15 Sep Emotional Intimacy
“There is nothing more gentle than true strength and there is nothing stronger than true gentleness.” — Terry Real
Of the many types of intimacy, the one that couples find most difficult is emotional intimacy. Often written as Into-Me-You-See, it’s a phonetic joke that has real power in our relationships. For our purposes here, let’s define intimacy as that sense of closeness we feel with our partner when we are vulnerable, allowing ourselves to really be seen. Emotional intimacy requires a foundation of safety that makes it possible to share our most authentic thoughts and feelings. With true intimacy, you may reach a kind of transcendent state where you can actually feel your partner feeling you. As desirable as that may be, it’s not a hop, skip and jump from date night chit chat to emotional intimacy so we’re going to cover what can get in the way and lay the groundwork to bring you and your partner closer.
So Many Emotions, So Little Time
Making space and time to connect can be difficult in our over-committed, work focused, child focused culture. It’s challenging to find time to sit, be fully present and connected with your beloved. Work and projects become more important than your partner—they usually come with deadlines and she doesn’t. Your focus is on getting things done and doing them well. In the process, you can sacrifice yourself and your emotional connection while making your partner feel guilty for complaining that you’re not really present.
Another way we stay busy (and absent) is by being constantly overwhelmed by all the things we have to do outside of work such as taking care of our children, the home, the dog, social and community commitments. Between checking our email, finishing a project, coaching soccer, beach clean-up day and a little thing called sleep, it’s easy to throw up our hands and say we just couldn’t find the time to truly connect.
As children, our main job is to learn. Long before we start school, we strive to interpret other people’s emotions, express our feelings and to understand the outcomes of specific sentiments and behaviors. We may not remember the days when decorating the entire kitchen with strained peas was crazy fun but we were taught that this isn’t acceptable behavior. The same well-meaning adults, instead of encouraging us to identify and express our emotions, might teach us that some aren’t appropriate. These often include anger, affection, grief, sadness, fear, joy and trust. Consequently, many of us lose our connection with our emotions during childhood when we were made wrong or punished for having and expressing certain feelings.
Fast forward a few decades and, as adults, being open, vulnerable and sharing the deeper parts of ourselves with others often carries the same fear of a negative outcome as it did when we were young. Sometimes, our conditioning tells us that we cannot afford to be fully present, open and vulnerable because of the fear of being rejected, abandoned, punished or worse.
The Gender Gap
Over the past 40 years, women’s roles—and the way women see themselves—have thankfully changed radically. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of men.
Terry Real, a mentor of mine, writes:
With new economic, cultural, and psychological resources, empowered women are, for the first time in history, insisting on real emotional intimacy in their marriages. And men are coming up short…Men’s job descriptions have changed—and men are unprepared for the change. We don’t raise boys and men to be intimate partners, but to be strong, competitive performers. The pressure to be hard, logical, independent, and stoic all too often sets men up to be emotionally distant, arrogant, numb to their own feelings, and unconcerned about everyone else’s, as well as contemptuous of vulnerability and weakness.
The fundamental commandment of traditional masculinity is the denial of emotions: thou shalt not be vulnerable…dude. As boys learn to be men, they are taught to disown their own vulnerability and to deride vulnerability in others. After all, the definition of vulnerability is “capable of being wounded; difficult to defend.” How can you tenderly respond to your partner’s vulnerability, let alone openly share your own, if you view is as nothing but a flaw? You can’t and the truth is that most men see strength and emotional vulnerability as being mutually exclusive.
This helps to clarify why many men have a hard time listening empathetically to their partners. The knee-jerk response is “stop being so emotional and do something about it!” More often that not, women are asking for more emotion from men than they are conditioned to give. Men want to solve the problem and fix things, while women want to be listened to and empathized with.
Before we declare men as damaged goods, let’s turn again to Terry Real who points out, “These aren’t pathological aberrations; they’re the defining characteristics of manhood in our culture. The very values and traits instilled in us as boys—whether we wanted them or not—ensure that we’ll become lousy husbands.”
In our counseling practice, we have an almost daily reminder of this with new clients. It’s rare that the husband will call and say something like “We’ve got to come in, we’re just not as close as we used to be.” Women, not men, seek marriage therapy. Here and there, some enlightened guy may volunteer for counseling, but most of the guys we treat are wife-mandated referrals or “dragees”. Whereas many women are desperate for change, most of the men we treat are not unhappy with their marriages; instead, they’re miserable about their wife’s unhappiness.
Women, through their own social conditioning, play right into the “man code” that explicitly or implicitly devalues intimacy. A number of men have complained to us that when they finally do open up and show vulnerability to their partners, they are viewed as wimps. Debbie and I were recently in a coffee shop and overheard a woman tell a guy friend of hers to “man up.” The phrase “man up” is a reminder to men that they are falling short of some masculine ideal. It belittles and shames men. From the dugout to the bedroom, it’s used when a man expresses emotions, appears weak or needs help. And every time men hear it, it reinforces a deeply held belief that vulnerability is met with contempt, even from the women who encourage it.
Cultivating Emotional Intimacy
With all that stands in the way, how do we grow emotional intimacy? We can plant the seeds, but for them to bear fruit we need to create the right conditions.
Accepting: Being vulnerable is a prerequisite to emotional intimacy. One way to encourage vulnerability is for couples to accept each other as they are, imperfections, limitations and all. If your partner is barely managing a 2 on the openness scale, expecting an Olympic jump to a 10 is unrealistic but moving the needle to a 4 is not only a sign of progress but an accomplishment to be celebrated. To get there, the first step is learning how to talk about your concerns, thoughts, feelings and frustrations in a balanced way without criticizing or shaming your partner. So, if you’re the more vulnerable one, it’s important that you share your feelings without assigning blame. They’re your feelings and you’re the only one responsible for them.
Listening: When your partner does share his or her needs, thoughts and feelings, listening without judgment or giving unwanted advice is an important skill. There are three components to this kind of listening: to mirror, to validate and to empathize (we go into more detail on our page discussing Imago Relationship Therapy). This is the opposite of what we’re taught to do in school or at work. It isn’t about problem solving or being the smartest person in the room, it’s about deep listening, one of the building blocks of the relationship therapy that Debbie and I practice.
Noticing: Emotional intimacy flourishes when care is given. By expressing appreciation for your partner on a regular basis, you are making a deposit in the love bank. To do this, you need to pay attention. Learning each other’s love language and noticing your partner’s needs and desires establishes a nurturing environment that feeds emotional wellbeing. That emotional responsiveness to how your partner is feeling and what he or she needs means being tuned in. It’s a kind of emotional responsibility, a way to be proactive and present rather than reactive after the fact. Ultimately, it makes a huge difference in how we love.
Soothing: You know the saying, “no man is an island”? Thanks to ever more sophisticated brain imaging technology, we finally have proof of that for men and women. In all kinds of relationships, including romantic ones, we are constantly co-regulating each other’s nervous systems. It starts when we are babies and a parent’s touch or gaze calms us. It’s largely nonverbal and a way for our nervous systems to talk to and soothe each other. That’s why we hold someone’s hand when they are in pain or give a hug to provide comfort. Our energy and touch acts as a tranquilizer, calms the nervous system and decreases pain. In couplehood, co-regulation creates a feedback loop that makes both partners feel better, closer and more emotionally intimate.
Tips and Exercises
Now that you have a better sense of the care and feeding required to cultivate emotional intimacy, here are some suggestions to help you on your path to real and enduring closeness:
Watch a Brené Brown video with your partner. A storyteller and author, she is most famous for her Ted Talk “The Power of Vulnerability”. It’s funny, honest and real.
Read a relationship book together. You can read it separately, alternate chapters and tell your partner what you learned, or read it together in bed.
Take a relationship workshop together. This is a great way to nurture emotional intimacy in a safe and structured setting.
Daily appreciations. Express appreciation for something your partner has done every day. You can say it aloud, leave a note on the fridge door for them to find in the morning, accompany it with a kiss – there’s no wrong way to show you’re noticing how great your partner is!
Share new information. Communicate something new that’s going on in your life each day. It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering; intimacy is about sharing yourself with your beloved. Let her in on your mood, the experiences in your life and then listen to her in return.
Be curious. Ask your partner about something you don’t understand so he or she can explain. Ask questions about their day, their life, their field of expertise, or their dreams.
Cite a specific behavior that bothers you and request a change. The key word here is request, not demand. For example “If you’re going to be late for dinner, please do call me. That way the kids and I can make our own plans and won’t be waiting for you.”
Make time to share your hopes and dreams. These can range from the mundane, “I hope you don’t have to work this weekend,” to the grandiose, “I would really love to spend a month in Europe with you this summer” and everything in between.
Create a no phone zone. Set a tech-free time every night. One that works especially well — and promotes more intimacy as well as better sleep — is no phone, tablets or laptops in the bedroom!
Have a real conversation about a problem. This one is aimed at men. Encourage your partner to discuss something that’s upsetting her. Take at least 10 minutes for this. Agree that you will listen and:
- not try to solve the problem
- not tell your partner what to do
- not offer advice unless specifically asked
- practice validation and being empathetic
In the end, remember that emotional intimacy is not a destination, it’s a journey. We are all trying to cultivate more emotional intimacy in our lives with our partners, with our children, our parents, colleagues and friends. Be easy on yourself as you practice being open, vulnerable and authentic. We hope this is helpful and, as always, give us a call if you have any questions.
Craig and Debbie