Intimacy is a key aspect of our relationships with others including friendships and, well, intimate relationships. While it’s generally culturally understood that intimacy is a positive aspect of relationships, it may be less clear how exactly to define it and how to cultivate it in yours.
Intimacy is defined as a sense of closeness between individuals. More specifically, in a relationship it describes feeling comfortable with being vulnerable with a partner, of allowing them to see and become familiar with sides of yourself that most don’t get to see.
There are two main psychological theories as to how intimacy operates in relationships:
The first is called the Interpersonal Process Model of Intimacy (Reis & Shaver, 1988). This theory suggests that intimacy is built in relationships when someone discloses personal thoughts or feelings to their partner, and the partner then responds in a way that is perceived by the discloser as supportive and caring.
In contrast, Cordova and Scott’s (2001) Behavioral Model of Intimacy suggests that intimacy increases when one partner experiences vulnerability – that is, they do or say something that they perceive puts them at risk for punishment, but instead is not punished. Punishment in this context means a response that makes the vulnerability less likely to be shared in the future. An example would be a response of “that’s so stupid, why would you say that?” When partners experience vulnerability in the absence of punishment from a partner, that increases intimacy. Conversely, when they do experience punishment in a partner’s response, this can decrease intimacy in the relationship.
Both theories have some research backing, and it seems likely that intimacy actually operates in both ways. My preferred theory is the Behavioral Model of Intimacy because it explains how feelings of intimacy can go up and down over time in relationships and why this happens.
Intimacy Over Time
Interestingly, one can think about the overall time-course of intimacy in most relationships. In the earliest stages of a relationship, intimacy goes up a lot very quickly as both partners enjoy learning a lot about one another and grow close – some might refer to this as New Relationship Energy.
As time goes on, both partners develop a greater sense of familiarity with one another and the excitement of the early relationship gives way to this more comfortable place. It’s in this place (and in particular, living together) that small peccadillos grow into larger frustrations and more conflict occurs. As that happens, this naturally can serve to increase the amount of punishing responses to vulnerability, and feelings of intimacy can go down.
Recent research from Khalifian and Barry (2020) emphasizes an interesting aspect of this phenomenon: that as you come to know one another better, there becomes less personal things to learn about each another, and more vulnerable disclosures are vulnerable because they include the partner’s behavior in some way.
Their study found that when participants’ disclosures included their partner’s behavior with specific examples, they then rated their partners’ responses to their disclosure as being less reinforcing and more punishing. This makes intuitive sense: it feels emotionally easier to console your partner about something mean their parents said to them than something they feel was mean that you said to them.
How to Improve Intimacy in Your Relationship
The method(s) you choose to try to improve intimacy may need to match what you see as the barrier(s) to intimacy in your relationship. For example, if the low feelings of intimacy come from one partner’s general reluctance to trust others you would want to understand where that comes from better to address it.
Time Outs are a great tool to start reducing the amount of vulnerability-punishing experiences that you and your partner have in your interactions. This will serve overall intimacy by cutting out the more damaging parts of communication that often have no upside whatsoever.
In addition to this, partners can learn to reinforce one another’s vulnerable disclosures again, even when that vulnerability involves something the partner is doing. This is done through learning and implementing some guidelines for how to share thoughts/feelings effectively.
In this process, it is often helpful to have the assistance of a couple therapist as a third-party invested in supporting the health of your relationship. If you live in Seattle or the greater Washington area, and are interested in working on this via telehealth, please feel free to contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation today or learn more about my approach on my website.