Humans are social creatures, and it’s not surprising that close relationships are a priority for most people. While a strong support system or a romantic partner isn’t a cure for a mental illness, building and maintaining intimate relationships is among the most effective ways to enjoy a happy, healthy life.
What Is Intimacy?
While many people enjoy maintaining large friendship groups, intimacy among those friends is not necessarily a guarantee. The idea of intimacy refers to openness, trust, and vulnerability. Whether it’s a relationship with a parent, a sibling, a friend, a coworker, or a romantic partner, there may be different types of intimacy depending on power dynamics and the nature of the relationship. While there are numerous types of intimacy, they can generally be rounded up into four broad categories.
Four Types of Intimacy
Being emotionally intimate with someone means being open and transparent with fears, feelings, and thoughts. This type of intimacy is developed by practicing active, judgment-free listening and creating an environment where both people can trust that they’re safe, even if they have differing opinions and perspectives. Over time, it can be present in most types of relationships, though it requires both people to be open and willing to take risks.
Mental or intellectual intimacy involves sharing ideas, life perspectives, and opinions. For this type of closeness, both people must be respectful and open to, or at least open to considering, someone else’s ideas and thoughts on charged topics, such as social or political issues.
Spiritual intimacy may have different meanings for different people, but in general, it means feeling close, validated, and safe in sharing innermost ideas and beliefs on abstract or spiritual issues. For many people, spirituality or religion is an important aspect of their life that feels foundational to motivations, values, and their sense of self. Spiritual intimacy doesn’t necessarily mean that both people have the same belief system, but it does require that both people are open to learning from one another without judgement or ulterior motives.
When most people think of intimacy, physical intimacy is what immediately comes to mind. This type of intimacy refers to body closeness, which may include holding hands, hugging, kissing, or sex, depending on the nature of the relationship. It’s often thought about in the context of romantic relationships, but nonsexual intimacy can exist between friends or children and their parents, for example.
What Does Intimacy Do to the Brain?
Being in an intimate relationship triggers a reward response in the brain, explaining why so many people love the early days of a new romance. When scanning the brain of someone in love, researchers have observed heavy surges of dopamine, which is the chemical that gives energy and focus. Additionally, oxytocin, known as the bonding hormone, is at a high, and vasopressin, which triggers a need to guard a person or territory, is also present at high levels.
Being in love doesn’t just inspire positive emotions, it also tampers negative emotions. Feelings of romance shut down the neural pathways that are responsible for unpleasant emotions, including fear and concerns about social judgment.
How Does Intimacy Affect Mental Health?
Healthy and intimate relationships have a positive impact on mental health and can protect against depression, anxiety, and stress disorders. According to a study cited by the University of Texas at Austin, MRI technology showed that stable couples had more activity in the part of the brain that caused pleasure and less activity in the region that initiated symptoms of anxiety. Another study indicates that words of affection from a romantic partner lowered stress hormone levels, and yet another showed that hand-holding between long-term, stable romantic partners lowered stress much more than hand-holding between pairs with other relationship dynamics.
The benefits of intimacy aren’t limited to romantic relationships. Intimate platonic relationships also have a positive impact on the individual’s mental health and can help ward off stress and depression. In an interview, Dr. Scott Kaiser, a board-certified specialist in geriatric medicine, stated that poor social connections and social isolation were just as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes daily and increase an individual’s risk of developing dementia.
In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers measured the impact that proximity to close friends had on a person’s perception of a challenge. In the experiment, researchers asked participants how high a hill was. Participants who were standing next to a friend consistently estimated that a hill would be less challenging to climb than those who were standing alone. Based on that, researchers suggested that having someone we have a close connection with gives us confidence and reduces stress.
The heavy load that stress puts on the brain is difficult to overstate, and depression caused by a lack of intimacy is all too common. According to some experts, about half of all long-term emotional disorders stem from stress. Not only does that impair the parts of the brain responsible for handling concentration and storing memories, but it speeds up the aging process, increases an individual’s chances of experiencing a heart attack or stroke, and suppresses the immune system. High-quality social relationships, including romantic relationships as well as platonic ones, can be effective in helping individuals manage their stress levels and support their mental health.
Mental health is complex, and mental illnesses typically require multifaceted approaches. Intimate relationships don’t fix conditions such as depression, but they can be part of a healthy, supportive environment for an individual with a mental illness.
Does Having a Romantic Partner Make You Happier?
Happiness is hard to quantify, and it means different things to different people. In general, however, healthy romantic relationships are associated with lower stress levels, less anxiety, and boosts in the brain’s reward center. This improves an individual’s sense of well-being and happiness, particularly over a long period of time.
In the Harvard Study of Adult Development, researchers observed that the happiest, healthiest seniors were those who had long romantic partnerships. In fact, those who were healthiest at age 80 were those who were most satisfied in their relationships when they were 50 years old. New relationships can bring on feelings of happiness, but they can also come with stress, uncertainty, and insecurity. As romantic love evolves over the years into what researchers call companionate love, both partners enjoy a boost in happiness and quality of life.
Are Romantic Relationships Good for Mental Health?
Being in a happy, stable relationship has a positive impact on mental health and may be linked to better self-esteem and an increased sense of self-worth and self-confidence. People in romantic relationships tend to incorporate safer behaviors into their everyday lives, and they generally experience less depression and anxiety.
When it comes to romantic relationships and mental health, quality counts. Living in conflict or within an unhealthy romantic relationship is far more damaging to mental health than being alone. Partnerships in which both people are working towards good communication, healthy habits, and openness have a profoundly positive impact on mental health.