrace their sexuality. She has delivered her expertise across media, business and private platforms and is a globally recognised voice in the field of sex, pleasure and relationships. She runs a global practice online, consulting with clients from around the world, but has a practice in Johannesburg, South Africa and London, United Kingdom.