You Can't Get There From Here: Pathways to Emotional Intimacy in Relationship
People seeking relationship help come to therapy thinking one of three things: (1) they think they are doing something wrong or feel they need to work on their personal issues, (2) they voice complaints about their partner’s attitudes or behaviors, saying that their partner does too much of one thing or not enough of something else, or (3) they are self-critical and want help to be a “better partner.” These ways of thinking stem from what I call the “identify-the-problem-and-fix-it” mentality.
This mentality can be useful. Indeed, it’s a good idea to work through your individual issues and personal history so that you know what “emotional baggage” you are bringing into your relationship.
It’s also important to notice and express when you’re unhappy with your partner’s attitudes and behaviors. It helps you get to know your needs, likes, and dislikes, and aids in building a relationship that is more fulfilling and less contentious.
Likewise, trying to be a “better partner” can come from a genuinely kind-hearted place. It’s certainly not a “bad” thing to want to respond to your partner’s needs and desires.
However, whether emotional intimacy with your partner is your highest priority in relationship or it’s simply one of many priorities, the “identify-the-problem-and-fix-it” mentality can be limiting in two significant ways. First, because this mentality focuses on what’s wrong in the relationship and how one or both partners need to change, it might not also facilitate closeness and connection. It may help bring harmony by returning the relationship to a pleasant status quo, but it might not help bridge a more deeply felt isolation between you and your partner.
Second, if you’re building a long-term relationship then the “identify-the-problem-and-fix-it” mentality is less effective. Trying to fix a relationship problem doesn’t support people to go through the sometimes-rocky journey where they grow and change over time. If you don’t give people the room to grow and change, emotional or physical separation will likely be an eventual result.
Alternatively, a pathway to emotional intimacy involves a considerably different set of attitudes and skills than the “identify-the-problem-and-fix-it” method. These attitudes and skills may feel new, foreign, or even intimidating at first, but as you practice and become more comfortable with them over time, they can foster connection in profound ways.
Here are some of the central attitudes you can adopt to develop greater emotional intimacy in your relationship, along with some specific ways to change your perspective:
ATTITUDES TO ADOPT
View yourself and your partner as sovereign beings, each with a unique nature, manner of self-expression, communication style, needs, desires, goals, and dreams.
Respect the individuality of your partner, even if their way of being differs widely from your own or conflicts with your way of being.
Believe that being more wholly you is more important than being what you think is a “good partner” and vice versa. Believe that it’s more important that your partner be themselves rather than a “good partner” whose job it is to serve your needs.
View Conflict Differently
Challenge yourself to view your conflicts with your partner, both large and small, as opportunities for fostering greater intimacy rather than simply an indicator that something is “wrong.”
Normalize conflict by reminding yourself that every relationship has it. Everyone struggles in relationship with feelings of hurt, jealousy, resentment, anger, and so forth. It’s a natural part of being human and being in relationship.
Regard self-reflection as one of the cornerstones of maturity, eldership, and fulfillment within yourself and in all of your relationships.
Remember that those who are willing and able to self-reflect are generally more trustworthy in relationship than those who are unwilling or unable. No one can promise they won’t hurt you, nor can you promise you won’t ever hurt another, no matter how conscious and intentional you try to be. However, if you and your partner value self-reflection (combined with a steady and healthy dose of self-love and humility), your relationship will likely be more fulfilling and sustainable.
Remind yourself that relationship is a process rather than a fixed goal of perfection. There is no specific endpoint to attain. It is always changing and unfolding with you and your partner.
Resist comparing where you and your partner are in your journey to where others are in theirs. The next steps for your relationship may look vastly different from the next steps for another relationship. Everyone is on their own unique journey.
Consider that every relationship is a practice ground for personal growth. Remember that it’s okay in life to evolve, grow, make mistakes, and then try again in the next moment, in the next day, to relate in a new way.
Remember Detachment, Playfulness, and Humility
Bring as much detachment and playfulness as you can possibly muster! Have fun dramatically playing out with your partner the various roles in yourself and in your relationship, such as “the nasty inner critic” or “the stingy parent,” so that they are more like silly puppets and less like serious figures.
Have humility by lovingly teasing yourself whenever you can. As you and your partner loosen up over time and have less fear and hurt between you, it becomes a lot more fun to say to your partner, “You really love me, don’t you?! I need to hear it twenty million times a day!” then to sulk in the corner, in a bad mood, waiting for them to remind you they love you. Or how about saying proudly, “Wow! I’m the best partner in the world! Gosh, I just did the most thoughtful thing ever!” rather than feeling hurt because your partner never acknowledged the caring deed you did.
Here are some of the central skills you can practice to foster emotional intimacy, along with some specific action steps you can take by yourself and with your partner:
SKILLS TO ACQUIRE
Develop More Self-Awareness
Learn more about your wounds from childhood, how you’ve internalized familial belief systems, and how they affect you today, in big and small ways.
Examine how the culture has affected you around large societal forces, systemic oppression, and microaggressions that stem from racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, and so forth. Notice how these forces shape you in your intimate relationships.
Find out what triggers you in relationship (i.e., what brings up trauma for you and how you tend to respond—fight, flight, freeze, or appease). Learn ways to protect yourself from triggering situations and soothe yourself when you get triggered.
Share some central stories with your partner about your childhood and adult wounds. Share some feelings about what comes up for you now, when you get triggered, so your partner knows what to anticipate.
Strengthen Your Communication and Conflict Skills
Challenge yourself to communicate more directly than you may have in the past or were previously comfortable with. Be as clear as you can about what you’re wanting, needing, and hoping for with your partner.
Resist asking or expecting your partner to “read your mind” about what you want, need, and hope for, how you feel, and why you feel the way you do.
Inquire more with your partner (rather than trying to read their mind) about what they want, need, and hope for, how they feel, and why the feel the way they do rather than operating out of assumptions and projections that may be untrue.
Consider your partner’s criticisms and accusations of you, and self-reflect on how they are even 3% true (while the rest of you may believe these accusations are wrong and unfair). See if you can talk out loud about that small part of you that really “is that way,” without blaming yourself or beating yourself up. We all do things we’re unconscious about, that our partners pick up on. It’s okay to admit the part of their criticism that’s true. It will go a long way in allowing your partner to feel heard and validated.
Tell your partner that you long for more emotional intimacy with them and that they may notice you doing and saying things in a new way as you explore this more.
Share these attitudes and skills with them and see how they feel about them, what excites them, and what scares them.
Exercise Courage and Vulnerability
Practice saying things that are taboo in your relationship. These may be thoughts, feelings, or needs that may be hard for your partner to hear. Encourage your partner to do the same. “Taboo statements” tend to be the opposite of what we think we should say to show our love, care, commitment, and togetherness. Taboo statements may come in the form of I feel—hurt, angry, resentful, stingy, jealous, patronized, closed and self-protective, and so forth. Or, they may sound like I don’t want to—listen to you, take care of you, always spend time with you. They also may be I need this or I don't agree. Take baby steps and go slow if this is brand new to you.
Take risks to express your deepest and most vulnerable feelings with your partner. Encourage them to do the same with you.
Build Emotional Resilience
Hold your partner’s feelings with as much respect, non-judgment, and openness as you can muster, even when what they are telling you presses upon your own pain and suffering. At another moment, share this pain and suffering so they know how you’re impacted, not out of blame, but out of a desire for intimacy.
Avoid withdrawing, watering down, or diffusing your truth when you see your partner is suffering after hearing it from you. It’s helpful to be sensitive in how you speak your truth and it’s okay to show your partner care and compassion, but see if you can do this without simultaneously dismissing what you’re sharing.
Resist unconsciously insisting that your partner’s role is to care for you or parent you (or vice versa). Remember that it’s not their job to make you feel better or soothe you when you get hurt. While it’s perfectly okay to want sensitivity and compassion from your partner, if you’re regularly putting your partner in a position of care-taking your feelings at the expense of them speaking their truth, it will not be a sustainable avenue towards intimacy. Instead, strengthen your ability to stand alone in your suffering about the relationship (or get the help of a therapist or trusted friend).
Create a circle of trusted friends, elders, and emotional resources. Consider including a therapist in that circle who can support you through your relationship ups and downs.
While a pathway to emotional intimacy can certainly be challenging and intimidating, it can also be hugely rewarding as you create a stronger bond with your partner, a more sturdy foundation for what lies ahead, and a profound experience of closeness instead of lonely isolation. Remember that you needn’t do everything at once. Practice baby steps and celebrate small victories! Recognize moments of breakthrough and thoroughly relish in them with your partner. Feel proud of where you’ve come from together and enjoy the fruits of your newfound connection.
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 This post could apply to all kinds of relationships including, but not limited to, monogamous, polyamorous, and open relationships. It can apply to both queer and straight relationships. It can apply to romantic and sexual relationships as well as friendships and family relationships. For the sake of ease in explanation, my language focuses on two people at a time. I also use the word "partner" rather than "girl/boyfriend", "wife/husband", significant other, spouse, friend, or other terms.
 This does not apply to people in abusive, narcissistic, or particularly hostile relationships. If your partner will only use these “admissions of 3% truth” against you, don’t go there. Protect yourself first.
 Taboo statements are most effective at creating intimacy in relationships where both partners feel a shared interest and commitment to going deeper together. When this is not the case, taboo statements can cause increased conflict that is difficult to resolve without a therapist’s help.