We know from the research that having intimate relationships is the key to mental and physical health. But what exactly qualifies as intimacy? Today I’ll teach you what intimacy really is and the seven habits of intimate relationships, backed by research, so you can build connection, joy, and ease in all your relationships.
A Little Background
According to legendary theorists Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary, there’s a human need to belong in close relationships. In fact, they say that to function in a normal, healthy way, we need frequent, satisfying interactions with intimate partners in lasting, caring relationships. This is why we’re driven to establish and maintain close relationships with other people. We’re, literally, hardwired to want connection and interaction with those who know and care for us. Now, you don’t need many of these relationships. In fact, when this need to belong is satisfied, your drive for any additional relationships is diminished.
So, our biology tells us that quality in our relationships is more important than quantity. What we’re looking for from our friendships and partnerships is stable affection and acceptance. When those aren’t fulfilled, we continue searching. This is likely why some people can’t seem to have enough friendships. They’re not getting what they need; they’re not feeling sated in a few key relationships, so they continue to draw in new people, hoping for that elusive feeling.
Here are some of the facts we know about having close ties and intimacy with others:
- Studies have found that we live longer, healthier, and happier lives when we’re closely connected to other people.
- Just holding your partner’s hand when something threatening happens reduces your brain’s alarm bells and physically calms your nervous system.
- And get this, your wounds will even heal faster when you feel others support and accept you!
- In general, people who have pleasant and satisfying interactions with the people who care about them report being more satisfied in their lives than those who don’t. And studies have also shown that this is true around the world.
Conversely, studies have shown that people without enough intimacy in their relationships are at risk for a host of mental and physical health issues.
- People without intimate relationships have much higher mortality rates, and young adults have weaker immune systems.
- They also have more psychiatric issues, including anxiety disorders and substance abuse problems.
You, of course, could argue that people who are prone to psychological issues would naturally have poorer connections and relationships with others. However, research shows that a lack of intimacy can cause these problems and exacerbate them. And, for the record, the research shows that these findings hold strong whether you’re gay or straight, married or living together.
The Seven Habits of Intimate Relationships (backed by research)
So, what qualifies a relationship as intimate? Thankfully, there’s been a good amount of research in this area, most notably by professors Adital Ben-Ari and Yoav Lavee of Haifa University in Israel. In addition, Rowland Miller, a professor of psychology at Sam Houston State University in Texas, has notably been summarizing all the important research in the field of intimate relationships in his textbook called (you guessed it) Intimate Relationships. If you really want to delve deep into the research, this is the book to read because you’ll find everything in one place. I think the book is in at least its 9th edition now, so it gets updated with newer and more relevant research all the time.
What Ben-Ari and Lavee found is that the most intimate and satisfying (aka: happy) relationships are different than casual relationships in seven distinct ways: knowledge, interdependence, caring, trust, responsiveness, mutuality, and commitment.
When you’re creating a deeper, more intimate relationship with someone, you share a lot of personal information that you wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing with “just anyone.” We talk about our future, including our goals, desires, and dreams. We share our present, including our feelings, work, and family lives. And we also share our past, including past familial, friend, work and romantic relationships and any traumas or notable times in our lives. The research shows that women will share this information with their friends and partners but that men historically only share these intimate topics with their romantic partners.
The point is we feel safe to share this confidential, deeper knowledge in a reciprocal (and usually gradual) way.
What to think about:
- Notice how much you share (or don’t) in your intimate relationships.
- Are there areas that are off-limits? If so, why?
- Are there things you tell your friend versus your partner?
- Is the sharing reciprocal?
There’s also a high amount of interdependency in intimate relationships. This means that people in this type of relationship are intertwined and influence one another in large and small (but meaningful and important) ways. This can be anything from where to live to spiritual beliefs to what to eat for dinner.
There’s an understanding that what each person does affects the other in some way (for example, between what they might want to do and can do given the relationship). The research gets quite specific on this. The influence is frequent, strong (impacts meaningfully), diverse (impacts one another in many different ways), and enduring (the influence is over a long period of time).
What to think about:
- How much interdependence do you think you have in your various intimate relationships?
- Is it reciprocal?
- What are your thoughts and feelings about what you want to do vs. what you can do in your relationship? For example, maybe you want to watch porn, but your partner doesn’t like it. Or maybe you want to send your kids to private school, but your partner says no way.
- Do you think the influence is the same both ways?
- Do you get overly influenced by your close relationships?
When we talk about care in intimate relationships, we’re talking about the amount of time and attention each person has with the other that’s different than the kind of care you’d show to another. Care is all about the concern you show for the well-being, safety, and comfort of the other. In the end, there’s genuine, selfless care for one another. There’s a responsiveness you have when the other person is hurting or needs something.
What to think about:
- Make sure you’re showing care to your partner or friend over what you show to others. If work or your mom are coming in between you and your partner, then you’re not showing them this care factor.
- How do you show the other person you care for them?
- How do they show you?
Trust is often seen in the research as the glue that holds all these seven habits together. I’ve written a lot about trust, so I’ll be brief here. Trust is comprised of three components: competence, goodwill, and integrity.
Competency in any relationship is huge. Does the other person do what they say they will successfully and efficiently? Do they follow through? Do they show up on time? Do you believe that they can do the things they promise or commit to? In other words, can they do the job of being your partner or friend?
The second factor, goodwill, is all about believing that the other person has your best interest at heart and that they care about you as a person, not just the role you fulfill. We tend to build goodwill as we express compassion and empathy for other people’s feelings. It’s when we stop and give our full attention, listen well, and ask specific questions. It’s when we approach things as a “we” problem, not a “you” problem.
Integrity is all about honesty. Are they saying something so you won’t get upset? Are they trying to manipulate you to get their way or avoid a conflict? Are they saying they feel one way, but you think they really feel another? Are they telling you outright lies consistently?
Rowland says that trust is the confidence you place in another human being to act in a way of honor and fairness that is of benefit to us, or at the very least, that won’t cause us purposeful harm. The research clearly shows that intimacy increases when people believe their partners appreciate, understand, and respect them and when they believe the other is concerned with their health and welfare.
What to think about:
- Are there areas of the trust triad you could work on?
- Are there areas of the trust triad you’d like your partner or friend to work on?
- Where would you rate trust on a scale of 1 to 6 with the other person?
Being mutually responsive to one another’s needs is another hallmark of healthy intimate relationships. In practice, this shows up as understanding and supporting one another in good times and bad. So, whether you’re dealing with your dad’s death or getting a big promotion at work, you feel like the other person is there with as much feeling, empathy, or enthusiasm as you. You feel seen and fully supported with your wins and your losses.
What to think about:
- How does my partner/friend show up for me when I’ve had a loss or failure of some kind?
- How does my partner/friend show up for me when I’ve had a win of some kind?
- How do I show up for my partner/friend when they’ve had a loss or failure of some kind?
- How do I show up for my partner/friend when they’ve had a win of some kind?
Mutuality is something I discuss in another way in my TEDx talk, where I discuss the real reason relationships fail. This is all about that transition from “me” to “we.” This is the transition from seeing yourself only as you and your needs getting met to a more team focus. This is when you stop saying, “I’ll be there with my boyfriend,” to “We’ll be there.” You start seeing yourself as truly a couple and not just as a single person. In friendship, it’s that deep knowing that, no matter what, this person has your back, and you’re not alone in the world, ever. With mutuality, you’re noting your close connection to another person, and it informs your outlook, thoughts, and actions.
What to think about:
- How often do I use “we” language when there’s a problem between my partner/friend and me?
- How often does my partner/friend use “we” language when there’s a problem between us?
- Do I feel alone or part of a team when hardships or obstacles come my way?
Commitment means you both want the relationship to continue indefinitely, and this is how those other habits really start to flourish. When you both agree that you’re in this with no end in sight, trust begins to deepen, you share more of your true feelings and become more vulnerable, and you allow yourself to become more “we” than “me.”
One of the things that happens when I meet with couples is that they’ll often say, “We’re going to see how therapy goes and then decide if we’ll stay together.” I always let them know that this is a recipe for failure, and you can see why when you look at this research as a whole. When there’s no commitment there, the other six habits fall by the wayside. You’re looking out for number one more than investing in the couple, and the deepening of intimacy and vulnerability is impossible.
What to think about:
- How would I rate my commitment to my partner/friend on a scale of 1 to 6?
- If it’s not at a 6, what would it take to make it a 6?
When we’re looking from a 50,000-foot perspective, intimate and meaningful relationships have all seven of these habits. However, you can certainly experience intimacy (albeit not as much) by only practicing a few of these habits. And, for any of us in long-term relationships, you know that your intimacy can vary greatly over the course of a relationship. As I said in the beginning, there’s no “one size fits all.” Relationships are incredibly diverse and complex.
However, I always stand by the research and, if you’re not feeling a high level of satisfaction in your relationship, I’d suggest looking at each of these components and seeing which needs the most attention. Don’t be overwhelmed if you think they all need some love. Start with one, work on it for a few weeks, and then slowly move to the next. After all, you’ve got a lifetime.
Research for The Seven Habits of Intimate Relationships:
Gouin JP, Carter CS, Pournajafi-Nazarloo H, Glaser R, Malarkey WB, Loving TJ, Stowell J, Kiecolt-Glaser JK. Marital behavior, oxytocin, vasopressin, and wound healing. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2010 Aug;35(7):1082-90. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2010.01.009.
Nezlek, J. B., Richardson, D. S., Green, L. R., & Schatten-Jones, E. C. (2002). Psychological well-being and day-to-day social interaction among older adults. Personal Relationships, 9(1), 57-71. https://doi.org/10.1111/1475-6811.00004
EBERHART, N. K., & HAMMEN, C. L. (2006). Interpersonal predictors of onset of depression during the transition to adulthood. Personal Relationships, 13(2), 195-206. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6811.2006.00113.x
Richard G. Wight, Allen J. LeBlanc, and M. V. Lee Badgett, 2013: Same-Sex Legal Marriage and Psychological Well-Being: Findings From the California Health Interview Survey American Journal of Public Health 103, 339_346, https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2012.301113
Kohn, J. L., & Averett, S. L. (2014). The effect of relationship status on health with dynamic health and persistent relationships. Journal of Health Economics, 36, 69-83. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhealeco.2014.03.010
Berscheid, Ellen, Snyder, Mark and Omoto, Allen. (2004). Measuring Closeness: The Relationships Closeness Inventory (RCI) Revisited. Handbook of Closeness and Intimacy edited by Debra J. Mashek and Arthur Aron.
Sels, L., Reis, H.T., Randall, A.K., Verhofstadt, L. (2021). Emotion Dynamics in Intimate Relationships: The Roles of Interdependence and Perceived Partner Responsiveness. In: Waugh, C.E., Kuppens, P. (eds) Affect Dynamics. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org