When I ask a couple in couple’s counseling, “So, tell me about the current status of your intimacy,” they inevitably start talking about their sex life. When I proceed to explain I am interested in their emotional intimacy, the male quickly turns his gaze toward his wife and the female typically speaks of the loneliness and isolation she experiences in the marriage. She may not know exactly what, but she does know something is missing in the marriage.
They likely love each other, believed that somehow love would engender a relationship characterized by depth, meaning and growth. Depth can be characterized as a boundless receptivity to how giving, receiving, planning, collaborating, loving and desiring might live in the relationship. A relationship has meaning when we cherish how these energies are living in our relationships. Growth happens when we live close to the question, “What is our relationship asking for?”
When dreams of love’s promises begin to unravel, a couple likely turns to blaming, criticizing and/or avoiding each other. The truth is they were never given the skills necessary to transform love into a deep, emotionally intimate connection. In a way, they were set up to be significantly disillusioned. If trust has become significantly eroded, they either settle in to emotional mediocrity and alienation or get divorced.
It appears that we emerge from the womb with strong needs for emotional and physical attachment. These needs quickly translate into a natural inclination to experience deep heartfelt sentiments characteristic of loving and being loved. However, these feelings, regardless of their strength, are not enough to engender emotional intimacy, which is a learned competency.
Some emotional intimacy skills might include:
1. Prioritizing our responsibility to love ourselves, and not asking significant others to do it for us. (This means we need to grow enough mindfulness to be aware of being plagued by self-loathing and committed to learn how to interrupt it. People who love us can support this interruption process.)
2. The ability to identify our own emotional needs, which may include: the need to be seen, heard, encouraged, considered, included, nurtured, understood, accepted, engaged, touched, held, desired, forgiven, collaboratively joined in problem solving and decision making and the recipient of affection. (This skill can be especially challenging for men since male acculturation mandates that males should not have emotional needs.)
3. The ability to talk about the above emotional needs and get them met in and out of our primary relationship. (I was once asked in a television interview, “What’s the one thing you would recommend to men in order for them to be better equipped to be emotionally intimate with the women in their lives?” My response was: “Men need to come to know and accept their emotional needs and develop strong emotional support with other men.” The interviewer looked dumbfounded. I went on to explain that if men come into their emotional needs with no other support but the significant females in their lives, they run a high risk of maternalizing their relationships, becoming sons of these women, which is not intimate.)
4. The ability to make clear, concrete requests, with all requests being legitimate. (This helps to avoid getting into long-winded evaluations of requests, which simply distracts from attending meaningfully to requests.)
5. The recipient of a request responds only with “yes,” “no,” or “I want to negotiate how I might support your request.” (The recipient can avoid being taking hostage by a request by answering authentically and dealing with any guilt a response of “no” might stimulate.)
6. The ability to make agreements and hold blameless and shameless accountability for broken agreements. (This kind of accountability has the person who breaks an agreement taking ownership for the broken agreement and offers restitution wherever possible, while recommitting to holding agreements or renegotiating in a timely fashion.)
7. Addressing breakdowns in a relationship where someone feels hurt and/or angry by identifying the problem as someone’s unmet need and the person with the problem being the one with the unmet need. (This breakdown protocol is critical since most breakdowns go unresolved because the problem and who has who has the problem goes unidentified.)
8. Identifying the nature of the unmet need, the means by which the need might be met and planning to talk along the way about how effectively the need is being met.
9. The ability to have honest conversations about fear. There are two fears which are a part of any committed relationship: the fear of losing ourselves to the preferences, values and beliefs of our partners and the fear of losing our partners either to some endeavor or to someone else.
These skills should not be read as formulas, which if followed, guarantee a satisfying and an emotionally intimate relationship. Similar to love, emotional intimacy is a profound mystery, which will not be penetrated. It is a daring undertaking, calling for an earnest commitment to continue learning about who we are and what our relationships are asking for. And most of all, living with a softness that allows us to forgive ourselves and those we love, as we fumble with the large energies flowing through emotional intimacy, such as passion, love, loyalty, betrayal, fear, anger, trust and distrust, commitment and disillusionment.