When I ask a couple of couple’s counseling, “So, tell me about the current status of your intimacy,” they inevitably start talking about their sex life. When I proceed to explain I am interested in their emotional intimacy, the male quickly turns his gaze toward his wife and the female typically speaks of the loneliness and isolation she experiences in the marriage. She may not know exactly what, but she does know something is missing in the marriage.
They likely love each other, believed that somehow love would engender a relationship characterized by depth, meaning, and growth. Depth can be characterized as a boundless receptivity to how giving, receiving, planning, collaborating, loving and desiring might live in the relationship. A relationship has meaning when we cherish how these energies are living in our relationships. Growth happens when we live close to the question, “What is our relationship asking for?”
When dreams of love’s promises begin to unravel, a couple likely turns to blaming, criticizing and/or avoiding each other. The truth is they were never given the skills necessary to transform love into a deep, emotionally intimate connection. In a way, they were set up to be significantly disillusioned. If the trust has become significantly eroded, they either settle into emotional mediocrity and alienation or get divorced.
It appears that we emerge from the womb with strong needs for emotional and physical attachment. These needs quickly translate into a natural inclination to experience deep heartfelt sentiments characteristic of loving and being loved. However, these feelings, regardless of their strength, are not enough to engender emotional intimacy, which is a learned competency.
Some emotional intimacy skills might include:
1. TRUST DEEPLY
Deep love requires deep trust. It is part of what love is to believe that your partner will protect and cherish your heart. In order to build emotional intimacy in your relationship, you must trust your partner wholeheartedly.Lack of trust is similar to fear. You cannot fear that your partner might hurt you and still love them fully. If you suspect infidelity or other broken promises, speak to your partner about your fear. Then, commit to putting aside your fear and allowing yourself to be vulnerable with your partner so you can continue to have emotional intimacy in your relationship.
2. ATTUNE TO YOUR HIGHER PURPOSE
Each of you has a particular aspiration that you feel deeply about. When you can combine your dreams together to work toward a mutual goal, you build something together as a couple.
For example, if one of you is passionate about the environment and the other is passionate about helping children, you might combine your efforts into a joint volunteer activity. Perhaps offering to teach kids about how important it is to recycle is something you can both give your energy to, which offers a wonderful way to increase emotional intimacy in your relationship.
Building a legacy as a couple over something that you both care deeply about is like raising a child together. When your passion is paired with someone you are passionate about, your level of devotion to your relationship is intense, and emotional intimacy in your relationship will increase.
3. RELEASE NEGATIVE THINKING
Commit to release the need to be right, the need to control your partner, the need to point out wrongs, and the need to keep score. When you remove these barriers to emotional intimacy in your relationship, you leave only the positive, supportive, kind emotions to give your partner.
If you find something that your partner has done in error, forgive them and then make a choice. Is it hurtful to them if you point it out? Can you bring their attention to it without hurting their feelings? If not, the best option may be to let it go.
For example, if your partner forgot to fill your gas tank after using your car, you have a choice to say something to them about it or not. In this example, you might tell your partner how grateful you are that they take good care of your car. Don’t say ‘usually’ or ‘except that you forgot to fill the tank.’ Work to build your partner up by praising their positive traits rather than pointing out the negative ones, and this will deepen the emotional intimacy in your relationship.
4. BE PRESENT
The gift of your full attention is a way to increase emotional intimacy in your relationship. When your partner is speaking, give them your full attention. Listen as if they were the most important person in your life; because they are.
If you’re going to stay together for the long-term, you will both need to learn excellent communication skills to increase the emotional intimacy of your relationship. This is true for both expressing yourself emotionally and listening intently. You can read more about the importance of listening and other healthy relationship tips here.
Your partner is also speaking to you in non-verbal ways. Be attentive to their body language, gestures, facial expressions, and tone. As you do, you increase your emotional intelligence by being perceptive of emotions even if they are unspoken, and therefore, increase the emotional intimacy of your relationship.
5. BE YOUR BEST SELF
Be accountable for your own emotional health. You cannot give more of yourself to your partner until you have more to give. Focus your energy on becoming your best self and you will have even better emotional intimacy in your relationship.
Likewise, look after your own physical and spiritual health so that you are better able to provide support to your partner. Your mental well-being is tied to the health of your physical body and when you are thriving, the emotional intimacy in your relationship will, too.
6. Prioritizing our responsibility to love ourselves, and not asking significant others to do it for us.
(This means we need to grow enough mindfulness to be aware of being plagued by self-loathing and committed to learning how to interrupt it. People who love us can support this interruption process.)
7. The ability to identify our own emotional needs,
which may include: the need to be seen, heard, encouraged, considered, included, nurtured, understood, accepted, engaged, touched, held, desired, forgiven, collaboratively joined in problem-solving and decision making and the recipient of affection. (This skill can be especially challenging for men since male acculturation mandates that males should not have emotional needs.)
8. The ability to talk about the above emotional needs and get them met in and out of our primary relationship. (I was once asked in a television interview, “What’s the one thing you would recommend to men in order for them to be better equipped to be emotionally intimate with the women in their lives?” My response was: “Men need to come to know and accept their emotional needs and develop strong emotional support with other men.” The interviewer looked dumbfounded. I went on to explain that if men come into their emotional needs with no other support but the significant females in their lives, they run a high risk of maternalizing their relationships, becoming sons of these women, which is not intimate.)
9. The ability to make clear, concrete requests, with all requests being legitimate.
(This helps to avoid getting into long-winded evaluations of requests, which simply distracts from attending meaningfully to requests.)
10. The recipient of a request responds only with “yes,” “no,” or “I want to negotiate how I might support your request.” (The recipient can avoid being taken hostage by a request by answering authentically and dealing with any guilt a response of “no” might stimulate.)
11. The ability to make agreements and hold blameless and shameless accountability for broken agreements. (This kind of accountability has the person who breaks an agreement taking ownership of the broken agreement and offers restitution wherever possible while recommitting to holding agreements or renegotiating in a timely fashion.)
12. Addressing breakdowns in a relationship
where someone feels hurt and/or angry by identifying the problem as someone’s unmet need and the person with the problem is the one with the unmet need. (This breakdown protocol is critical since most breakdowns go unresolved because the problem and who has who has the problem goes unidentified.)
13. Identifying the nature of the unmet need, the means by which the need might be met and planning to talk along the way about how effectively the need is being met.
14. The ability to have honest conversations about fear. There are two fears which are a part of any committed relationship: the fear of losing ourselves to the preferences, values, and beliefs of our partners and the fear of losing our partners either to some endeavor or to someone else.
These skills should not be read as formulas, which if followed, guarantee a satisfying and an emotionally intimate relationship. Similar to love, emotional intimacy is a profound mystery, which will not be penetrated. It is a daring undertaking, calling for an earnest commitment to continue learning about who we are and what our relationships are asking for. And most of all, living with a softness that allows us to forgive ourselves and those we love, as we fumble with the large energies flowing through emotional intimacy, such as passion, love, loyalty, betrayal, fear, anger, trust and distrust, commitment and disillusionment.