Some couples get along but their relationships feel empty or flat. They are more like friends or co-parents running a household than romantic lovers. They feel “lonely” even when they are with their spouse.

They may argue about whether they need to be emotionally connected to have sex, or whether they need sex to feel emotionally connected.

There are many types of intimacy but they all share one thing in common: they join together to enjoy one another's company, and open up to each other about what they value and dream about sexually and otherwise. Making compliments specific rather than general, and making them about the person rather than about the item or action.

An intimate relationship is the opposite of a transactional one. Talking about things that need to get done and other practical things are necessary, but not sufficient. Do they feel that having the other person present enhances the enjoyment they are getting from the interaction?

The effort put into being appealing or interesting to their partner.

Are you looking to improve your intimacy? Enhance your sex life? It may be easy for some couples, and seemingly impossible for others.

While physical intimacy is important to the well-being of a happy marriage, it is usually a component of emotional intimacy.

A healthy marriage has all of these variables. Sex and intimacy are phrases often used interchangeably. But intimacy in a relationship is more than sexual intimacy. Or a weekly date night.

What is Intimacy in Marriage?

One researcher that has studied intimacy for more than 40 years, John Gottman, describes intimacy as a combination of shared meaning and helping to make each other’s life dreams come true. A sense of greater purpose and legacy provides intimacy.

Why Do a Husband and Wife Have a Fear of Intimacy?

One clinician called it “Intimacy Anorexia.” It’s often linked to both early trauma and sex addiction. While it can be confusing why someone would reject feeling close and loved, consider this analogy:

Two children are asked to "think of a puppy." One child pictures a warm and fuzzy ball of love. The other child reflects on being mauled by a Doberman last year. The directions are the same but the memories bring very different emotional responses.

Abuse and a history of trauma can dramatically impact a person's willingness to open up and share.

How to Enhance Intimacy In Marriage

Spend Time Together

Watching TV may or may not experience an increase in intimacy. They might even feel more disconnected and lonely. Another couple, doing the same activity, can feel warm and connected.

Consider this couple:

Millie loved to watch historical costume dramas. She would carefully review which series held the most promise and excitedly describe the plot to her husband George.

George would "hmmm" and "oh" flatly and unenthusiastically agree to watch the program with her.

A few minutes before 8 pm, Millie would set up the room and find the channel. She'd call George who, each and every week, would need to finish "one more thing" before he joined her. She would spend the first 15 minutes of the hour-long weekly show watching alone before George made his appearance. She would tap the couch as if to say, "Sit here with me" as George walked past and settled into his lounger.

At 8:30, George would say "I want a drink. Do you want anything, Millie?" Millie was annoyed but felt like she couldn't say anything without sounding rude or ungrateful. After puttering around the kitchen for another 3-4 minutes, and using the bathroom, George rejoined his wife.

After enjoying his beer, George would dose 15 minutes later, as the show was concluding.

This happened, with slight variations, week after week. Millie felt anything but close to her husband.

In contrast, learn about Jamie and Jill.

Jill picked out the same show and emailed the trailer to Jamie. She enthusiastically responded, "Let's watch!" Each week the couple would setting on the couch, cuddle up, and enjoy popcorn and drinks. All during the week the couple talked about the characters as if they were real people their lives.

They looked forward to the episodes and discussed what might happen in upcoming shows.

Proximity matters, but less than sharing of thoughts and feelings.

Jamie communicated a lot about how she felt about her wife, as did George, but the messages were very different. One couple carried this shared experience throughout the week, enhancing their intellectual intimacy and experiential intimacy. The other had nothing to talk about.

Learning to Have More Fun

Think back on your early relationship as to what once made you happy together. In our couples therapy retreats some of us have couples complete the "20 Things I Love to Do" exercise to jog the memory of a couple.

In this exercise, each spouse lists 20 Things they enjoy, along with related features of those activities like, "When is the last time you did it?" and "Can you still do it at 80?" Then they compare their lists and decide how they might expand their fun times.

Pathways to Building Intimacy

Let's consider three pathways to building greater closeness and intimacy; physical, emotional, and spiritual.

Physical intimacy

A spontaneous hug, holding hands, the arm draped around the shoulders, or the quick neck massage as one walks past. These warm gestures, though small and casual, mean a great deal to enhance romantic relationships.

Emotional Closeness

Knowing your partner’s inner world requires not only sharing positive thoughts and feelings but also essential is the capacity to complain safely to each other. Living with anyone can be an annoying experience. Increasing emotional intimacy requires candor and openness. Openness means “vulnerability” plus "feeling safe" for many couples.

When we can tell our partner with kindness and candor how we want them to change, the resentments fade and we become more interested in kissing with full tenderness.

Spiritual Intimacy

Not all couples value spiritual intimacy.

However, one interesting study examined married couples who prayed together, bathed together, and had an active sex life. Researchers learned that couples practicing one of these were happier than couples who practiced none of them. Two of these acts lead to greater happiness. All three of them were best to enhance the emotional bond.

Praying together, sharing gratitude, and discussing the larger issues of what creates a valuable life all lead to greater spiritual intimacy.

Want to become closer with your partner? Hoping to spice up your sex life? It could be a cinch for some couples and a total challenge for others. Although physical connection is essential for a successful marriage, it is usually intertwined with emotional intimacy.

In order to truly understand one another, it is important to be able to both express positive emotions and to be able to discuss any issues or grievances in an open, honest manner. Achieving a deeper level of emotional intimacy requires a willingness to be vulnerable with each other. Living with someone can be difficult, but having a strong emotional connection can make it easier.

For numerous pairs, when we communicate with compassion and honesty about our wishes for our partner's evolution, the resentments dissipate and we start to embrace each other with more devotedness.

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Dr. Kathy McMahon


Dr. Kathy McMahon (Dr. K) is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist. She is also the founder and president of Couples Therapy Inc. Dr. K feels passionate about couples therapy and sex therapy and holds a deep respect towards those who invest in making their relationship better. She is currently conducting online and in person private couples retreats.

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