Cara looked longingly at Steve, but as his eyes raised from the plate toward her face, she diverted her eyes. While she hoped they could reconnect, it had been several months since she felt they were on the same page about anything. She knew that even a glimpse into his eyes and hers would well up.
Steve noticed Cara look away, and wondered if they would ever feel close again. He could not pinpoint when things went awry, but he knew their love felt different. They both said “I love you” often, but over the past few months, it had begun to feel hollow.
The void was agonizing for them both, and they each secretly thought the end of their three-year relationship might be near. Determined to unearth every opportunity for relational salvation, Cara and Steve made an appointment for couples therapy.
When couples come to see me for therapy, undoubtedly one of the issues they are likely struggling with the most is emotional intimacy, though many of them are not necessarily able to articulate that at the start.
They say their sex life has dwindled; they are having the same tights over and over again, one of them feels betrayed, or unimportant in the relationship.
Relationships are hard. Let’s be real. They require work and sometimes what work is to be done is unclear. One person pulls away; the other shuts down.
Other times an intricate dance of push/pull becomes the narrative, with both people oscillating in a relational tidal wave. Emotional intimacy is the cornerstone to a successful relationship and of often the thread of our relationships that suffers the most.
With the advent of technology and endless apps, increased professional demands, competing kids schedules, sometimes the only thing a couple can do is survive and thriving becomes a faraway notion that is reserved for that fantasy vacation or when all the laundry is done. Why is emotional intimacy so hard to procure and even more difficult to sustain? The answer is different for every couple, but the efficacy of a couple’s emotional intimacy depends on a few variables.
Each person brings with them into their primary relationships, a cache of experiences from past relationships, especially their earliest relationships with caregivers, that both consciously and unconsciously informs their expectations of their partner how they show up in their current coupleship.
With that in mind, often people react to historical realities as if they were truths in the present. Without strong insight, these triggers can set off a chain reaction of old hurts misattributed to the present, and a partner may not know how to address it.
Fear can paralyze even those who are most adept at leaning into their discomfort and at times can lead one or both people in a relationship in a state of disconnect. Perhaps they have bad news to share and are afraid of seeing the disappointment on their partner’s face.
People are busy. We are busier than ever, and often take for granted that fact that our partner will be around on the weekend, or whenever we think it will be a better time to talk, and so perpetual procrastination for the right time turns into weeks or months of feeling disconnected.
The business of being busy is a plague in our society, where status and benchmarks of achievement become the driving force for our esteem. Too frequently, we lose sight of what and who matters, only to look up one day and realize our partner may as well be a stranger.
Emotional intimacy is the bedrock of any relationship and is essential in our primary romantic relationship. Without robust levels of emotional intimacy, physical and sexual intimacy begins to deteriorate as well, loneliness, resentment, and embitterment develop and each person may take a hit to their self-esteem or sense of worth.
That said, there is no standard for what level of emotional intimacy a couple must reach to be happy. That is for each couple to decide for themselves, and it can look different for everyone. For some couples, emotional intimacy may mean sharing the details of your meals or bowel movements, and for others, it can mean riffing inside jokes incognito in front of friends or family. For most, it means being able to share your inner life with your partner in a manner that feels safe, collaborative, and supported, even when you’re being challenged.
If you’re feeling disconnected in your relationship, and want to improve your emotional intimacy with your partner, don’t fret! It may feel daunting to course correct initially, but like any skill, and practicing effective communication and building and maintaining emotional intimacy are skills, a little bit of practice goes a long way.
Here are 10 tips on how to get started.
1. Look inward. Do your own work first! Ask yourself why you might be checked out or avoiding. Is it fear? Are you holding on to some resentments? Is withdrawing your default strategy to stress? If you don’t know, seeing a therapist may help you unlock the mysteries of your own blocks to intimacy.
2. Create a relational inventory. Take a mental tally of the instances in your relationships when you’ve felt connected to your partner. Revisit your vows or a wedding video. Look back on pictures from your favorite trip or a memorable moment and see if you can harness that feeling again.
Sometimes our minds need a little help getting unstuck, and jogging the memory of more connected times can allow for enough safety to forage through whatever has clouded your intimacy potential. If you notice yourself building a list of resentments, consider what it would take for you to forgive your partner and let go.
3. Get spiritually connected. If you are not feeling connected spiritually or to something outside of yourself (if religion or spirituality are not your things), it can feel really difficult to feel connected to others, as existential loneliness can result in an implosion of isolation and despondence.
Make an effort to be of service to your partner or to other people, pray or meditate, take a walk in nature. Get immersed in something that brings you a sense of awe or wonder, allows you to be in the moment, and enriches your soul.
4. Practice self-care. You cannot offer water from an empty cup. It is imperative that you are refilling your own cup on a regular basis (for your own sanity) and the health of your relationship. Take time to decompress. Say “no.” Set limits on your time and make room for the activities and interactions that replenish and recharge your battery.
Self-care looks different for everyone, so find a routine that works for you and make it sacred. You’ll be surprised at the level of intimacy you are able to achieve with your partner when you bring a fully charged version of yourself to the table.
5. Be present. Put down your technology. Check your emails tomorrow at work. Make it a priority to live mindfully in the present moment. Do the dishes together. Focus on one thing at a time, and ensure that you are participating in that activity only. We are conditioned to multi-task, but as effective as that strategy may be at work or when you’re trying to coordinate everyone’s after-school schedule, but multitasking is a sure fire way to impede emotional intimacy.
6. Make eye contact. One of the first signs that there is a deficit in emotional intimacy is a dearth of eye contact. Now, not every couple likes to gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes for hours at a time, but if you find yourselves struggling to make eye contact, it could be a sign that one or both of you feel disconnected.
Make a plan to make eye contact intentionally, and without dialogue for one to four minutes a day. Set a timer on your phone. Allow whatever feelings arise to be acknowledged and feel free to debrief together after. They say our eyes are the window to the soul, and there is some merit to this statement, in that eye contact creates mirror neurons, which facilitate limbic resonance. This process is the neurobiological foundation for empathy and connection.
7. Make time for each other. Plan a regular date night. It may sound cliché, but how do you expect to develop intimacy if you don’t spend any dedicated time together?
Remember when you were initially dating? It was fun because you were happy just to be around each other. It doesn’t matter what you do but set aside time to play. Explore.
Reminisce. Travel. Humans crave that which is novel. Embark on a new hobby and grow together in this new endeavor.
8. Create new rituals. Plan a time each day to check in with each other. The check-in doesn’t need to be elaborate, but ask about your partner’s day and listen to their response.
Ask them if they need anything from you, and then assess whether or not you can meet their request earnestly (so as not to set up false hope or overcommit).
9. Become an expert on your partner’s style of loving. Gary Chapman writes about the various styles of loving in his book The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts. Each person communicates love in a different manner. For some people acts of service, speak of love. For others, gifts or physical touch. Some prefer words of affirmation or quality time.
None is right or wrong, but when we learn to communicate love in one way, we often miss the attempts of our partner or notice that or attempts don’t land.
Where there is sometimes a disconnect, is that usually we communicate our love in the manner we want to receive love, but that may not be most meaningful to a partner whose style of communicating love is a different currency. Learn about how your partner likes to receive love, and then show up accordingly.
10. Get vulnerable. This is the most challenging step for most people and the critical. Our primary relationships evoke the most fear, and our partner can become a mirror for what we loathe to recognize in ourselves.
As such, emotional intimacy often takes a hit when our shame or fear of being judged or unsafe overrides our desire and ability to be vulnerable and authentic. Courage is necessary to overcome the fear, but only those willing to take the risk will know the tender cushion of real intimacy.
Lastly, if you feel overwhelmed, or these efforts fail to yield results that are sustainable, consider working with a couples’ therapist, who can help you both find a vocabulary for your experience and create a safe space for you to practice new tools for communication, anticipate and intervene on intimacy roadblocks, and grow closer together.
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