5 Challenges to Emotional Intimacy and How to Overcome Them

“There is nothing more gentle than true strength and there is nothing stronger than true gentleness.”

Of all the domains of intimacy, the one that couples find most difficult is emotional intimacy. Emotional intimacy or, “in to me you see,” is that sense of closeness we feel with our partner when we are vulnerable, allowing ourselves to be ourselves and be seen. Emotional intimacy requires a feeling of safety to share our personal thoughts and feelings. When intimacy is present, you can actually feel your partner feeling you.

Emotional intimacy is challenging for many for a number of reasons:

1. Not making space to connect. Making space and time to connect can be difficult in our overcommitted, work focused, child focused culture. If you’re busy, you don’t have time to sit, be present and share with your beloved. Your work and projects become more important than your wife. Your focus is on getting things done and done well. You can sacrifice yourself in this process and make the other person feel guilty for complaining. Another way we stay busy is being constantly overwhelmed with all the things we have to do outside of work such as taking care of our children, the home, the dog, and the many social and ecological causes. We also stay busy because we need to check our email or finish a book. It’s easy to find yourself saying, “I couldn’t find the time.”

2. Childhood Conditioning. Additionally, many of us lose our connection with our feelings during childhood conditioning, when we were made wrong and punished for having certain feelings. As adults, to be open, vulnerable, and share some of the deeper parts of ourselves with others often carries the same fear that it did when we were young. Sometimes, we cannot afford to be fully present, open, and vulnerable because of the fear of being rejected, abandoned, punished, or worse.

3. The role of men remains largely unchanged. A cultural reason that emotional intimacy is so difficult, for men in particular, is that over the last 40 years, women’s roles—and the way women see themselves—has radically changed. The problem is that the same can’t be said of men.

According to one of my mentors, Terry Real, with new economic, cultural, and psychological resources, empowered women are, for the first time in history, insisting on real emotional intimacy in their marriages. And men are coming up short. We can’t blame each of these men individually. Men’s job descriptions have changed—and men are unprepared for the change. We don’t raise, nor have we ever raised, boys and men to be intimate partners, but to be strong, competitive performers. The pressure to be hard, logical, independent, and stoic all too often sets men up to be emotionally distant, arrogant, numb to their own feelings, and unconcerned about everyone else’s, as well as contemptuous of vulnerability and weakness.

Terry continues, “These aren’t pathological aberrations; they’re the defining characteristics of manhood in our culture. The very values and traits instilled in us as boys—whether we wanted them or not—ensure that we’ll become lousy husbands.”

The reason emotional intimacy is so difficult for men in particular is because a central aspect of traditional, 20th-century masculinity is the denial of emotions. Traditional masculinity commands: thou shall not be vulnerable. As boys “learn” to be men, they are taught to disown their own vulnerability and to deride vulnerability in others. This is most obvious when men have such a hard time listening empathetically to their partners. Most men, even if they try to “be empathic, really just want women to “stop being so emotional and do something about it.

4. Vulnerability is viewed as a flaw by most men—and some women. How can you tenderly respond to vulnerable feelings in your partner, let alone openly share your own, if you view vulnerability as nothing but a flaw? The answer is that you can’t. Most men still see strength and emotional vulnerability as being mutually exclusive. Most men see vulnerability as a weakness and so do some women.

The fact is—generally speaking—most women are asking for more emotion from men than they are inclined to give. Men want to solve the problem and fix things, while women want to be listened to.

Let’s start with the first phone call to get marriage therapy. It’s rare that the husband will call and say something like, “We’ve got to come see you: we’re just not as close as we used to be.” No. It’s women, not men, who seek marriage therapy services. Here and there, some enlightened guy may volunteer for counseling, but most of the guys I treat are what Terry Real calls “wife- mandated referrals,” and what Harville Hendricks likes to call the” draggy’s.”

Generally, men don’t feel at odds with the status quo of the marriage. Whereas many women are desperate for change, most of the men I see are not unhappy with their marriages: they’re unhappy that their wives are so unhappy with them.

5. Some women support the “Man Code” and some women, unbeknown to them, play right into the “man code” which mitigates against intimacy and being truly vulnerable with each other—and yet that’s what is needed. A number of men have complained to me that when they finally do “open up,” and show vulnerability to their partners, they are suddenly viewed as “wimps” and told to “man up.” For example, recently I was in a coffee shop and while I was sitting there, I overheard a woman tell a guy friend of hers to “man up.” The phrase “man up” is a reminder to men that they are falling short of some masculine ideal. It usually means a guy isn’t “acting like a man” or “man enough.” As such, he is belittled or shamed. Often times it is used to enforce behavior when a man expresses emotions or vulnerability or appears weak or needing help.

Cultivating Emotional Intimacy: The Bottom Line

So how do we cultivate emotional intimacy? The first part is becoming more vulnerable and learning how to share our deepest thoughts and feelings. Being vulnerable is a prerequisite to intimacy. However, we need to learn how to talk about our concerns, thoughts, feelings, and frustrations in a balanced way without criticizing shaming or blaming our partner. Then, when we do share our needs, thoughts, and feelings, we need our partners to listen to our thoughts and feelings without judgment or giving unwanted advice.

The easiest way to do this is to learn how to mirror, validate, and empathize with your partner’s thoughts and feelings. In fact, the building blocks of the relationship therapy work that we do is teaching deep listening or mirroring validation and empathy.

To create emotional intimacy, couples also need to accept each other completely as they are, with all their imperfections and limitations. If your partner is a “2” with emotional intimacy, expecting him to be a “10” may be totally unrealistic. The question would be how does he move from a 2 to a 4.

Another thing couples need to do to create emotional intimacy is express appreciations and caring behaviors on a regular basis. You need to keep the emotional bank account full by learning each other’s love language and paying attention to your partner’s needs and desires. In fact, emotional responsiveness means emotional responsibility. Couples need to cultivate emotional responsiveness—which is sensing and being tuned into what our partner needs and feels.

Finally, couples need to understand that we are constantly co-regulating each other’s nervous system. That is why we hold people’s hands when they are in pain. It acts as a tranquilizer, calms the nervous system and decreases the feeling of pain. Always approaching our partner in a calm loving way will create the path to emotional intimacy.

Now, Here’s What Not to Do:

  • Keep the conversations away from emotions. Oftentimes we avoid intimacy by keeping the conversations away from emotions and focused on intellectual, scientific, the stock market, children, or political topics: anything but your feelings.
  • Never argue or be disagreeable. Some of us have the belief that we should never argue or be disagreeable, and we should always be pleasant and friendly— especially if something is bothering you. Hiding your feelings will definitely prevent intimacy.
  • Keep your television and phone on. This will for sure keep you and your partner from talking to each other.
  • Feel righteous. Always having to win the argument and be right—and never admitting the other person’s point of view may be as good as your own—is an impediment to emotional intimacy.

Exercises and Suggestions to Help Create Emotional Intimacy

Watch a Bene Brown video on trust and vulnerability with your partner.

Read a relationship book together.

Take a relationship workshop together.

Give daily appreciations. Express an appreciation for something your partner has done that day.

Share new information. Share with your partner something new that’s going on in your life each day. Intimacy is about sharing ourselves with our partner. Let her in on your mood, your experiences in your life and then listen to your partner.

Be curious. Ask your partner something you don’t understand so they can explain. Ask questions about their day, about the life, about their dreams.

Cite a specific behavior that bothers you and request a change. For example, “if you’re going to be late for dinner, please call me, that way the kids and I can make our own plans and Will not wait for you.”

Take time to share your hopes and dreams. Hopes can range from the mundane, “I hope you don’t have to work this weekend,” to the grandiose, “I would really love to spend a month in Europe with you this summer.”

Turn phones off. Have a phone, tablet/computer, television respite time every night. For example, no phones or tablets in the bedroom.

Have a real conversation about a problem. Encourage your wife to discuss something that’s upsetting her (at least 10 minutes). Then, agree that you will listen and:

  • Not try to solve the problem
  • Not tell your partner what to do.
  • Not offer advice
  • Practice validation and being empathetic

We hope this is helpful. In the end, remember that emotional intimacy is not a destination, it’s a journey. We are all trying to cultivate more emotional intimacy in our lives with our partners, with our children, with ort parents, our employees, and our friends. Be easy on yourself. And as always, give us a call if you have any questions.

Craig and Debbie