It happens in movies all the time. Two lonely, guarded people suddenly lower their defenses and connect. The stars align. Cupid shoots his arrow. They reveal what’s truly in their hearts. They step outside, it’s dark, a light snow is falling and carolers are caroling in front of a Christmas tree ablaze with lights. Our two heroes have finally had that moment of emotional intimacy we’ve been waiting two hours for, and it’s….corny and cliche and all that, but still beautiful.
Emotional intimacy is beautiful, and it can happen just that way, with a sudden wonderful opening of the heart that is all the more wonderful for being serendipitous and unexpected. But for most people, emotional intimacy is hard to maintain with their partner over the long term, even when the relationship is loving and committed in every other way.
Typically one partner longs for that feeling of emotional intimacy more—or is more aware of longing for it—than the other. They want that heart-to-heart connection. They want to feel they can tell their partner anything and everything and he or she will relate and understand. And they want their partner to feel the same about them.
They remember the times when the two of them could talk and laugh for hours while looking into each other’s eyes. Now it seems they can barely keep a 20-minute conversation going between them without 19 of those minutes being devoted to family logistics and their kids.
It’s a painful feeling. But if you’re the partner who wants more intimacy, you’ve probably noticed that saying things like “we never talk anymore!” or “you never take me out on a date!”—what couple therapists call “protest behavior”—only makes your partner withdraw even more.
Can you intentionally create more emotional intimacy with your partner, even if they don’t like to “talk about feelings,” or even seem to know what their feelings are?
It may not be easy or quick, but it can be done. It starts with becoming more emotionally connected—emotionally intimate, if you will—with yourself.
The 3 Essential Elements for Emotional Intimacy
Creating emotional intimacy requires three things: emotional awareness, emotional connection, and emotional safety.
Emotional awareness is generally being able to identify and name what you feel.
Emotional connection includes emotional awareness, but goes to a deeper level. When you’re emotionally connected with yourself, you’re in touch with the internal bodily signals (such as the feelings around your heart, or the tightness in your belly) that are the source of your feelings.
People are often afraid to “go there” because they’re only accustomed to feeling those bodily sensations when their emotions are highly intense — in “hot” moments of fear or anger or arousal. But emotional connection (which can also go by the term “interoceptive awareness”) is a powerful source of empathy. When you intentionally use your mind to “tune in” to those bodily feelings during calmer moments, especially when you’re with your partner, you immediately become more emotionally present and responsive.
Emotionally connecting with yourself makes you better at emotionally connecting with your partner. You feel where your partner’s “at,” in your own body, and you’re aware of your own bodily feelings as you relate to them. You’re “with” your partner at a deeper, nonverbal level.
Emotional safety is the feeling that it’s okay to be the “real” you. We all have parts of ourselves that we feel are unacceptable, parts we feel we must hide from other people. These can be emotions we feel, things we’ve done, or things that have happened to us. We’re quite certain that letting other people know and see these things about us will lead to harsh judgment and even outright rejection. And we may be right, But emotional safety comes from feeling that with this person, the unacceptable parts of ourselves are accepted, even welcomed, and treated with understanding and compassion. We don’t have to hide or defend ourselves.
The Obstacles to Emotional Intimacy
If you’re someone who wants more emotional intimacy than your partner seems to want to give, it may feel to you as though they’re deliberately depriving you. That could be the case. There really are people who are “emotionally unavailable.” But usually it isn’t.
Not surprisingly, people differ greatly in how easily emotional awareness, connection, and safety come to them. Many people see feelings as troublesome luxuries that get in the way of the business of living. They don’t want to “share their feelings.” Sometimes they don’t even want to know them. Even though emotions are the primary avenue through which human beings (and all other mammals) relate to one another, many people never learned the value of being aware of, understanding, and communicating their feelings to facilitate connection.
A great many people have taken this one step further and learned to dis-connect and shut out from their awareness their internal bodily signals whenever they’re emotionally stressed or distressed.
All of us do this to some degree; it’s an important coping strategy. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing. You don’t want your heart surgeon getting emotionally affected by the fight they had with their spouse that morning! But when you continually and reflexively block out upsetting, unwanted emotions, you dampen your ability to feel all emotions. It can leave you feeling emotionally disconnected from yourself and others.
And then there’s emotional safety. Who doesn’t feel nervous, sometimes, to share something intimate and vulnerable with their partner?
But there are many people who have trouble ever feeling emotionally safe, even with a caring and loving partner.
Perhaps their hearts were badly broken the last time they opened it to someone. Or maybe they learned long ago that any time they shared what was truly going on inside them, the people they needed and depended on got angry at them—or were simply indifferent.
Or maybe, most tragically, their most basic sense of physical and emotional safety was broken when they were small and truly powerless, so whenever they begin to trust that they won’t get hurt, something inside them tells them it’s too dangerous.
With any one of these obstacles going on inside, emotional intimacy isn’t easy to come by. It can actually be harder, not easier, in a long-term relationship, because the stakes are so high. Have you ever found it easier to open up to the person sitting next to you on a plane, or someone you meet on a cruise or faraway vacation—someone not in your life, whom you’re fairly sure you’ll never meet again?
It’s important to note that men carry additional burdens when it comes to emotional awareness, connection and intimacy, due to the unspoken emotional straitjacket created by the Male Code. But it’s not always the woman in the relationship wanting emotional intimacy and closeness and the man pushing it away. Sometimes it’s the opposite. And gay and lesbian couples face the same challenges. Everyone, no matter what gender, has trouble being vulnerable at times.
Daily life struggles and constant busy-ness work against “dropping down” into emotional connection with yourself or your partner. And the stress of problems that don’t have a quick solution, like an unhappy job situation, can make people feel that talking or listening only makes matters worse; better to turn it all off and play video games or browse through your social media. Add children to this mix, and you may never have a chance for a meaningful adult conversation, much less emotional intimacy, until you’re both too exhausted to function. As a result, while you used to turn to each other for help and support, now you’re both running on deficit.
How to Rekindle Your Emotional Intimacy
So how can you rekindle emotional intimacy, and feel again like your partner is your safest person and best friend? Can you have it separate from, and in addition to, sexual passion? How do you increase emotional intimacy with someone of any gender who has a difficult time with it?
If the problem really is that one or both of you are running on deficit, here’s what you can do:
Don’t avoid, connect.
When people feel upset and overwhelmed by their lives, it’s very common for them to start feeling like their partner is just one more person they have to work hard to take care of, instead of a source of support. Not surprisingly, this makes both partners feel more isolated and alone.
In fact, it’s not as hard to connect and give and receive support as you might think.
Start with letting yourself and your partner off the hook. Being hard on yourself, your partner, or the two of you together for the troubles that have befallen you doesn’t help anything.
Instead, take ten minutes—or five, or two—to stop and acknowledge to your partner the difficulties the two of you are dealing with, without trying to attribute blame, fix anything or asking your partner to fix anything.
There’s an old saying, “A burden shared is a burden halved.” Just drop down and feel the challenges you’re dealing with together, and offer comfort and compassionate acceptance to each other.
None of the problems will have changed, but you won’t feel alone anymore. That’s emotional intimacy.
Don’t avoid, connect. Repeat often.
If, however, you’re missing emotional intimacy because your partner is, or has become, uncomfortable sharing their feelings with you, this is how you can go about changing it:
Pick the right time and place. People can’t “drop down” into an emotionally intimate state if they’re in a hurry, distracted, in “work mode,” intensely worried or surrounded by noise. Nor can they do it if they’re surrounded by people, taking care of their kids or being interrupted every five minutes. Emotional intimacy, especially when you’re out of practice, requires some calmness and privacy at a time when nothing else has to be done.
A car ride—the two of you alone, or with a child sleeping in the back, at a time when you’re not too rushed—can be a less-threatening place to start practicing emotional intimacy.
Put away the phone. And gently ask your partner to put down theirs. This has become a serious problem for relationships lately. People have become so attached to their phones, they can barely keep themselves from looking at them for ten minutes. But emotional intimacy is an interaction that happens only when two people give each other their full attention. You can’t do that while playing Angry Birds or holding a text conversation with someone else.
Developing Emotional Intimacy Can Be Simpler Than You Think
Everything we’ve outlined thus far is focused on creating the right environment for emotional intimacy. Now, let’s move into the nuts and bolts of what to do.
Slow down. Deliberately slow down the pace of your talking and even your breathing. Deep feelings are slower than thoughts. If you’re sharing your feelings at the same speed as your regular conversation, you’re not really sharing your deep feelings.
Talking more slowly also facilitates emotional intimacy. If you slow down to the speed of feelings, in the course of the conversation your partner probably will start to as well.
Connect with your feelings in your body. Emotions start in the body, not the head. Let go of your more casual and conversational way of talking about your feelings.
Instead, as you talk about what you’re feeling, direct your awareness into the center part of your body, especially your chest, your throat and your abdomen, and talk as if the feelings you’re sharing were coming from there.
Be prepared to let go of what you say you’re feeling, if, when it comes out of your mouth, it doesn’t feel true in your body. “You know, I’m not really angry. I’m actually kinda scared.”
You may think you sound awkward and less sure of yourself, but you’ll actually come across as far more authentic to your partner, and your feelings will have much more impact.
Keep it simple—and short. Feelings are pretty simple! I’m happy. I’m sad. I got hurt. I got scared. I’m nervous. I love you. I’ve missed you. I’m glad we’re together. I’m scared to tell you how much you matter to me. See if you can say what you feel in one or two sentences, three at most, and then stop!
Many people share a feeling, feel vulnerable, and begin talking a lot more, which loses the feeling—for themselves and the person they’re sharing it with. It can feel different to share a simple feeling, out loud, without elaboration. Notice what that feels like.
Stay in present time. Share what you’re feeling now, not yesterday or a week ago. If you have to share what happened and how you felt a week ago, to give some context, keep that part short, and get to what’s happening now. A lot of background story tends to dilute feelings. Also, if, in the course of your conversation, your feelings change, you don’t have to stick with your old feeling to be “consistent.” Share the new feeling. In other words, now is now—not even five minutes ago.
Touch. Add more casual touch into your relationship—holding hands, an arm on a shoulder or elbow, a touch of the face, even just touching knees. If, however, every act of casual touch causes your partner to want physical intimacy and that’s not what you want, look for ways to offer pleasurable touch that’s not sexual, like a shoulder rub.
Make a lot of eye contact. Mothers and babies do it. New lovers do it instinctively. When people are bonding with each other, they spend many long minutes looking into each other’s eyes.
When people stop feeling close, they stop looking into each other’s eyes. It’s as though they’ve stopped believing they need to learn new things about each other. Either that, or they’re afraid of what they’ll expose in themselves, or what they’ll see in their partner.
If you want to re-establish emotional intimacy, make a lot of eye contact when you talk to your partner — and even more so, when you listen to them. Maintaining “soft” eye contact when someone is talking to you is the best and easiest way to communicate “you matter to me.”
How to Listen to Emotional Intimacy
Listen openly….and be patient
Imagine that you moved to a foreign country where you know a little of the language, but not much, and you genuinely want to learn the language well enough to converse with the locals in their native tongue.
But when the locals talk with you, they never slow down. When you ask them to, they get annoyed. And when you try to talk to them, you can tell they’re impatient. Your wrong word choices and grammatical mistakes make them grimace. Or even worse, they act seemingly sympathetic but just a little patronizing, as if your inability to speak in their language is a sign of a mental deficiency on your part.
How long would you feel comfortable trying to converse with them in their language? How long would you continue to try?
People who are comfortable expressing and sharing their feelings don’t realize how much time and effort it can be for someone who isn’t accustomed to doing it. It really is like speaking a different language. The more difficult and vulnerable it is, the slower the words and the longer the silences.
More expressive partners often give up too soon. They “jump in” and start talking in long sentences to fill the silence. The non-expressive partner then slips back into their familiar “listener” mode (and is probably secretly relieved!). Remember emotional safety. People of any gender who are uncomfortable sharing their feelings need a lot of time and a ton of respect for doing so, along with care-full encouragement.
This may sound like a lifetime of frustration for the person who wants more emotional intimacy, but a person who’s accepted exactly where they are quite often opens up a lot more quickly than you’d expect. Slow is the new fast.
Welcome emotional honesty with five powerful words
“I was raised to be charming, not sincere,” says Cinderella’s Prince in the musical “Into The Woods.” Hearts and flowers and romance are wonderful, but they’re not the same as emotional intimacy. Emotional intimacy is rooted in emotional honesty. Sometimes long-hidden thoughts and feelings are raw and unprocessed at first, and terrifying to share. That’s why they’ve been long hidden. But if the sharing comes from a genuine desire to stop being distant and reconnect, it can be the gateway to an intimacy greater than you’ve ever had before.
When your partner—or for that matter, anyone you love—shares something like that with you, there’s one five-word sentence you can say that can reset your relationship and get the Christmas tree ablazing and those carolers caroling again:
I’m glad you told me.
If you say that to your partner and truly mean it, making it clear that you much prefer it to the facade, and then follow it up with a sincere effort to understand, accept and share real feelings, it can do more than rekindle emotional intimacy.
It can deepen love in a way that’s felt and remembered for a very long time.