The desire to feel seen, loved, and supported is at the heart of what it means to be human — and for many people, intimacy is a major part of that experience. Like relationships, intimacy comes in many forms — from physical and emotional to intellectual — and intimate experiences look different for every person and relationship. And contrary to popular belief, intimacy doesn’t have to involve being physically intimate; there are many ways to grow closer to your partner, from learning about their unique love language (or apology language) to having a meaningful conversation.
While sex and physical forms of intimacy are often associated with being closely connected, there are other ways to boost intimacy with your partner, too. Whether it’s going on a relaxing date, sharing a spiritual experience, or otherwise, it can be fun to engage in non-sexual forms of intimacy. I spoke with a sex and energy expert to discuss why non-sexual intimacy is so important. Here’s what the term means, why it matters, and some ideas for how to boost intimacy in your relationships.
What is non-sexual intimacy?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), intimacy “characterizes close, familiar, and usually affectionate or loving personal relationships,” in which parties “have a detailed knowledge or deep understanding of each other.” Intimacy usually involves some form of vulnerability, whether emotional, mental, or physical. Contrary to popular belief, though, sexual intimacy is only one form of intimacy, and non-sexual intimacy is an umbrella category of activities that don’t necessarily involve sex.
“Simply put: we are not only sexual beings,” says Emily Costello, a sex and energy coach who helps individuals dissolve sexual shame, embody their fullest selves, and assists the polyamorous and BDSM submissive communities through individual and group coaching. “Sex, and how we act with our partner(s) when we’re having sex, is only one part of the equation of partnership,” she tells Her Campus.
Why is non-sexual intimacy important?
According to Costello, non-sexual intimacy is key in developing trust and a shared sense of safety in your relationships (it can actually benefit your sex life) and can also strengthen the bond between partners. Costello says that non-sexual intimacy allows you to get to know yourself and your partner(s) on a deeper level, which can help contribute to a shared sense of meaning.
“We’re beings who crave being heard, validated, seen, understood, and being taken care of — or doing the ‘taking care of’ — and while sex can encompass all of these, all of these cannot be encompassed within sex. Not all the time, anyway,” Costello tells Her Campus.
It’s important to note that some individuals feel more comfortable with non-sexual intimacy, whether due to their sexuality, personal preference, or otherwise. “There are some people who are less inclined to seek sex — asexuals, those on medications with side effects, etc. — and to which non-sexual intimacy is their primary source of intimacy,” Costello says. “As human beings, we’re designed for connection above all else.”
Intimacy isn’t a one-size-fits-all experience, and it can help to develop self-awareness about what helps you feel connected to yourself and your partner(s). Maybe it’s giving each other a back rub, maybe it’s reading a book together, maybe it’s joining a soccer team…whatever you decide on, remain authentic to you.
What are the different types of non-sexual intimacy?
Apart from sexual intimacy, there are many different ways intimacy can manifest in relationships. One of the most widely known categorizations is the “12 forms of intimacy” coined by Professor Howard J. Clinebell, Jr. and Dr. Charlotte Ellen in their book, The Intimate Marriage. According to their model, the 12 forms of intimacy include: sexual, emotional, intellectual, aesthetic, creative, recreational, work, crisis, conflict, commitment, spiritual, and communication. (Sources crediting fewer types typically combine multiple of these into one category).
When it comes to the 12 forms of intimacy, certain categories may feel more personally fulfilling to you than others. Examples of the 12 forms of intimacy in action include:
- Sexual: sharing sexual fantasies, trying a new sex toy together, having sex in a fun, exciting place, giving back massages
- Emotional: sharing and expressing feelings openly (hey — it’s OK to cry!)
- Intellectual: talking about current events, politics, relevant social justice issues, watching a documentary together
- Aesthetic: visiting an art museum, going to a concert together, watching the sunset
- Creative: paint night, creating vision boards, taking an art class together, creating a joint social media account
- Recreational: learning a new hobby, joining a pick-up sports team, taking a sporty vacay (skiing anyone?), cooking together
- Work: sharing relationship responsibilities, building dates around your schedule, carpooling to work
- Crisis: being honest about life challenges, inviting your partner to support you, seeking therapy together
- Conflict: learning communication skills, allowing your partner to make mistakes
- Commitment: setting relationship goals, making a date idea bucket list.
- Spiritual: church/religious communities (if they’re your thing), practicing meditation or mindfulness together, taking a couples yoga class
- Communication: sharing words of affirmation, writing letters, learning about love languages, taking personality tests
Costello advises that one of the easiest ways to fill up your “intimacy tank” is to reflect on your love languages: “(giving and receiving) gifts, words of affirmation, (non-sexual and sexual) physical touch, quality time, and acts of service.” This can help you determine what might be most beneficial to practice.
Costello’s top favorite non-sexual intimacy acts include cuddling, deep conversations, exploring new places, and being physically present with a partner while they work. These all touch on her top love languages of words of affirmation, (non-sexual) physical touch, and acts of service.
Non-sexual forms of intimacy, like aesthetic intimacy, which prioritizes a shared sense of beauty, can be considered an emotional or spiritual experience that helps bring people closer together. When combined, the various types of intimacy can contribute to successful, colorful, and multidimensional relationships.
connectedness is about more than just the physical — it’s about vulnerability, empathy, presence, and communication.
Personally, prioritizing non-sexual intimacy has helped me embrace vulnerability and increase my connection with my partners. When I am more vulnerable in expressing who I am, my partner is better able to see, understand, and be present for me. While they may never fully understand my life perspective, they can better support me as the protagonist of my own life story. In order for this to happen, I need to effectively communicate my needs, wants, and boundaries. (After all, my partner isn’t a mind reader!)
Non-sexual intimacy can also serve as a reminder that closeness is about more than purely being physical. “Non-sexual intimacy allows me to be seen as a human, and not just a body to fill a sexual desire,” Costello tells Her Campus. “Non-sexual intimacy — especially on a first date — also helps to dissuade people from assuming things about me, and my preferences, because of my career [as a sex coach and BDSM/kink educator],” she shares.
Personally, I can’t truly feel fulfilled in a relationship without BDSM and kink components — and for me, these go far beyond the bedroom. The play, healing, and self-expression qualities these dynamics bring are vastly more important to me than the sexual practices they’re associated with.
When it comes to intimacy, sex can even be misleading.
According to sex therapist Dr. Jane Greer, sex and physical intimacy release powerful hormones including oxytocin (aka the “love hormone”) that increase the feeling of bonding and attachment. Thus, focusing too heavily on the sexual components of a relationship or engaging in sex too early on can cause people to unnaturally and inappropriately bonded. This is why it’s important to practice non-sexual intimacy as well; you want to get an accurate read on your relationship!
In an early study published in The Handbook of Sexuality, 286 participants reflected on the timing of sex with overall relationship satisfaction. When commitment to the relationship was made prior to engaging in sex, the “sexual experience [was] perceived to be a positive turning point in the relationship, increasing understanding, commitment, trust, and sense of security.” In the study, this finding was true across genders. If partners engaged in sex prior to communicating love and commitment, “the experience [was] perceived as a negative turning point,” in their relationship. These findings suggest that non-sexual intimacy is an essential practice in maintaining long-term partnerships, and physical sex before other forms of intimacy might be misleading.
What happens if your partner doesn’t show any interest in non-sexual intimacy?
Navigating sexual dynamics in a relationship can be super important — not to mention, it can help you get a better understanding of why a person wants to be in your life! For example, if you’re invested in non-sexual intimacy but your partner is solely focused on sexual energy or fails to demonstrate an active interest in getting to know you holistically, things can get tricky.
If your partner doesn’t show interest in non-sexual intimacy right away, don’t be afraid to express your needs — but don’t feel like you need to force your partner to change, either. As much as you might want them to be on the same page as you, everyone has their own level of comfort. If you do choose to engage in a sexual experience — go right ahead! Just remember to advocate for yourself, practice active consent, and only engage in what makes you feel safe and comfortable.
Here’s how you can bring up non-sexual intimacy with a partner.
To bring up non-sexual intimacy with a partner, Costello recommends discussing it with your partner early on in the relationship and using the topic of sex itself as a jumping-off point. Approaching it this way normalizes the topic of intimacy right away — plus, the conversation can also give you a better idea as to whether or not this person is someone you can see yourself being with long-term.
Bringing up non-sexual intimacy might sound like: “‘Sex is very important to me, as I know that it is for you — but what desires do you have outside of the bedroom? Can you paint that picture for me?’,” Costello shares. When speaking, Costello says to use as much detail and be as specific as possible. The way you tell a story (using as much imagery as possible) helps someone get to know you.
She adds that your first attempt at building intimacy through non-sexual ways might not go as planned, and that is OK. “Be open to the failure of not hitting it on the first try,” she says. “We’re humans who have been conditionally thought that sex was our number one way — and the only damn way — of being intimate with our partner(s) so, give yourself grace. You’re doing amazing.”
Remember: There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to be intimate.
Experimenting with non-sexual intimacy is just that — an experiment. Everything you do to support your sense of self is an investment into your relationship – even if no tangible outcome occurs. Admitting that an activity didn’t go as planned requires vulnerability – the very foundation for developing intimacy and co-creating a fulfilling partnership. It might take some time to find routines and rituals that support your relationship.
Non-sexual intimacy is essential to creating long-lasting, dynamic partnerships. It supports your sacred sense of self, helps you get to know your partner on a deeper level, and inspires you to co-create partnerships that are unique to you. As Costello shares, “the point of intimacy is to feel closer to our partner(s): romantically, emotionally, energetically — and, when the time’s right, sexually. If you’re not getting that from whatever act you’re doing, it’s simply not an intimate act for you.”
The next time you want to get closer to your partner, reflect on new ways to go beyond the physical, don’t be afraid to get intimate in new ways and enjoy your experimentation.