During the long, slow demise of my first marriage, my ex-husband checked out emotionally, leaving me feeling somewhat abandoned. He was still there in body but not in mind or spirit, which led to a widening chasm between us.
It wasn’t just our sexual intimacy that declined but also the emotional and mental connections that had once been vibrant between us. We went to couples’ counseling to try to repair what was broken but we couldn’t make it happen.
After we split up, I went to therapy on my own to try to make sense of what went wrong and to think about my future. That’s when I realized that what I value most in a romantic relationship is what I have come to call “vertical intimacy”—the forms of intimacy that occur when you’re standing up (or at least not naked), including emotional, intellectual, social, and spiritual chemistry and connection. Those were the elements that got lost in my first marriage, and what I’ve come to realize make a romantic, sexual relationship meaningful, exciting, and fulfilling for me.
When I eventually started dating a divorced man I knew from walking our dogs in the neighborhood, we both wanted to take things slowly. We were both reeling from the loss of our lonely first marriages and were afraid of repeating our previous patterns. So, we focused on getting to know each other gradually, discovering mutual interests, sharing our values and ideas about the world, and doing novel activities together (like orienteering— an activity in which you use a map and compass to navigate through checkpoints as you walk or run along an unfamiliar course in the woods). In short, the man who eventually became my second husband and I focused on building vertical intimacy. We succeeded brilliantly—and that in turn helped us foster amazing sexual intimacy and chemistry, not to mention trust, communication, and respect.
The Importance of Finding Vertical Intimacy
In romantic relationships, many people focus on finding and maintaining sexual chemistry and compatibility, which is definitely important. But the same can be said for “vertical intimacy,” especially as time passes.
“At the beginning of any relationship, we get a burst of expansiveness that provides a lot of novelty, curiosity, and conversation,” says Ian Kerner, Ph.D., a couples therapist in New York City and author of So Tell Me About the Last Time You Had Sex. “Once you settle into a relationship, you need to keep working on the story of us—the two of you and why you picked each other. Vertical intimacy creates a frame of emotional safety that allows you to be vulnerable and share your intimate emotions. It’s a different lens through which to view a relationship.”
Not surprisingly, the relationship between sex and vertical intimacy is a two-way street. “When we pick our partners, sex becomes a way of celebrating or deepening an emotional connection,” Kerner explains. As time goes on, sex can become an expression of vertical intimacy, he adds.
Research has found that as we get into our 60s and 70s, there are consistent links between emotional intimacy and sexual well-being in both men and women. But there are some interesting gender differences: For starters, men’s expressions of emotional intimacy were related to women’s sexual well-being, but the same thing wasn’t true the other way around. In other words, as the researchers suggested, there may be a different sexual choreography between men and women in a committed relationship.
For many people, “the importance of intimacy and connection as you age adds to the trust and security you feel in the relationship,” says Megan Fleming, Ph.D., a sex and relationship expert and a clinical instructor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. All too often, she adds, “people stop watering the grass in their romantic relationship.” That can cause your emotional connection to dry up or wither away. “We’re wired for connection from the cradle to the grave—but you really have to cultivate the connection and engagement,” Fleming says. “It takes effort.”
How to Tell If You Have Vertical Intimacy
To some extent, you probably know if you have it. If you feel emotionally connected to your partner and are comfortable sharing your innermost thoughts and feelings—and if you want to share important news or worries with your partner—these are good signs. If you have routines you enjoy, like cooking or having dinner together or walking the dog with each other, that’s another sign you’re on the right track. “When you have vertical intimacy, you can be in a room together and create a world together, talking to each other,” Kerner says. “You don’t need external stimuli or distractions.”
That’s not to say there needs to be non-stop conversation between you. It can be handled selectively, as Sarah Steinhauer and her husband Ben Brautigam, of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, have discovered since they got married in June 2020. This is a second marriage for both of them, and they each have two children from their previous marriages. As they entered this relationship, they were committed to forging open communication and trust with each other, as well as a willingness to have difficult conversations and actively listen—and they consciously do this regularly. But they also relish just being together in the same space, perhaps sitting by the fire after the kids go to bed. “Vertical intimacy can involve silence—I’m comfortable with that,” says Sarah, an artist, and graphic designer. “It’s an unspoken connection that just feels good.”
Fostering Vertical Intimacy
There are many ways to build (or rebuild) an emotional connection in your relationship. “As soon as you’re starting to feel a little bit of drift or disconnection, that’s when you have to think about consciously finding or restoring that vertical intimacy,” Kerner says.
An important aspect is to maintain a sense of curiosity about your partner, regularly checking in with each other to see how you’re feeling (which develops mutual empathy), and asking questions to help you update your image and understanding of your partner. Some of these queries can relate to the past. Fleming suggests asking questions like What did play look like for you when you were a little kid? Who was your favorite teacher in elementary school? What was your favorite vacation?
Some of these questions can also relate to the present. Sometimes Sarah and Ben ask each other questions that have an existential bent, such as: If you knew you were in a simulation, what would you do? Questions like this help “you find out what someone’s deeper truth is,” Sarah says.
The questions I ask my husband tend to be more hypothetical so that we can dream together—about places we could each see ourselves living if we didn’t stay where we are, for example. During a four-hour drive to pick up my son from college in May, I asked my husband: If you had to choose a new form of work and it couldn’t be anything you’ve done before, what are three possibilities? His answer: Working as a park ranger, a financial advisor, or a librarian. These choices weren’t altogether surprising because John loves being outdoors (hiking, backpacking, or camping), working with spreadsheets (yes, really!), and reading. But it made me realize that he’d probably appreciate having more of some of these elements in our lives. In the weeks that followed, I suggested we go hiking and kayaking (which we did), and I planned an outing to the Library of Congress, which we both thoroughly enjoyed. (He’s on his own with the financial stuff.)
It also helps to develop shared interests and explore new experiences together, experts say. “Doing new things together brings a level of arousal because you don’t know how it’s going to go, which is good for your emotional bond and intimacy,” says Fleming. In a series of experiments, researchers from the State University of New York, Stony Brook, found that doing a novel, arousing task together—such as navigating a physical obstacle course together, while bound on one side with Velcro straps at the wrist and ankle—was associated with greater feelings of relationship quality, compared to before the experiment or performing a mundane task together. Their conclusion: Adding novelty and a variety of activities to a committed relationship can make it more satisfying and exciting.
Over the course of 15 years of marriage, Emma Gordon has become more convinced than ever “that intimacy is even better felt when it is not physical.” Early in her marriage, she equated the word intimacy with being physical, which she found exhausting. After shifting gears, she realized that it’s “about building enough trust between partners,” says Gordon, a Los Angeles-based mother of two. So, she and her husband began making an effort to spend more time talking and thinking of projects—such as gardening, cooking, and volunteering—to do together. Building a stronger sense of connection and trust “has made even our sex life stronger,” she says. “We are vulnerable to each other in a good and positive way.”
During our seven years of marriage, my husband John, and I have continued to get to know each other on a deeper level. We relish hearing stories about each other’s childhoods or bizarre experiences we didn’t know the other had had. We recommend books we’ve loved to each other. And we continue to discover new interests together—all of which have helped us develop a deep trust, open communication, and profound respect between us. This is the secret sauce that makes our bond so strong and helps us feel close to each other.
The reality is: Our bodies may not always be up for sex as we get older. But strong emotional, intellectual, and social chemistry won’t let us down.