Emotional intimacy provides an overarching role in the psychological nourishment, connection, and mental, and even physical, wellbeing for us human beings (for details about this see Nadine Burke Harris’ book Toxic Childhood Stress). But what is emotional intimacy? How can we create it in our relationships? and how and why does this help us? I deal with these issues on a daily basis in my work as a relationship counsellor and on the emotional education courses I run. So I will go through each of these questions looking at what I have learnt about intimacy between two people (rather than with oneself). But let me start with defining what I mean by emotional intimacy.
Emotional intimacy is the shared experience of disclosing thoughts and feelings between two people while feeling free to be who you really are and accepted as you really are. This involves being self-aware, fostering trust in each other, creating emotional safety in the relationship, having a non-judgmental attitude, displaying empathy, acceptance, willingness and most importantly, displaying vulnerability.
A lack of emotional intimacy is a core problem in relationships
One interpretation of intimacy is “into me see” – literally, letting another person see inside me and vice versa. I like to use this explanation of intimacy as seeing one’s inner life because so often people think intimacy is synonymous with sex, when actually the word intimacy covers the emotional/psychological realm – some would even say spiritual – as well as the sexual/physical.
In my work with couples, emotional intimacy often needs to be addressed in order to create a nurturing context for physical intimacy. Even when there is clearly a sexual problem such as vaginismus or erectile dysfunction, emotional issues first have to be ironed out for couples to make progress solving their physical problems. On the other hand, couples can sometimes have an apparently great sex life yet very little or no emotional intimacy, leaving the relationship struggling despite an illusion of closeness. There may also be little affection or physical intimacy other than sex.
In his book Systemic Parenting, family therapist Mark Gaskill stresses that intimacy is a very dynamic process; we
“are always moving toward or away from having greater intimacy in all of our relationships”.
He contends that intimacy comes from having the freedom and tools to
“honestly consider and express your own, while simultaneously considering another’s, experiences, emotions, fears, vulnerabilities, strengths, weaknesses, needs, wants, fantasies, personal history, goals, and life-cycle position” (Gaskill, 2003: 101-103).
Without emotional intimacy relationships feel that there is something missing, that they are somehow empty, or even lifeless. And without the concepts and language to be able to talk about these issues people struggle to put their finger on the problem, instead focusing on what they can see, which are usually the surface issues, so the deeper problem is never addressed.
Why emotional Intimacy is hard to achieve
Emotional intimacy can’t be measured by how warm and friendly or even passionate someone, or a couple, is. One could easily imagine that such people might find intimacy easy, but bubbly outgoing people may nevertheless hide their real feelings just as much or more than a reserved person. Anyone may find it hard to reveal their innermost selves and may hide their true thoughts and feelings even from loved ones. When this becomes extreme it can end in addiction of all sorts – the pain of a failure to connect intimately with another leads the addict into relationship with a substance, for instance alcohol, food or drugs, or towards a ‘being’ addiction, such as work, sex, screen use or gambling. These are some of the many ways that people try to fill an intimacy gap.
Emotional intimacy between two people necessitates sharing one’s inner life with another and vice versa. For intimacy to result it has to be reciprocal even if not equal – intimacy isn’t where one person is sharing but the other is not, though in many relationships one person may do more than the other. Emotional intimacy demands vulnerability on behalf of both, and the willingness to know each other and be known in the things that matter most– our deepest feelings. Many people avoid this vulnerability because it can feel frightening to bare one’s soul; and of course this shouldn’t be done with just anyone but with others who respond appropriately and appreciate the privilege of knowing you intimately.
Many people also avoid intimacy because they don’t trust that they will be loved or even liked if anyone really knows them. Issues of self-worth may stand in the way of intimate relationships. Yet emotional intimacy is what human beings crave and are primed for – an urge from primordial times to ensure our survival by being loved and looked after as children and then protected and supported by the group.
Of course we can’t stay in intimate connection all the time. We have to work, do housework, mow the lawn, feed the family and get on with the tasks of life. But it’s important to be able to connect intimately, often, and when we choose to, in close relationships.
Creating emotional intimacy requires you to really know yourself
When I work with couples or individuals to develop their capacity for intimacy, some struggle with their view of themselves, unable to believe that anyone else would want them, let alone love them, “warts and all”. Many people are very fearful that “if you really know me you will reject or abandon me”. So emotional intimacy requires some self-belief that you are a worthwhile person who will not be rebuffed if you reveal your inner self to appropriate others. This can be a big ask of anyone who has grown up feeling inadequate and worthless. It can be taxing even for those who have just a sneaking suspicion that they won’t have any friends left if they “burden” others with their problems and inner struggles. This is why developing an intimate knowledge and appreciation of self is the starting point for many people in learning how to be intimate with another.
I’m often asked the question of how to build an intimate relationship with another – particularly with someone you don’t yet know well but would like to. One common problem that leads to the question is a tendency to share too much without reciprocation or any evidence that your vulnerability is appreciated. If your vulnerability is ridiculed or repeatedly dismissed, it becomes necessary to appraise whether intimacy is likely in that relationship and whether and why you would want to continue divulging inner details of yourself, only to be rebuffed or undermined. Another common problem for people who haven’t learned how to build intimacy is not trusting that anyone is safe or won’t take advantage of you if you air your feelings.
Ironically, many couples comprise a person who tends to avoid intimacy because they find feelings unintelligible and overwhelming, attracted to the type of person who overshares with people who haven’t earned their trust and who gets hurt by revealing too much, then struggling to trust appropriately. Such a couple may have been drawn to each other in mutual fear of intimacy and would need to work on breaking the cycle of negative experience and avoidance.
Clients who have had intimate relationships with parents and/or other family members in childhood will more easily understand that emotional intimacy is acquired by revealing oneself bit by bit, and then a bit more, while receiving reciprocal sharing by the other person. I often tell clients that emotional intimacy is like allowing someone else to hold your heart a while, and you theirs. This is done with all the more care and tenderness when you are each holding the other’s heart. It doesn’t work if you’re not both doing it!
In cases of addiction, for instance, the partner of the addict may try harder and harder to connect intimately with the addict to no avail. Partners of addicts tend to take on excessive responsibility for the relationship and desert their relationship with themselves in the process. The addict, meanwhile, will be in an endless cycle of seeking connection with themselves through their drug of choice, walled off from human connection and unable to feel or be intimate with another person. The pain of this lack of intimacy drives the cycle of addictive behaviour, as the addict feels more and more isolated and needs more and more of the drug of choice to feel anything at all, or to try to numb the emotional pain of complete absence of intimacy. To a lesser extent people who generally avoid intimacy out of fear they will not be loved and accepted have a similar, if less extreme, pattern of trying to fill the intimacy gap in various ways – excessive busyness, sex, television, mobile phone use, anything that takes one away from one’s feelings and from sharing them.
Creating emotional intimacy requires both parties to show vulnerability and courage
It takes courage and willingness to be vulnerable and show others who you really are, how you feel and what you struggle with. Yet it is in such emotional intimacy that we find the deepest, most meaningful connection with other people. Most often it is through our fears, struggles and difficulties that we human beings bond and unite. The very feelings and frailties we may most wish to hide – our suffering, our fears, our worries and anxieties – are the things that draw us closer to others in a shared humanity, that allow us to feel for one another and to build the connection we crave. One step at a time, risking vulnerability with safe others and finding acceptance affirms us as human beings and creates intimacy. And as connections with others deepen, so our self-worth grows, which in turn fosters more and deeper connections in a virtuous cycle of well-being and protective, bolstering social networks. The positive consequences for mental health of intimate connection with others have been well-established.
If we experienced acceptance, curiosity, love and affection, empathy and healthy boundaries that allowed us to gain a strong sense of self while growing up, we will have an internal model of relationship as nurturing and supportive. This allows one to pursue intimacy without fear and reticence based on past hurts. When this has not been your experience growing up, then it will be more difficult to trust others or to know when and whom to trust. Then our relationship pattern will likely be either avoidant of intimacy or inadequately discerning when it comes to deciding who to be vulnerable with and whether they are responsive to overtures of intimacy. As with so many other aspects of psychological well-being, the ability to move in and out of intimacy at will necessitates applying and monitoring appropriate boundaries to keep us safe. We have to be able to recognize when intimacy isn’t two-way and be able to protect ourselves when someone abuses our trust by using what we’ve shared against us.
Difficulties with intimacy are common and I recall an elderly couple who came to see me because they had had a recent deterioration in their relationship. They hadn’t had sex in 30 years due to his erection problems which he believed was the source of the estrangement but she disagreed. The man, whom I will call Tony, had a few months previously been given a script for the first time for Viagra by his GP. Meanwhile the deterioration in his relationship with his wife, whom I will call Hilda, had brought them to counselling. His wife wanted help for what she perceived as the death of his love for her because in recent months all affection between them had ceased. Despite the erection problem, the couple were seen first to screen for emotional issues. Hilda was very angry and Tony very withdrawn. The script was lying unused in Tony’s bedside drawer but it wasn’t that so much as the complete cessation of any affection that had convinced Hilda that Tony didn’t love her. Yet Tony clearly idolised her and cared very deeply what she thought. He was at pains to please her in everything he did and took it to heart if she so much as criticised the spicing he’d used in a meal. Eventually Tony admitted that the Viagra script had filled him with fear that Hilda would leave him as it underscored for him his belief that he had let her down by not being able to perform sexually for so many years. He felt worthless and had become depressed by the script’s reminder of his worthlessness as a husband. He was also frightened of how to manage the Viagra and whether or not it would work so was reticent to try it after all these years. As his feelings of inadequacy grew he withdrew emotionally from Hilda and did not imagine that his affection was hugely important to her and had become the mainstay of the relationship.
Once they started airing their feelings Hilda was astounded at how bad Tony still felt about the lack of sex which she had long been resigned to - so long as they were close and affectionate. Tony was equally astonished that his hugs and cuddles could in any way make up for the sex he hadn’t been able to give her. After several months of counselling the Viagra remained in the drawer, for possible future use, but the couple re-established affection and fostered emotional intimacy through sharing their feelings. This led them to explore sexual activity without penetration and embark on a sex life which was varied, playful and pleasurable despite its limitations.
Can we use this case to remind all of us that sexual potency may wane for anyone, but that emotional intimacy can grow and deepen at any age?
Another couple I’ve seen were always arguing because of their differing views of relationship and a lack of emotional intimacy. He, whom I will call Terry, had come from a family that didn’t do feelings – they just “got on with it”. Wendy, the name I will give his partner, had been given the same message in her family of origin – that there was no time for mollycoddling and she should get on with it. Terry had learned and copied the ways of his family but Wendy yearned for the affection and attention she had never had. When they argued it was often because she felt distressed by his apparent lack of care for her. She interpreted his failure to show her affection as a lack of care, but didn’t recognize how overwhelmed he felt whenever she got upset. He found it hard to cope with any emotional turbulence at all and would become brusque and distant just when she needed a hug.
The couple worked on communicating their feelings – his anxiety about not knowing how to deal with feelings and her distress about his apparent coldness towards her. Once they had some understanding of what was going on for each of them it became easier to respond more appropriately to each other. He began to recognize how much he could console her with a kiss and an acknowledgement of her feelings, and she began to appreciate how difficult he found it not to panic when she expressed any heightened emotion. Their communication of feelings paved the way for greater emotional intimacy and ability to have difficult conversations they’d never been able to have previously. They dared to get to know themselves and each other better. They stopped worrying so much about upsetting each other or “saying the wrong thing” and began to communicate more honestly.
Resilience to the fear of emotional intimacy is created with small steps
People who in childhood have not experienced nurturing, supportive and emotionally intimate relationships with adults may come to experience intimacy in adult life as intrusive, frightening and even threatening. Even if desperate for intimacy, some may push away opportunity for it, sometimes spurning all close relationships or holding at arm’s length those they’d most like to be close to. This endless push and pull can be soul-destroying, exhausting and send a subtle message to others that you don’t want an intimate relationship, reducing the scope for intimacy in your life. An absence of close relationships since childhood may also cause you to believe you are unlovable and defective. It can reinforce a sense of worthlessness and damage self-esteem. It takes awareness, compassion and support to change such patterns which may not serve you – but they can be changed, at any age.
I remember one client who was in his forties and had never had a girlfriend. The older he got the fussier he became about the qualities he required in anyone who might conceivably become a potential partner. His hopes started to become fixed in the realm of fantasy – such that even a single date warranted the woman be beautiful, clever and accomplished beyond compare. Anything less would be a reflection on his own desirability, he thought.
The result was that no one ever measured up, not even just for an evening out, so he didn’t ever get as far as even asking anyone out. His attitude came across as arrogant and judgmental so he sat on his own, night after night, despite the trappings of success – he owned a house and car, had a good job and was fit and healthy.
He attended the emotional education course I was facilitating because he was desperately lonely and wanted to solve the problem of finding a girlfriend. The real problem became apparent – he was so intensely afraid of rejection that he couldn’t risk asking someone even for a dance if he attended a disco or club. He hadn’t the resilience, having never experienced emotional intimacy with anyone during his young life nor adult life, to withstand being turned down. He also couldn’t face the thought of having to ask someone else if at first he didn’t succeed. His fears paralysed him and blocked all opportunity even for the closeness and intimacy of friendship, let alone possible romance.
Our work together led him to become aware of the barriers he was putting up. He had to learn first to calm his fears and develop resilience in the face of setbacks, then to look initially just for company, with women who might not have film-star looks but be happy to say yes to an evening out. He started to seek out friendship and develop his capacity for emotional intimacy. It took encouragement and compassion for him to start seeing that anyone might be a potential friend or even partner, because, when you learn to share your feelings with another and come to know them and they know you in the fullness of the bond of intimacy, what’s not to like or love? And even if not with a romantic partner, we all need and can learn to enjoy love and intimacy in myriad other relationships.
Creating emotional intimacy requires hard conversations
Another couple I worked with were on the brink of divorce. They were emotionally distant and seemed to be constantly in conflict. He didn’t share his feelings of stress because he thought he had to shoulder problems himself and not burden his wife. The result was that, as their business faltered, he became more and more short-tempered and she felt unloved and retaliated with angry outbursts, also taking out her upset on the children.
Although he was the one who was threatening to leave, it ultimately was his fear that he mustn’t be “weak” and had to solve all problems on his own that was keeping him emotionally distant from his wife. In childhood he had always had to fend for himself; his teenage mother hadn’t known how to have a close relationship with her child and his elderly father had said the boy needed to be independent – mainly because his dad was always busy with his latest conquest.
My clients’ relationship deteriorated and everyone in the family was unhappy until the husband started allowing his wife to know his worries and discovered that she welcomed this. Because she worked in the business with him, she was able to find some practical solutions to alleviate some of his stress. Apart from this benefit, once they started communicating their thoughts and feelings with each other the empathy and closeness they had once enjoyed began to return and they found a new intimacy. Too often, instead of communicating more in times of stress, people whose experience of intimacy has been limited default to retreating from loved ones and battening down the hatches.
Of course when you start to have honest conversations about your feelings what is said may not always be what you want to hear, but that is the price of having authentic, intimate relationships – to be willing to know someone and be known as you really are – not just the good bits or the false face we sometimes wear to hide our pain. Sometimes people really don’t want to hear what their partner has to say. They may decide it is just too painful. Then the chance of intimacy is lost and the relationship can get stuck in a state of pretence and denial.
What is the benefit of all this hard work?
Emotional intimacy could be said to be about being free to be yourself and to be accepted as you really are – a tantalising prospect of knowing another and yourself being known. An analogy used by Gaskill is that when two people enter relationship it is as if they collectively pick up a pane of glass which has a marble on it. The marble will move constantly but when it’s around the centre there will be greater intimacy – less as it moves towards the edge. The movement of the marble depends on the input of one or both parties in the relationship (children particularly require the adult’s help, so the input won’t be equal). Gaskill contends that where two adults in relationship both co-operate to work at it, greater intimacy is likely. Many relationships survive because one person works, on their own, hard to keep moving the glass pane to keep the marble in the middle. When one has greater input than the other this may encourage the struggling person to develop the skills needed and attain intimacy. However, when the other person is too reluctant, too scared or even determined to resist, the relationship is much more likely to end. My relationship work with many hundreds of people attests to this and you can join me on one of our courses here.
The quest for intimacy does not always meet with success, but in my experience if you want it, there are always opportunities to pick up the pane of glass with someone else who wants it too.