What do you think of when you contemplate being intimate with your partner? Many would answer ‘sex’ or some variation on that theme. But romance researchers tend to look more broadly at intimacy than that, and with good reason. Good sex in long-term relationships rests upon a deeper, more full connection than ‘just’ sex, cuddling or romance. Whether the relationship be defined as “vanilla” or “exploratory” the basic tools of a successful relationship are the same. Strong intimacy and honest communication are key.

One useful model for thinking about what generates strong intimacy between partners has been put forward by Solomon and Teagno of the Relationship Institute. In this model, there are three types of intimacy – self intimacy, conflict intimacy and affection intimacy. Couples who ‘gain maturity’ in all three, and particularly in conflict intimacy, are likely to feel the most intimate and satisfied with their relationship.

Self intimacy is about being aware of your own feelings, caring about those feelings, and sharing them with your partner. Even with couples that engage in “alternative lifestyles” exploring their sexuality together with no coercion or abuse, this is still the fundamental core that will create a successful, intimate bond.

Conflict intimacy is about learning how to interact – even around the most difficult topics – without aggression or without being defensive. In essence, being able to disagree constructively and with acceptance and love, even if you don’t even understand how your partner got to where s/he did.

Affection intimacy includes verbal, sexual, non-sexual physical and active expressions of love. This is what most people think of as being intimate.

I, for one, would love to be able to just jump into affection intimacy. But self-intimacy is the foundation of all of it. If you are not in touch with your own feelings, and not able to share them, you will have trouble addressing those feelings for yourself (thus maintaining good mental health), and have trouble sharing your feelings with your partner. Your partner will, in essence, have difficulty getting to fully know you and respond to you in the appropriate and loving ways you both long for.

Self-intimacy, and the sharing of your feelings it implies, isn’t just about being verbal. Some people are better at expressing themselves non-verbally. But whether you are a verbal or non-verbal communicator, being in touch with your own feelings on a regular basis helps you thrive with your partner over the long-term. There are many tools to enhancing an already incredible relationship. Sex really is that important and communication is key.