A Story About Emotional Intimacy, Trust, and Going All In
I was talking with a female friend recently who just entered into a new relationship with a man. How they met each other was unplanned but happened at a very special, fortuitous event. They are both basking in the afterglow of this chance encounter and deep connection. Since then, they have already declared to one another that emotional intimacy and honesty are very important to them and that they want this with each other. Of this, they are in agreement. However, my friend notices she is questioning herself about whether or not she should now commit to him completely or "go all in," as she puts it.
I said to her, “You must have some hesitation or else you wouldn’t be asking the question.” I could tell this both by her obvious pondering about it and also by the shyness in her body language, as if she were self-conscious or already feeling somewhat ashamed of herself.
She replied that she in fact did feel hesitation but wondered if this was simply about her own past wounds and not about him at all, and that if the Universe (so to speak) means for them to be together, then she should therefore “go all in” regardless of her hesitations.
I told her that, in my opinion, it didn't matter if her hesitations were all about her old wounds that led her to feel fearful of trusting him. (She had mentioned earlier in our conversation that she had read a book on trust, so I made the assumption that a lack of “trust” might be part of her hesitation, knowing she would correct me if I was wrong about that.) She nodded affirmatively, indicating that trust is indeed an issue coming up for her with him.
I didn’t inquire further about why she didn't fully trust him and what happened to her in the past that is being touched upon again in a painful way. If she were my client in a session, I would have explored these two directions more, to hear specifics and get a more complete picture of her experience.
I also might have explored the feeling in her body that she was describing as "hesitant" and "not trusting." This might involve asking her to feel this inside of her body, notice the physical sensations associated with it, and perhaps make a hand motion that showed me her experience. This would help me feel how intense it was and notice nuances about it that might be better conveyed through her body and movement than through words and intellectual understanding.
I told her that, first and foremost, thinking she ought to be going “all in” when she was actually feeling hesitations, would likely just make her feel badly about herself (self-critical and/or ashamed), and that’s never a good thing. So, if for no other reason than this, she should support her sense of hesitation.
I added that it’s likely he is giving some signals, even if only little ones, that are reminding her of these old wounds and making her nervous, because that usually is the case when someone is getting triggered (even a little bit). She said that he is indeed giving some signals. In my mind, that doesn’t mean he’s definitely going to do or say the same things others did in the past that caused those old wounds. It’s simply that he’s likely doing some things that remind her of those past painful experiences, and thus, she is hesitant.
I told my friend, “I know you think that if the Universe says you’re meant to be together then your hesitations are getting in the way. But I don’t think so. I think those hesitations need to be honored regardless of why they are there, whether they are true about him or whether they are only about your past wounds. They need to be respected because it’s your process right now to have hesitations and they shouldn’t be gotten rid of.”
She already showed positive feedback to this direction, so I took it further.
On the subject of emotional intimacy, her concern is that if she has hesitations and is not “all in” with him, then she is not living up to her declaration that emotional intimacy is important to her. I disagreed.
I said that emotional intimacy is cultivated by becoming aware of your authentic innermost feelings, and then engaging in healthy communication with your partner in some way about those feelings. In other words, if he wants to hear more of her innermost feelings and she feels hesitant to share them all just yet, she could tell him something like, “It’s important to me to share with you my honest feelings, and I want to do that, but it’s just not right for me in the moment to go there.”
This is a kind of a boundary, and boundaries are part of emotional intimacy, too. Emotional intimacy is not just about openness. The “openness” is about sharing where you truly are, right now, not where you wish you were, or where you think you ought to be.
So, if she were to share with him her feeling of hesitation or “not-right-now-ness,” then she is practicing emotional intimacy with him. She is doing what she said she wants to do in relationship.
She was relieved to hear this.
As I think about our conversation more now, I realize this example presents a kind of paradox that sometimes happens in the realm of emotional intimacy. Hypothetically, he may want her to share her innermost feelings (but may have a preconceived idea of what the feelings ought to be); and although she doesn’t share with him what he may want to hear or expect to hear, she does, in fact, share her innermost feelings which are about having hesitations and a boundary.
The fact is that emotional intimacy doesn’t look or feel like one particular way of being. Our feelings in relationship are constantly changing, ebbing, and flowing. One moment we feel close, another moment we feel distant; one moment we feel trusting, another moment we feel vigilant; one moment we feel safe, another moment we feel insecure; and on and on. Connecting with our genuine innermost feelings, regardless of what they are, and communicating something about those feelings to our partner—to the extent that we are comfortable doing so—is the practice of emotional intimacy.