9 Ways to build intimacy (HINT: it’s NOT what you’re thinking…)

– by Natalie Rich, Coordinator for Prevention Initiatives at Student Wellness

Sex and intimacy are often used interchangeably, but intimacy and sex are not the same. Which means you can be intimate with your partner without having sex. In fact, many people have romantic relationships without engaging in sexual intercourse or any sexual activity (check out our awesome blog about different types of abstinence!).

So what is intimacy and how is it different from sex?

Intimacy means connecting deeply with another person. All kinds of relationships have intimacy, including familial relationships, friendships, and romantic partnerships, which I will be focusing on for this blog. And intimacy is a process, not a goal. It’s a process that lasts as long as the relationship. Intimacy can include connecting emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, and physically.

Whether you choose to be sexually active or not, you can still create intimacy in your relationship.


  1. HUGS! actually, any kind of affectionate touching, like hand holding, light massage, touching hair/face, and kissing are all ways to build intimacy in a relationship. Research shows that physical contact not only creates connection, it also boosts immunity, and releases “feel-good” neurotransmitters in the brain.
  2. Look at your partner: smile at them across a crowded room. Take some time to sit quietly over a meal or on the couch. Besides touch, eye contact may be the earliest way we learn to connect to another person; it is how we first learn about intimacy and build empathy as an infant.
  3. Get active: do something new and different, like playing tennis or taking a class together. This helps you and your partner make memories together that you can laugh about and enjoy for months or years to come. Plus, it can help you see and appreciate your partner in a whole new way (who knew they had such amazing dance skills?…).
  4. Go on a trip: doesn’t need to be extravagant; it could be a picnic in the arboretum or an afternoon at the Ackland Art Museum. Proactively seeking out new environments allows you both to see each other in a new and different light, which helps you get to know each other on a deeper level.
  5. Do something nice: again, this doesn’t have to be buying a fancy gift or putting on some extravagant romantic evening. How about washing the dishes that have piled up in the sink while your partner is studying? Or go out and buy their favorite study snack and bring it to them at the UL.
  6. Praise your partner in front of others: this is a HUGE confidence boost to your partner! Being publicly supportive shows that you pay attention and appreciate them for their gifts and talents. And when that praise gets back to your partner, they will feel it exponentially, knowing that your praise was totally unsolicited.
  7. Ask open-ended questions: ask about hopes and dreams for the future; ask what they are thinking or feeling right here and now; ask about past experiences or favorite memories; ask about favorite colors, flowers, or pet peeves. Then, LISTEN carefully, without distractions (laptop closed, TV off, phone out of sight). Let your partner know that learning more about them trumps everything else in that moment.
  8. Be self-aware: reflect on your own values, hopes and dreams, and ideal partner qualities. Make your own “do well/do better” list to help reflect on your strengths and areas for improvement. Be honest and open with your partner about who you are, what you like and dislike, and what you want.
  9. Be vulnerable: this may be the hardest, but best way to build closeness in a relationship. Share your insecurities, your fears, and the things that have hurt you in the past.

Being vulnerable doesn’t just mean expressing your deepest emotions (although this is definitely a big part), it also means letting a bit of your cray-cray out. Go ahead and confess your habit of separating the chocolate from the nuts in your trail mix before eating all the nuts one-by-one and then the chocolate (wait…am I alone in this?).

Don’t be afraid to be silly and let your goofball flag fly! Your partner will probably appreciate you more for it. Plus, you will end up feeling even more deeply cared for and accepted knowing that you can just be yourself around your partner.

Allowing yourself to be vulnerable lies at the heart of intimacy, because it creates that deep human connection that we all crave. If you haven’t watched this Ted Talk on the power of vulnerability, check it out!

Natalie works to create an environment at UNC where the healthy choice is the easiest and most accessible. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from UNC and a Masters degree in Public Health from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. You can find her at Student Wellness on the 2nd floor of Campus Health Services. 

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