Understanding crop water use in mixed crops over sole cropping is vital for developing optimum water management systems for crop production. In this study, a two-year field experiment with typical maize (Zea mays L.) and soybean [Glycine max (L.) Merr.] relay strip intercropping (2:2 maize-to-soybean rows; 200 cm bandwidth) was carried out in the 2013 and 2014 growing seasons. The quantitative effects of various planting patterns on the water-use efficiency (WUE) and water distribution were investigated. Our results indicated that soil volumetric water content and soil evaporation in the intercropping systems showed decreasing trends in the order: maize row (MM) < maize-to-soybean row (MS) < soybean row (SS). The highest leaf transpiration (1.91 and 2.07 mmol m−2 s−1) for the intercropped maize was measured in each of the two years in the 20 cm maize narrow-row planting pattern and decreased thereafter. Opposite trend was observed for the intercropped soybean; the highest soybean leaf transpiration (7.01 and 6.80 mmol m−2 s−1 for 2013 and 2014, respectively) was recorded in the 70 cm. The WUE of maize and soybean intercrops was lower than that of sole crop counterparts. However, the maximum group water use efficiency (GWUE) of 26.08 and 26.20 kg ha−1 mm−1 in the 40–50 cm maize narrow-row planting pattern was, respectively, 39.6% and 23% higher compared with that of sole crops. The water equivalent ratio (WER) values ranged from 1.60–1.79, suggesting better crop water use in the intercrops over sole cropping. Planting patterns provided by 40–50 cm maize narrow-row spacing were considered the most efficient in terms of maximum total yields, GWUE and WER. These results suggest that an appropriate reduction in the spacing of narrow maize row with wide soybean row could be an efficient crop management method to achieve optimal WUE and homogeneous water distribution in maize–soybean intercropping systems.