Emotional Intimacy: 5 Steps to Getting Close Again
"My partner used to be my best friend."
"We once did everything together. Now, we are so distant."
"Yeah, it sounds corny, but we used to finish each other's sentences."
Emotional intimacy is the "glue" that is at the core of happy, healthy and secure relationships and marriages. When couples become less emotionally connected, it's not unusual to notice:
--Increased arguing, often over small, trivial things
--Increased tension, the "walking on eggshells" feelings
--Less time spent together, avoiding the possibility that arguing or tension will worsen
--Less intimacy, often because the emotional "glue" is missing.
In this article, I'll help you understand why emotional intimacy is so important to your relationship, how distance may have started to come between you and I'll share some ideas from my years of helping couples to regain the closeness you once enjoyed.
Why Emotional Intimacy Matters
As humans evolved from primitive times, we sought the safety of a group of others to protect and feel safe from predators. We were stronger as a tribe than as lone individuals.
Over time, we evolved to bond as adults with one significant other. We learned this in infancy from the bond we shared with parents and close caregivers. We realized we could share our feelings of distress or fear with these trusted people and feel relief and comfort.
We became "wired" in our brains to connect with others, not just for safety or security but also forming emotional attachments.
As teens we developed "crushes" on potential boyfriends or girlfriends. We suffered through broken hearts in high school as we entered and left dating relationships, working through the inevitable trial-and-error of seeking partners. We were caught in a whirlwind of attraction, hormones and sexual desires. For some, we may have been hurt deeply when our hopes of love were unfounded. Yet, we continued on into adulthood, seeking that special someone.
I love this quote from Dr. Sue Johnson, creator of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy:
"Nothing makes us happier or stronger than a loving, stable, long-term bond with others."
Dr. Johnson notes: "We are designed to deal with emotion in concert with another person -- not by ourselves. . . Our hearts and brains are set up to use our partners to help us find our balance in the midst of distress and fear." ("Love Sense: The Revolutionary Science of Romantic Relationships," Little-Brown, 2013)
Scientifically speaking, when we can access our partner for comfort, our brain actually changes. Studies using a functional MRI brain scan have found that the areas of the brain where we are emotionally upset can become calm with the presence or touch of our partner.
How Did We Lose 'That Loving Feeling'?
If you are baffled about how your relationship became more distant, you are not alone. Couples are often both surprised and saddened that their closeness has deteriorated. Some of the causes, however, are understandable:
--The stress of our busy lives, raising children, building careers in which employers expect 24/7 availability and stressors of caring for aging parents -- these factors often come into play in making it far more difficult these days for couples to maintain close connection.
-- Daily routines subtly affect closeness. We watch television in the evening or play computer games to unwind from our busy days; yet, these are often done in solitude without our partner. The routines become habit, and many couples don't realize how these habits have unfolded to keep them apart and distant.
--Unresolved hurts impair closeness. Imagine you are slow-dancing with your partner. It's not unusual for one of you to step on the other's toes, right? It's impossible to not hurt our partner's feelings from time to time. We forget something important to him or her. We fail to listen or be present when we are needed. We didn't know how to comfort our partner during a difficult time.
None of these hurts were intentional; however, I continually find that few couples know how to repair a serious emotional wound. The pain is never addressed, and typically continues to fester or is brought up (sometimes repeatedly) in arguments.
5 Steps to Rebuilding Emotional Intimacy
1. Acknowledge to each other that you've drifted apart. Being able to discuss the distance between you is an important first step. You've both possibly been feeling the change, but may have avoided bringing it up.
2. Talk about what's changed in your relationship. Remind yourselves of the bond you shared when you first met and how you maintained closeness in those early days. Life may have been far more simple then -- no kids, perhaps less career pressure. How, in those early days, did you reinforce the "glue" of your emotional intimacy?
3. Resolve old hurts. This may be difficult without help. However, being able to understand and forgive unintentional wounds is a critical component to regaining and maintaining a close connection. In fact, the very act of working through these rough patches helps to rebuild your emotional intimacy.
4. Make your relationship or marriage a priority. Actually, when you think about it, that's how it was in your early years together. Very little could keep you apart, right? In couples counseling, we discuss the importance of developing "rituals" -- these are ways, unique to each couple, that you do to stay close. Some couples like to make sure they have weekly date nights; others establish a ritual of sharing time together each evening; others try to get away overnight or for a weekend without kids (yes, this requires help from relatives for babysitting.) The ritual becomes "sacred," meaning that every effort is made to ensure the event happens regularly.
A special note to parents: The stronger your marriage, the better your parenting will be. Your marriage is the foundation of your family. Making your marriage a priority is challenging these days when parents are more involved in their kids' lives than previous generations.
5. Address current stressors. Are there ways you can reduce the impact of stress on your relationship? For example, I've worked with a number of executives who have a hard time delegating work, and then family time suffers. Do you need to prioritize kids' activities to give you and your spouse the time you need together? Brainstorming together, you may be able to find some relief from these pressures. Often, a little change can make a bigger difference.
Okay, We Need Some Help with This . . .
If you've put off getting help for your marriage or relationship, you're far from alone. We know couples hesitate to seek counseling, often delaying for years before coming for help.
Couples therapy has never been as developed and successful as today. I use Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, which is the most effective and is based on solid science and backed by years of research. It's a "brief model," which means many couples begin feeling relief from distress in the first portion of the work and that therapy is short-term.
You'll learn not only how emotional intimacy became less and less in your relationship, but also how to maintain closeness into the future. Importantly, you'll learn how to have important conversations (yes, the "difficult" ones) in ways that can deepen understanding of each of your perspectives and help you work together to develop positive, lasting solutions.
Linda Schwartz is a Licensed Professional Counselor who works exclusively with couples and individuals on relationship issues. She uses Emotionally Focused Couple therapy, the most effective approach to helping couples recapture their close connection, to learn to resolve issues through deepening their understanding of each other's needs and to heal infidelity and any past hurts in the relationship. Linda offers a free, 15-minute phone consultation to answer your questions about the counseling process. She can be reached at 602-882-0533 or Linda@awarecounseling.com.