Last night I was at Dokebi in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with a gaggle of girls slapping raw meat on a Korean BBQ and jamming to throwback tunes from TLC and Missy Elliott. The topic of love came up, as it does, and we got to discussing how to get closer with our partners — specifically, what conversations build intimacy with a partner. One new acquaintance, who had just been putting hash oil directly onto the barbecue grill, trapping the fumes in a pint glass and then inhaling the vapor, announced that she had a shortcut to intimacy bar none: "I get them to tell me the things they're most sensitive and vulnerable about, and then, when they are at their most defenseless, I comfort them," she said. "Guaranteed to make you feel closer." She also acknowledged that this method is sociopathic and manipulative. So — now you know what not to do.
So I tapped experts today with just that question: If someone is looking to "build intimacy" with their partner, whatever the hell that means, what types of subjects should they broach? Here are 20 suggestions from 20 relationship counselors, dating and life coaches, psychologists, a matchmaker and many others.
1. Go First
Share something personal, and this may inspire your partner to do the same, in an I'll-show-you-mine, you-show-me-yours situation. Even if things don't go exactly that way, opening up can only foster intimacy, dating, relationship and lifestyle expert Steven Ward tells Bustle. "Intimacy, by definition, is shared secret knowledge," he says. "Emotional and physical intimacy involve sharing something deeply personal."
So — go out on a limb, and see what happens. "I always recommend that you give to get," he says. Tell your partner something that you've never revealed. "Be vulnerable to see vulnerable. Be open to see open. If you want to get closer to someone tell them something that very few, if any, other people know." And you don't have to bare it all, end of story. If your partner doesn't reciprocate, you're totally allowed to query them. "You can then ask them about the same subject in turn," says Ward.
2. Drum Up Some Fantasy
Try mainlining some intimacy with a specific question, psychologist Nikki Martinez tells Bustle. Martinez has one question in mind: "What is your fantasy?" This can spark a connected conversation — but only if you're willing to do the legwork too. "You have to be willing to be open and honest, and the partner has to be willing to grant and try what they share," she says. "If this can be done without either party made to feel awkward, and the episode is enjoyable, more conversations like this are likely to take place, and intimacy can grow between the two of you."
"Fantasy" in this context doesn't have to read in any particular way; rather, discussing fantasy can lead to a conversation about life, love, money, career, the future — really, the possibilities are endless. And don't forget to express your fantasies too. "The conversation should go both ways, meaning you should mutually be discussing and fulfilling the other's wants and needs."
3. Be Grateful
"A great way to build intimacy is expressing gratitude for something thoughtful your partner did that day," Samantha Burns, relationship counselor and dating coach, tells Bustle. But she doesn't mean a here-and-there hit of gratitude; she's talking every damn day. "Aim for a daily gratitude challenge — when you cozy up in bed, say thank you and take a moment to appreciate your significant other," she suggests.
If gratitude doesn't do it for you, try nostalgia. "Another great way to increase intimacy is to reminisce about your first date or the first time you slept together," she suggests. Bringing scent memory or visual cues into the narrative is the way to go: "Share as many details as possible," Burns says. "Maybe you remember what she wore, or how he smelled. This can help to bring those butterflies back."
4. Invite Them In
"One conversation that can help build intimacy with your partner is inviting them into your life as a guest, relationship coach Jase Lindgren tells Bustle. "What this means is that while your partner is in your life, you want to be a good host to them, helping them to achieve their goals and dreams, rather than focusing on what you want from them."
Eschewing selfishness as a route to intimacy: Yes to that. "In order to be the best host, you need to know what it is your partner truly wants in life," says Lindgren. In fact, Martinez's question, "What is your fantasy?" could be a path to this ongoing discussion. "This is a conversation you can have many times, checking in with them about their goals, aspirations and hopes," says Lindgren. Just because you've had such a conversation once or twice doesn't mean the topic is closed. "We are always changing, and you can help increase intimacy by always staying up-do-date about your partner, rather than assuming they will always stay the same," Lindgren says. Keep making it apparent that you care, and keep asking.
5. Be A Comfort
Find out how your partner likes to be comforted when times are tough, and try to show up in that way when the sh*t hits the fan, clinical hypnotherapist, author and educator Rachel Astarte, who offers transformational coaching for individuals and couples at Healing Arts New York, tells Bustle. "The one conversation a couple can have in order to build intimacy is to ask: How can I help you when you're suffering?" says Astarte. Or: "How would you like me to react … when you are in pain?"
Though no one can magically remove anyone's pain, you can be there for your partner when they are upset. "The truth is, we all know how to treat each other when things are going well," says Astarte. "But when someone is depressed or frustrated or upset, oftentimes we try to fix the problem, rather than simply lend an ear." This goes really well for some — and terribly for others. "Some people like 'fix-it' partners. Others just want to their partners to hold space for them in their down times," she says. So ask what your partner prefers — beforehand, when all is calm.
6. Be Practical
Intimacy isn't always some sweet, mystical, fa-la-la unicorn to be chased down via long, deep talks. Quite simply, intimacy that connectedness that arises when you feel truly bonded with your partner, and this can happen in the most practical of ways, New York–based relationship and etiquette expert and author April Masini tells Bustle. "If you’re married, or you’ve been living together for some time, you should create an estate plan, or, simply, wills," she says.
This may sound incredibly boring, but, as she points out, "most people don’t approach this topic because they think it’s unpleasant, but the reality is, it’s a way to learn the depths of your love and how you want to take care of each other if life throws you a curve ball." Wait, that's really sweet. And practical. Who knew?!
Also, this isn't just for preparing for the absolute worst, Masini says. "Estate plans aren’t just about death — they’re about what happens if you’re incapacitated temporarily or permanently, and they allow you to focus on each other and the future," she says. And there's nothing more intimate than getting real about such serious topics, exploring them with your partner and finding out how they plan and react.
7. Talk About Your Childhood
And now for a very sweet suggestion. "I feel that discussing each other's childhoods can really build an intimate bond between partners," Rob Alex, who created Sexy Challenges and Mission Date Night with his wife, tells Bustle. "Expressing how you felt as a child and things that hurt you when you were young gives your partner a real insight into what shaped you as a adult," he says. Get the party started by breaking out old photos and taking a trip down memory lane with your partner, telling them stories as you go.
"That understanding of how you felt in good times and bad times as a kid really allows your partner to see your vulnerabilities," says Alex, aka the Guru of Getting It On. "Sharing those feelings and seeing your partner as that kid, either sad or happy, can evoke deep feelings and connections with each other."
8. Discuss Self-Improvement
To sidle up next to your partner emotionally, talk about the things you have seen your partner do to grow. A good way to begin? "Each partner shares one new thing that they have noticed that their partner has been working on to improve themselves and/or the relationship," Carlyle Jansen, author of Author, Sex Yourself: The Woman’s Guide to Mastering Masturbation and Achieving Powerful Orgasms , tells Bustle.
Don't stop there, though. In the course of discussion, tell your partner one thing that you "have been reluctant to bring up, and why," and ask them to do the same, Jansen says. There are plenty of reasons one might not broach certain subjects — Jansen lists a few, such as "fear of being petty, repeating oneself, rejection, judgement," and the like — but if you and your love give each other permission to talk about anything, then everything is fair game (as long as it is healthy, rational and reasonable).
9. "Tell Me Things"
It doesn't have to be that deep. "A basic tenet of solid relationships is really listening to each other, and I've found that putting my phone down, turning off the television and simply saying to my significant other, "Tell me things," has really strengthened our bond," Danielle Sepulveres, sex educator and author of Losing It: The Semi-Scandalous Story of an Ex-Virgin, tells Bustle.
"Focusing your attention on each other in such a basic way just leads to greater trust and communication," she says. "Even when it starts out as an unimportant stream of consciousness, like, 'You wouldn't believe the guy in front of me at Starbucks today,' 'I tripped coming off the elevator at work,' [or] 'I think I called someone by the wrong name all day,' it leads to more questions and answers, and the conversation can veer off anywhere you want," she says. It's foolproof, she adds: This has "always worked for myself and anyone I've ever suggested this to."
10. Be Vulnerable
Vulnerability is the speediest shortcut to intimacy — "and it can be a game changer," Dr. Ramani Durvasula, author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With A Narcissist , tells Bustle. "If you can share your vulnerabilities, and your partner is still there, and in fact even more close — the ground just shifted," she says. Truth.
Then again, if uncovering your shell leads to anything else, red flag. "If your vulnerability distances your partner, or they mock you, or somehow disrespect it — it may be a strong sign to reconsider," Durvasula says. "In a healthy relationship, each person is the custodian of the other's vulnerability." You can't save anything that your partner tells you in an uncensored moment to use it against them later, or use it criticism them, she says.
"We all have vulnerabilities, it is a part of being human," says Durvasula. "If your partner can feel brave enough to share with you, and respectful enough to receive yours with warmth and kindness, then you have gone to the next level." A relationship level-up! "This sharing of vulnerability can deepen all kinds of intimacies within your relationship — romantic, sexual, spiritual, psychological, and intellectual," she says. "Don't fall for the fear of losing someone because you share a vulnerability. If sharing your vulnerability results in someone leaving, then there wasn't that much of a relationship to begin with, and you just saved yourself from time wasted." Preach!
11. Admit When You First Fell In Love
"Nothing builds intimacy between a couple more than to open up and share with each other that moment of surrender, when each of them knew that they had fallen in love with each other," Cindi Sansone-Braff. author of Grant Me a Higher Love , tells Bustle. Even if you each realized your love at different times, which is 99.9 percent likely, don't try to cover up how when knew you were in love.
"How great it is to get confirmation that you saw that moment in her eyes, or how wonderful it is for a woman to hear how her man knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he loved her on the night, when he was sicker than a dog, and she came bearing homemade chicken soup," she says. "These earth-shattering revelations, shared at an intimate moment, will create a memory of love that will last forever" and foster deep intimacy.
12. Ask Questions
Play your own personal rendition of 20 Questions, suggests relationship counselor Crystal Bradshaw to Bustle. Ask questions such as, "How would you spend your days if you didn't have to work?"; "If you could have your dream job, what would that be?"; "What is your ideal vacation?"; "How would you prefer to spend your weekends?"; "Of the people we know who do you think has the best relationship?" and "What is a dream you have that you want to chase but are afraid to?"
From there, you can spiral off into other topics — the point is just to start a real conversation, and learn more about your partner. "These types of questions facilitate a deeper sharing and vulnerability," says Bradshaw. "We feel connected, heard, understood. We feel like someone has our back and supports us. When we share our inner worlds, we allow our partners to know us in a way that only we know ourselves."
Not into it? There's another option. "I recommend using the couples version of Table Topics, which I keep on my office coffee table and often have couples draw a card and ask each other a question," says Bradshaw. "Dr. John Gottman also has a deck of cards to help couples share their inner world and become better acquainted with their partner's inner world." Intimacy games! Will wonders never cease?
13. Eat Some Pie
Not actual pie. Well, actual pie optional. The kind of pie relationship coach Chris Armstrong recommends to Bustle has nothing to do with apple, blackberry or Key lime: "There are three different types [of intimacy]: physical (seduce my body), intellectual (seduce my mind) and emotional (seduce my heart)," Armstrong says. "You need the whole pie (physical, intellectual and emotional), not just a piece of it."
Armstrong stresses that this trifecta is vial. "Without all three of these, there is no true intimacy," he says. "The one conversation I think partners can have with one another to build intimacy starts with stating an appreciation for all three." So this echoes back to Burn's suggestion of gratitude, but with specifics. "I imagine a great conversation where someone says to their partner, 'I love when you hold me when I'm just having a stressful day. It's such a great emotional high for me,'" says Armstrong. He suggests a hug after such a statement. "In a lot of cases where intimacy is stagnant, it's because physical intimacy has become mechanical," he says. "Couples must realize that stagnant physical intimacy will never fully rekindle without bringing the intellectual and emotional back." So — start with the emotional, and go from there.
14. Give Them A Reason
It couldn't get simpler than this, nor sweeter: "Tell them why you love them," marriage and family therapist Esther Boykin tells Bustle. "I know that can sound like just stroking their ego, but the truth is that intimacy is built, in large part, on trusting that someone loves and accepts you for all of who you are," she says. And who doesn't love hearing the exact reasons one's partner loves them?
"It's easy in a relationship to assume that your partner knows you love them and why," she says. But this is not always so: "After the early phase of love, we rarely share the 'why' with each other." This is the time to go deep. "Focus on the aspects that make them unique and special to you — not just the superficial characteristics that other people probably compliment them on too," she advises. "If your boyfriend has a generous spirit, tell him how much you cherish that. If your wife is quirky and you find her oddball humor adorable, let her know.
And just like that, you're building closeness. "Intimacy is a secure emotional connection that lets us feel free to be our wonderfully strange selves, and when you remind your partner just how much you love those parts that they don't show the whole world, the deeper our connection will become," Boykin says.
15. Ask More Questions
Questions really seem to be where it's at, as far as intimacy-building goes, according to relationship experts of every stripe. There are "a few great, classic questions to ask your partner to build intimacy and bonding," Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills child, parenting, and relationship psychotherapist tells Bustle. "You can even revisit these wonderful queries every few months and see if your partner responds differently," says the author of The Self-Aware Parent and costar We TV's Sex Box.
There are tons of these types of questions, but here are the classics she's referring to: "If you could have three wishes, what would they be?"; "What is the best/worst thing that ever happened to you?"; "What most frightens you?"; "If you could change one thing about yourself what would it be?"; "If you could turn back the clock and be any age, what was the happiest time in your life you'd want to return to?"; "Regarding life regrets, is there anything you wish you could redo differently?" and "Who do you think you know and understand better — yourself or your spouse?"
16. Discuss Your Romance
"The most intimate moment between two people is when they are discussing their relationship with each other," life coach Kali Rogers tells Bustle. So meta. "These 'meta moments' add a deep emotional connection to any conversation," she says. "So the best conversation to have as a couple isn't about sex or love or romantic gestures — it's just about how they feel about each other."
Perhaps a good jumping-off point might be the questions suggested by Bradshaw and Walfish. Couples should talk about how they work together and how they live together, says Rogers. "If they can discuss them as a unit out loud to each other, that will automatically build a sense of intimacy and togetherness."
17. Just Be You
Tell your partner who you are, bruises and all. "Conversations that involve sharing private parts of your life, things that only those in your inner circle are aware, build intimacy," professional matchmaker Samantha Daniels tells Bustle. "For example, if a family member passed away, sharing your feelings about that can build intimacy. Or if you were bullied as a kid … sharing that with your partner can build intimacy," she says.
You can feel free to discuss your romantic past too, says Daniels. "Talking about prior relationships and exes who hurt you can build intimacy," she says. "All of these topics are private to you and are things that random people do not know about you; once you share these types of things with your partner, you cross a proverbial line, and your connection to each other deepens and strengthens."
But don't just blurt all of this out at the laundromat. "You need to be careful to choose the appropriate time to share things of this nature," says Daniels. "You want to make sure you feel safe and connected to the person, and equally that the person is ready to be told these things and see you in a vulnerable position," she adds. "If you share things too soon, it can scare the other person off and also make you feel too vulnerable." So go slow. But once you feel ready, don't hold back too much.
18. Keep Expectations In Check
"Fighting happens more often in marriages in which the intimacy and bonding aren’t working," Tina B. Tessina, aka Dr. Romance, psychotherapist and author of Love Styles: How to Celebrate Your Differences , tells Bustle. "Don’t let your expectations get out of line." Instead, aim for a plain, old-fashioned good time. "Fun and intimacy do not depend on spending money or going to extremes; they don’t depend on a particular setting or activity, and they don't have to take a lot of time." If you make it all about the external, you're bound to be disappointed.
"Enjoying yourselves is an internal process," Tessina says. Basic activities like singing, dancing, and playing a sport are all routes to intimacy. "Yes, you can create intimacy with special occasions, something that requires a bit of advance planning," she says, "but when you look back on your most intimate experiences, they are more likely to have been spontaneous and simple rather than elaborate and expensive."
19. Have A Fight
Most people are scared of fighting, but that's not necessarily wise. "Some people shy away from conflict or think that conflict is bad," relationship coach and therapist Anita Chlipala tells Bustle. "Actually, talking about conflict and working through it can build intimacy for a couple," she says. If you have a fight, work through it. After you patch things up, you'll be stronger than ever — as long as the argument is healthy, and there are no abusive or below-the-belt qualities to it. Says Chlipala, "Any conversation that requires vulnerability will build intimacy, as long as the partner is supportive and responds positively."
20. Pen A Letter
"My favorite exercise with couples is to have them write a letter to each other as if they are speaking to the child within their spouse," psychotherapist and neuromarketing strategist Michele Paiva tells Bustle. "It creates an unconditional love feeling, shows compassion [and] vulnerability, and can be erotic after, as this brings deeper emotions," she says. So write such a letter to your mate, and ask them to respond. Intimacy incarnate!
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