Sexual intimacy is the combination of a physical act of sex and the associated emotional closeness between partners. In any form, intimacy involves mutual feelings of trust and vulnerability. Some couples may lose this connection, grow apart, and stop having sex altogether. However, partners can work together to grow their sexual intimacy on their own or with the help of a therapist.
What Is Sexual Intimacy?
Sexual intimacy occurs when two emotionally intimate partners have sex. While you can have sex without intimacy and vice versa, this connection can greatly increase satisfaction for both partners. In most cases, a healthy romantic relationship should have a balance between sexual and emotional intimacy.
Sexual Intimacy Vs. Other Types of Intimacy
Sexual, emotional, and other forms of intimacy share similar characteristics and often play into one another. For example, emotional and sexual intimacy both include deep feelings of closeness and connection. Not only do they work in tandem, but they can help create and build each other. Still, there are many types of intimacy.
Other types of intimacy include:
- Emotional intimacy: Emotional intimacy involves the sharing of emotions, thoughts, and feelings with a partner. It can exist in platonic relationships as well as romantic ones. An emotionally intimate relationship is one that is founded on trust and compassion.
- Physical intimacy: Physical intimacy includes the expression of love, care, and a desire for closeness. For example, holding hands or spooning in bed can be intimate, as can massage and foreplay. What makes a physical act intimate is the intention for closeness communicated between partners.
- Sensual intimacy: Sensual intimacy involves physical touch and pleasure, such as hugging and kissing. For example, instead of just holding hands, partners may engage in erotic massage.
How Sexual Intimacy Impacts Relationships
Being sexually intimate with a romantic partner has many advantages. Couples who are emotionally connected are more likely to have regular, healthy sex than those who feel distant from one another. Sexual intimacy can bring you closer together, open your heart, and break down walls you have built up. In fact, research suggests that in romantic, long-term relationships, higher levels of intimacy are associated with increased sexual desire.1
Sexual intimacy enables couples to:
- Feel more comfortable with one another.
- Be able to ask for what they want in terms of touch, intensity, and sex.
- Feel free to express themselves during sex.
- Be able to relax into the pleasure, rather than worry about performance.
- Take time to make sure their partner is ready for sex.
- Take time to hold each other after sex.
Benefits of Sexual Intimacy
Along with increased relationship satisfaction, there are many other benefits to sexual intimacy. Sharing this with your partner can improve your overall well-being, including both your mental and physical health.
Mental Health Benefits
Sexual intimacy can improve mental health, partly due to the fact that connection with others can play a large role in one’s emotional state. As humans, we are hard-wired for seeking closeness with trusted friends, family, and romantic partners. Without this, we can experience feelings of isolation and loneliness in a relationship.
Studies show that those who are “touch deprived” are more likely to experience stress and depression. When we are intimate with another person, we not only experience decreased loneliness, but also a mental boost. Sexual experiences, in particular, provide the touch and physical closeness we all crave. Asking bonding questions can help establish greater emotional intimacy, too.
Mental health benefits of sexual intimacy may include:
- Decreased anger in men: Research suggests that men who are deprived of intimacy may grow angry in a relationship. Hormone levels, especially oxytocin, actually change when touching or sharing an intimate act with another person.3
- Decreased depression: The release of serotonin, which occurs during orgasm, can help fight depression and lift one’s mood.
- Reduced anxiety: Both anxiety and depression were significantly lowered in sexually active subjects during the COVID 19 lockdown.4 This is partly due to endorphins being released during sexual activity. Like oxytocin, they can relieve stress and improve mood—activating feelings of pleasure and happiness.5
- Increased self-esteem: Having intimate sex can help make a person feel better about themselves, because they feel loved and accepted by their partner for who they are.
Better Sex Life
As you grow emotionally intimate as a couple, you’ll gain more confidence in the bedroom, and the better sex life you will have. Being open and trusting while having sex allows you to feel physical pleasure and relax enough to have an orgasm. Those with sexual concerns or dysfunctions often find that when they can share their concerns and be vulnerable, they can work through many issues with their partner.
Physical Health Benefits
Those who share intimacy with one another during sex may also experience improved physical health. This is largely due to oxytocin, known as “the love hormone,” which is released during physical touch. Thus, the physical closeness of sex, along with orgasm, can help relieve pain, offer stress relief, and improve one’s mood.
Physical health benefits of sexual intimacy may include:
- A decrease in stress
- Improved sleep
- Better cardiovascular health
- Increased longevity
5 Tips for Improving Sexual Intimacy
There are many ways for couples to cultivate sexual intimacy. While sex can be an important aspect of one’s relationship, humans crave emotional connection with others. Receiving this in a relationship can help melt the armor a person may use to protect themselves, allowing them to free the flow of love between themselves and their partner. Remind yourself that building sexual intimacy takes dedication–you need to spend time getting to know one another to experience it.
Below are five tips for improving sexual intimacy in your relationship:
1. Be Sensual With One Another
Take time to cuddle on the couch or in the bed, hold hands, or massage each other’s shoulders–even when sex isn’t on the menu. These physical connections throughout the day or the week can keep you emotionally and physically connected.
2. Engage One Another’s Senses
Make use of your five senses with your partner in new and unique ways. For example, share a decadent dessert together. Offer to bring home some flowers and then gently caress each other’s face and lips with the pedals. Engaging in sensual massage with sweet smelling oils is also a way to practice this.
3. Don’t Forget About Arousal
Allow time for arousal–foreplay is an important step in warming up to intimate sex. This doesn’t only increase desire, but can help each of you become more present and connected. Take a few minutes to look intently into each other’s eyes. This simple act can show your willingness to open up and be intimate.
4. Practice Sensual Sex
Sensual sex includes focusing more on pleasure than on performance. It encourages partners to slow down and take the time to connect more intimately. This can help you enjoy a deeply satisfying relationship with your partner that goes beyond orgasms.
Sensual sex is often more fulfilling and intimate than routine sex. It is flowing, spontaneous, and exploratory. By taking the time to really take in and enjoy your partner’s body, you can satisfy your desire for deep intimacy.2
5. Don’t Forget to Have Fun
Remember to have fun! Bring fruit, whipped cream, chocolate sauce, and other delicious elixirs into the bedroom to lighten things up. Additionally, be sure to unplug—phones off, TV off—to help you be more present with one another. Staying open to new experiences can allow you both to open up and grow a sense of connection.
When to Seek Professional Help
Reaching out to another person physically and emotionally requires a vulnerability that many find difficult. Some people have learned to put up defenses in order to protect themselves from hurt. Letting down these walls, even in the presence of loved ones, can be challenging. Couples or marital therapy can help you break through obstacles that have kept you feeling separate and alone.
The pressures and insecurities of daily life can also cause many of us to suffer from stress, which in turn can lead to lack of sexual desire or even sexual dysfunction. When this occurs it is often necessary to seek the help of a certified sex therapist. Sex therapy can help you reclaim your natural capacity for pleasure. Sensate focus therapy, in particular, was designed to help establish trust between couples and find alternative ways of sharing intimacy.
In My Experience
Having been a sex therapist for many years I found that most couples can benefit from sex therapy. Practicing sensate focus can introduce a level of emotional and physical intimacy that they never knew was possible. It can be scary to take this step–but believe me, it is well worth it.
Sensate focus can help you learn to touch in a very slow, sensuous and loving way. It encourages you to take the time to pleasure the entire body. It is also a great way to get you out of your head and into your senses. Because sensate focus is non-threatening, it is especially beneficial for couples who feel a lot of pressure to perform.
For Further Reading
- Come as You Are, Emily Nagoski
- Better Sex Through Mindfulness: How Women Can Cultivate Desire, Lori A. Brotto
- Sex Smart: How Your Childhood Shaped Your Sex Life & What to Do About It, Aline P. Zoldbrod