The Atlas of Touch: Understanding Physical Intimacy Beyond the Bedroom  


Usually when we talk about intimacy, physical intimacy is the one to come to mind first.  

The first big test any relationship faces is whether you can sustain physical chemistry. Are you a good kisser? Does your touch spark excitement? Does it feel good to be in each other’s personal space? These are all crucial factors in determining whether a relationship is viable in the first place.

Physical touch is a universal language and leaves a deep imprint. Who can forget the first time they kissed the person they love? Or the excitement of holding hands and the thrill of feeling their hands on your body? Early in the relationship, you get drunk on touch.

Out of all the types of intimacy this is by far the most discussed and most strongly experienced at the start of any relationship.

It’s important not to mistake physical intimacy with sexual intimacy.

Is physical intimacy the same as sexual intimacy?

Physical intimacy gets mistaken for sexual intimacy and vice versa. Both require physical touch, but they’re not the same. Think of physical intimacy as the broad category. It’s the closeness you have with your partner inside as well as outside of the bedroom. Whereas sexual intimacy is what you keep to the bedroom (or not, if you’re feeling adventurous).

Plus, physical intimacy is not exclusively reserved for romantic relationships. Plenty of friendships involve physical intimacy. Hugs are the universal language of friendship. We’ve all had that one friend, who gives out excellent shoulder massages, has helped you fix your hair, cuddled under a blanket during a scary movie or helped you tie a tie.

These are all examples of physical intimacy that are not inherently sexual. Yes, we see all these types of touch in romantic relationships, but they don’t always exist in a romantic context.

Sexual intimacy, on the other hand, takes hugs, hand holding, playing with each other’s hair and sitting in each other’s lap and amplifies them. Here touch carries a different meaning and is used to initiate sex. It’s quite common to see new couples being physically unable to keep their hands off each other, and that’s natural.

While you can divorce physical intimacy from sexual intimacy, the opposite is basically impossible.

Emotional and interpersonal disturbances impact physical intimacy

According to Albert Mehrabian, a researcher of body language, roughly 55% of communication is nonverbal. Body language is the ultimate truth teller. If troubles brew in the relationship, the first thing to suffer is physical intimacy. You guard your personal space more and draw back from your partner.

On the other side of the coin, you become aware of your partner’s reluctance to be close to you. Have you started sleeping away from each other in bed? Has physical touch become infrequent? Does either partner flinch or pull away when touched? There are various reasons why a disconnect happens:

  • Fear of intimacy. It’s not uncommon for either partner to have either insecurities with their body or previous trauma surrounding touch. Intimacy means being vulnerable and many of us don’t want to open ourselves to being hurt.
  • Loss of trust. Trust in a relationship is sacred. Even the tiniest fracture has an immediate effect on closeness. Feeling distrustful of your partner could cause your body to tense.
  • Unspoken things. Sometimes, the things we keep to ourselves prevent us from opening up to physical touch. Emotional distance finds itself reflected in how we react or don’t react to a partner’s touch.
  • Different wants and needs. Physical intimacy is not always the preferred love language of every person. Discrepancy between wants and needs or different sexual preferences can create tension where one partner requires more physical (sexual or not) touch compared to the other. This can easily breed discontent and a sense of being undesirable, or a sense of being smothered.
  • Living inside your head. Any couple that has been through the highs and lows of a long-term relationship faces the challenge of the daily grind. You keep everything you have to do in your head at all times and forget about your own body, and the physical part of your relationship.

The world of touch is complicated. It can be hard to navigate its ins and outs, but the good news is that you can find a common language with your partner. Restoring physical intimacy requires a little patience and trying out the following:

Talk at length about your needs, expectations or issues.

Whether you’re the one dissatisfied with the level of physical intimacy in your relationship, or it’s your partner, an honest conversation is the first thing that needs to happen. Communication works, so communicate, communicate, communicate.

Be gentle in your approach. Physical intimacy requires delicate touch. Wording matters so that your partner doesn’t feel attacked, or made to feel less. A good rule of thumb is to always rely on I-statements. Rather than ‘you don’t touch me anymore and that has to stop’, try saying ‘I’ve noticed that we’re not as intimate as we used to be. Can we talk about this?’

Create a welcoming atmosphere so that your partner feels safe and receptive to what you’re saying. Although sex falls in the needs category, keep the conversation on intimacy and closeness, because sex is only a component of physical intimacy.

Take a step back, connect to your body and practice self-care

Sometimes physical intimacy intimidates, if you’re dealing with anxiety, body insecurities or the inevitable changes that come with age, birth or illness. In these instances, be kind to yourself and do some work on yourself. Modern life puts us under so much mental stress that it’s not surprising to feel disconnected from our bodies. Social media contributes a lot to negative self-image.

Take the time to nurture your body and rediscover your physicality. Maybe take up a sport or any other physical activity to ground yourself in your body, and relearn what feels good. The ultimate goal is to arrive at a place where you feel comfortable in your skin.

There’s no shame in sitting down with a therapist to address personal issues relating to touch and your relationship with your physicality. You deserve to be at peace with your body.

Carve out time for the relationship

Physical intimacy doesn’t thrive in a vacuum. It requires both partners to be present in the moment. Between work, chores, family obligations and digital distractions, it’s so easy to go a long period without spending meaningful time together. Do you go out on dates? Do you do shared activities?

If the answer is not as much as you used to, consider correcting the course. Meaningful shared time helps you rediscover what’s special about each other, and reignite that initial spark. The key here is to be deliberate. Put away the phones for an evening and sit with each other. Or go out in nature. You’ll find that without having to think about a thousand things at once, connecting with your partner becomes effortless.

Develop a sense of play

As adults, we easily buy into the lie that we have to be serious and responsible all the time. Play is criminally underrated as a form of bonding. You’ve probably heard the old saying ‘A family that plays together stays together.’ There’s a lot of truth to this sentiment.

Couples with a shared sense of humor and readiness to play together have an outlet to blow off steam, lighten up, practice a healthy form of competition and build memories. Plus, games offer new avenues to practice non-sexual physical touch.

Ideas here would be to horse around in the pool, play truth or dare, race to the remote to determine what you’ll watch, and give each other a piggyback ride.

If you have children, you have all the more incentive to give into play. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.

Physical intimacy doesn’t follow a strict timeline

The road to restoring physical intimacy follows no predetermined route or schedule. You set the pace and mark progress as it comes, when it comes.

Physical intimacy can’t be rushed as it’s predicated on physical wellbeing, emotional wellbeing as well as harmony within the relationship. It’s a delicate equilibrium, which can be easily disturbed and restoring it requires being in tune with ourselves and our partners.

The best you can do is stay present in the moment and savor each and every touch.

Your body will tell you what needs to happen next.