Summary: Emotional intimacy is a vital part of relationships, but sometimes it gets taken for granted. Developing deep intimacy is dependent on how you feel about yourself and how you develop those feelings. 

We hear the word “intimacy” all the time, but because it can mean a lot of different things, it’s not always clear what it means in that moment.

You could call a cozy booth at your favorite restaurant “intimate” while you sit with a loved one and eat a bowl of soup or swill a cup of hot chocolate.

You could also say that someone has an “intimate” knowledge of a subject that they’ve studied thoroughly and know really well.What is emotional intimacy?

Or often, the word “intimacy” is used as a euphemism for sex.

Each of these are reasonable uses of the word, and ultimately, they are related to each other on some level.

A cozy booth may feel “intimate” because you are having good conversation in that warm setting and you’re feeling content. Someone who has an “intimate” knowledge of some subject has that because of the amount of time spent with it—a common way to develop intimacy. And sex is an “intimate” experience, it’s just not the only intimate experience.

Taking these uses of the word intimacy together, we can conclude that intimacy involves devoted time, close connection, conversation, and feelings of contentment.

And it does. But true emotional intimacy is even more than that.

What is Emotional Intimacy?

Scholars define intimacy as a perception of closeness and an ability to share personal feelings with an expectation of acceptance and understanding.[1]

Or in other words, intimacy means feeling close to and accepted by someone and being willing to share some of your most personal experiences with that person.

Based on that definition, you can probably think of intimate experiences you’ve had or of people you feel comfortable sharing that type of intimacy with.

Here are some of the key parts of intimate relationships:

Psychological closeness—This simply means feeling like the person with whom you are sharing intimacy knows you well and still likes you![2] (This is not to be confused with mere physical closeness. It’s entirely possible to live or work in close proximity with someone and not share intimacy.)

Self-disclosure—As noted previously, sharing thoughts and feelings is a big part of intimacy.[3] Typically this is done in a way that is mutual and satisfying for both. You need to be able to trust the person that you are sharing your innermost thoughts with.

Commitment—It’s not likely that I’m going to tell a casual acquaintance the innermost thoughts of my heart. This is because there’s no expectation of a long-term relationship and no sense of trust in the situation. Intimacy builds as you get to know a person more and as your commitment to each other grows.

Typically, we only enter into intimate relationships like this when there’s an expectation of love and acceptance in return.[4] You’re not likely to share all of your feelings or let someone really see you when you feel threatened by their reaction or when the sharing isn’t mutual. It makes sense then that such intimacy builds throughout the course of a relationship and doesn’t happen instantly.

But intimacy is vital to the human experience.[5] We all need connection with others; we crave a feeling of belonging. And as it turns out, being in close relationships is an important part of overall health and well-being.[6] So intimacy is a basic need in our lives. (Though that doesn’t mean it comes easily.)

Seeing Deeply & Being Deeply Seen

Intimacy has many levels, but I like to think of true emotional intimacy as the connection that forms when you are willing to let others see you deeply.

To truly let someone see who you are means sharing some of your deepest thoughts and feelings, letting that person see you not only at your best but also when you struggle, when you’re afraid, or when you don’t look your best, behave your best, or feel your best.

Intimacy develops when you let someone really know the real you. (Which makes it easy to see how intimacy and authenticity go hand in hand.)

As columnist David Brooks said, “To me, the core…trait that we all have to get a little better at is the trait of seeing each other deeply and being deeply seen.” [7]

One of the real beauties of intimacy is that as you allow others to see you more deeply, you will learn to see others more deeply as well.

To be able to see others deeply, first, you’ve got to feel comfortable being deeply seen. Letting others see the real you usually means becoming comfortable with who you are. And THAT means that you don’t expect perfection from yourself (because you will never achieve it) and believing that you are worthy of love and acceptance anyway.

When you allow others to truly see you and love you as you are, you are willing to love and accept other people where they are at as well.

Then real intimacy forms.

Not Just for Couples

It’s important to note that intimacy isn’t always tied specifically to a relationship.

Sure, often you can feel intimacy in connection with another and as mentioned, intimacy in a relationship develops over time and forms from mutual closeness, trust, commitment, and self-disclosure.

But developing a capacity for intimacy means that you are comfortable with sharing your true self in more settings than just with your romantic partner.

An experience that I had a few years back really brought this into clarity for me.

On two different occasions over the course of a few weeks, I was invited to go to dinner with two different groups of friends. On both occasions, I sat and chatted with these friends through the course of dinner but noticed that no personal conversation happened. Instead, we talked about the news, the weather, or what was going on in other mutual acquaintances’ lives.

In some cases, it devolved to some pretty nasty gossiping.

I left both of those evenings feeling a little bit hollow. Typically, I love a night out with friends, but these two dinners didn’t do much to fill my soul.

A week or two later I had lunch with another friend.

With this friend, we sat and talked, just the two of us, for two hours. We chatted about our kids and parenting difficulties, we shared our new year’s goals and why we’d chosen them, we talked about work and school and dating and just basically had a fun, connecting conversation about life.

I left this lunch feeling so different from how I’d felt after the previous two experiences. My soul felt filled by the connection.

I’ve since reflected on the differences between these two experiences and realized just how much authenticity and intimacy matter in a relationship.

In the first two settings, my friends deflected attention from themselves as if they didn’t really want anyone to see them, and so the conversation stayed at surface levels. In the other, we talked about deep and meaningful things and disclosed parts of ourselves that really mattered.

When a person shares personal feelings and truly lets you see who she is, everything from struggles to strengths, a much deeper connection can be formed.

One more quick example

Think about a class you’ve been in or a time you’ve listened to a speaker. When that teacher or speaker just blandly covers the assigned material, your level of involvement will vary depending on your level of interest in the topic being shared.

But when that teacher or speaker shares personal experiences and gives you a peek into their own emotions, challenges, thoughts, or life stories, you begin to feel a connection with that person, and more likely than not, your interest and engagement in what they are saying increases dramatically.

Sharing ourselves with others is powerful and can be a beautiful experience.

What Intimacy is NOT

There’s a popular thought these days that to really enter into intimacy, you’ve got to be completely connected with someone. In this line of thinking, you’d spend all your time together, see eye to eye on all the things you talk about, and basically merge your two selves into one.

But true intimacy is developed in just the opposite way. Instead of merging yourself with someone else, seek to develop yourself and when you do, you’re likely to find that intimacy comes much more naturally.

Emotional IntimacyWhen two people who are comfortable with themselves and who are able to maintain a sense of who they are, even in close relationships, come together, the connection they form can be much stronger than when two selves try to merge.

As psychologist Nicholas Papouchis taught, it’s important to have a high level of personal development so that your individual identity is not threatened when entering into an intimate relationship.[8]

Think about it. If you aren’t comfortable with who you are, are you going to want to let others see the real you?

Probably not.

If you did, you might worry that they wouldn’t like what they saw. So instead, you hide. You don’t let people see the full, real, true you…and that doesn’t breed much intimacy.

But if you’re comfortable with who you are, in spite of your flaws (because you recognize that we all have them, there’s no need to be ashamed of that), you can more easily form intimate connections. (In fact, often it’s in the sharing of our struggles and challenges that connection is forged.)

True intimacy comes from becoming comfortable enough with yourself that you’re willing to let others get close to you.

Developing Your Capacity for Emotional Intimacy

Intimacy is a capacity that can be developed. You can learn to be more comfortable truly sharing who you are with others, but it takes work. (Just like everything else in this life that really matters.)

Of course, given that developing emotional intimacy is so closely tied to being who you really are, the main thing you can work on is being comfortable with the real and authentic you. (Shed some of those labels and definitions you allow the world to put on you.)

Here are some steps you can take as you work to develop emotional intimacy:

(Bust out a journal and do some thinking and responding on these!) 

Step 1: Notice ways that you are hiding your real self from others and ask yourself why? What is it you are hiding or hiding from?

Maybe it’s judgment or fear that if they knew the real you, they might not like you? Maybe you want them to perceive you as better than you actually think you are? Like you’re trying to live up to imagined expectations that you think the world has for you?

Maybe the real you scares you a little bit or sometimes your emotions and feelings feel big or powerful and you feel like you’ve got to keep them under control? To not let others know what’s really going on inside

Step 2: Consider how you can get more comfortable sharing that part of yourself. What steps could you take to allow others to see you just a little bit better?

Are there some small things you could do to let others see the real you, even just a little more than you usually do? Can you stay in the moment in spite of anxiety or feeling awkward and just deal with the discomfort for a minute? Can you stretch yourself out of your comfort zone?

Thinking about times that you feel awkward or uncomfortable in intimate settings, challenge what’s happening for you.

Step 3: Why might you feel strange in that situation? Are you uncomfortable with strong emotions? Do you feel awkward when someone cries in front of you, is physically affectionate (non-hugger here!), or shares deeply personal feelings?

Think about why those things might make you feel uncomfortable and then see if you can lean into that discomfort a bit and slowly become more comfortable with it. Paying attention to these feelings in a non-judgmental way (sometimes called practicing mindfulness) can help you figure out what’s going on and help you increase your level of comfort over time.

And finally, remember that developing yourself is the best way to really increase your capacity for intimacy.

Step 4: Challenge yourself in needed ways. Open up a little bit more and share your feelings with someone you trust. Listen deeply when someone you love shares with you. Be conscious and aware of the way that you relate to others and see what little steps you can make towards being more comfortable with intimacy.

What This Looks Like

Let me tell you one quick, final story about my own experience increasing my capacity for intimacy, because it’s something I’ve been working on.

There was a day once a few years ago when I learned of a major challenge (I’m talking really rough) that someone I knew was going through. I knew I needed to reach out to this person, but I was afraid, because I am not a hugger, not typically much of a crier, and frankly, I had no idea what to say or do.

I acted on what I felt was the right thing to do in that moment and showed up at her door. She opened it and I opened my mouth to try to say something (again, I had no idea what to say) and after flubbing over a few words, I just reached out and hugged her.

She sank to the ground and just sobbed, and I sank to the ground as well and sat and cried with her. This was completely out of my comfort zone and not an experience I’d ever had before, but I did it and I knew it was the right thing to do. I didn’t make her problems go away, but I shared a moment of intimacy and connection with her which I know was beneficial for me and I hope was strengthening for her as well.

Developing intimacy can be hard and certainly can stretch us outside of our comfort zone. But as we do, we develop a deep capacity for connection and love that can come no other way.

As you work to develop the trait of being deeply seen and as you begin to see others more deeply, you will find more connection and contentment, deeper love, and more peace in your life and in your relationships.

Hello Friend! I’m Dr. Amber A. Price

I’m here to help you thrive in your relationships with yourself and your family

3 Ways to Keep Learning:

[1] Sinclair, V. G., & Dowdy, S. W. (2005). Development and validation of the Emotional Intimacy Scale. Journal of Nursing Measurement13(3), 193-206.

[2] Baumeister, R. F., & Bratslavsky, E. (1999). Passion, intimacy, and time: Passionate love as a function of change in intimacy. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 3, 49–67.

[3] Gaia, A. C. (2002). Understanding emotional intimacy: A review of conceptualization, assessment and the role of gender. International Social Science Review, 77(3/4), 151-170.

[4] Sinclair, V. G., & Dowdy, S. W. (2005). Development and validation of the Emotional Intimacy Scale. Journal of Nursing Measurement13(3), 193-206.

[5] Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society (New York, W.W. Norton, 1950); idem, Childhood and Society , Revised Edition, New York, W. W.

[6] K.J. Prager, The Psychology of Intimacy (New York: Guilford


[8] Papouchis, N. (1982). Intimacy and the psychotherapy of adolescents. In M. Fisher & G. Stricker (Eds.), Intimacy (pp. 347–370). New York, NY: Plenum Press.

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