Are We There Yet? Reimagine Emotional Intimacy as a Process
Have you been feeling emotionally distant from your partner? Would you like to bridge that gap? Or are you at your wits’ end and ready to throw in the towel?
Don’t give up before reading this post.
You may be asking, “Why are we so bad at this? We screwed up again. When are we going to get it right?” It’s not you; we’ve all been misled about how romantic relationships should work especially when it comes to emotional intimacy.
Although many of us unconsciously believe otherwise, relationships and emotional intimacy are not about:
trying to reach a fixed goal of closeness or harmony.
getting it “right” and/or saying the right thing at the right moment.
trying to do all the things your partner wants you to do to make them happy.
Emotional intimacy is also not about getting back to a “before.” Before you developed a crush on your colleague and your partner found out. Before you started disagreeing more and speaking your mind. Before you went back to school to finish your degree. Before you started going out with friends on Friday nights instead of snuggling with your partner on the couch. Trying to go back in time won’t help; it will only lead you down the road of shame and regret, neither of which will get you any closer to your partner.
Emotional intimacy in relationship is about trying to reach a fixed goal.
This idea that emotional intimacy is about getting it right and keeping it that way—reaching some ideal state of connection and making damn sure you stay there—is a fallacy.
You may have gotten a taste of this in “Stop Trying to Be a “Good” Partner and Start Being Yourself,” where we explored the idea of being a good partner versus being yourself. Similarly, if you think your relationship should live up to a predefined ideal of emotional intimacy, then you’ll be hyper-focusing on that illusion instead of being present, curious, and authentic.
EMOTIONAL INTIMACY TAKES PRACTICE AND CURIOSITY
Couples therapist and fellow process worker Dr. Jan Dworkin explains that relationship takes practice. “Research shows that experts are made, not born. …[D]eveloping relationship expertise can be as challenging as developing mastery at any sport or form of art. But with deliberate practice, it’s attainable” (Dworkin, 2019, p. xxiii).
Emotional intimacy doesn’t automatically come with a great partner or a great relationship. It requires each of you to learn a lot about yourselves and each other. It takes trying many different approaches over the years. It takes failing and trying again the next day because the circumstances or moods are different. Remember that we as humans are designed to evolve, grow, make mistakes, and then try again in the next moment. Our new ways of relating are infinite.
In short, cultivating emotional intimacy in relationship takes practice and curiosity. What worked yesterday might not work tomorrow. It’s an ongoing practice refined over your lifetime.
EMOTIONAL INTIMACY IS A PROCESS OF EBB AND FLOW
It’s important to welcome, not fight, that all aspects of relationships ebb and flow. Couples therapist and author Esther Perel asserts, “In my work with patients I stress that intimacy isn’t monolithic; nor is it always consistent. It is intermittent, meant to wax and wane even in the best relationships” (Perel, 2006, p. 51).
When things are going really well and you and your partner feel exceptionally close it’s incredibly tempting to try keep it that way. When it’s good, it’s so good. Don’t flinch. Don’t move a finger. Hold your breath and hope it stays this way forever. Who in their right mind wants that feeling to go away?
However, feeling close and connected is not a destination you reach or a status you achieve. It is an ongoing experience of ebb and flow. How close you feel with one another can change from not just year to year but hour to hour. That’s normal. That doesn’t mean you did something wrong or that you failed. If you keep returning to one another on regular basis with curiosity and commitment, you’ll be working with the natural rhythm and not against it.
My partner and I often feel closest when we are staying at a hotel away from home, the further away the better. There are no distractions of dirty dishes, laundry, or house cleaning. There is no schedule and there are no appointments. There is little or no social media. We hang out in our bathrobes and have long conversations with lots of space around them. The conversations go deep, often stretching out over days, meandering in and out, ebbing and flowing even within themselves. By the end of this kind of week off together, we typically feel extremely close. We’ve ironed out many of the wrinkles between us and it feels so good. In the past, there was an expectation that we should coast along smoothly once we get back to reality.
But after many years of times away like these, we’ve come to know that on Monday, things will likely feel very different. With Monday comes work, tasks, a return to social media and the outside world, responsibilities and obligations, chores, pressures, and deadlines, projects and people. The intimacy that was so palpable and strong, deep and sustaining, soft and supple, shifts to feeling more distant, more on the surface, and slightly hardened. Sometimes, the contrast from what we felt just the day before is more glaring than others, but we always notice that the atmosphere between us has changed—even if a fly on the wall didn’t notice a thing. While we know that we hold a deeper bond that becomes stronger and more unshakeable year after year, the waves on the surface are moving again, and this time they are ebbing. Emotional intimacy mirrors nature and life itself. In the words of Dr. Arnold Mindell, founder of process work, “… [P]rocess work means following the way of nature. Process is that which is already happening not what should be done” (1992, p. 5). Like it or not, emotional intimacy is a process and the best thing you can do is just to follow it.
SHARE YOUR FEELINGS
Okay, so intimacy ebbs and flows. Got it. Does that mean I shouldn’t try to be closer to my partner? No. What can I do? You can still cultivate closeness, and here’s how: it boils down to sharing your feelings with each other, or as they call it in the world of scholarly psychology, participating in self-disclosure (Waring & Chelune, 1983). Instead of trying to get it right, just share your feelings. Remember when I said, don’t try to be a good partner, just be yourself? The same notion applies here. Don’t try to get it right, say it right, or do it right; just share your real feelings.
It is a profound yet paradoxical truth. In all of your agony and efforts to become closer, in all your moments of so-called failure, as soon as you remember to just share your real feelings, you are doing it. You are practicing emotional intimacy. You are there. Suddenly, it’s as if that imaginary finish line has met you where you are. It joins you where you’re at and you’ve made it. Emotional intimacy is in the practice of it, not the place you get to. So, even while you and your partner may be busy building your strong foundation for quite a while, you can still have a deep emotional connection right now by just sharing your feelings.
This doesn’t mean “just let it rip!” and say whatever you want in whatever tone comes out of you without any self-awareness. When cultivating a deeper closeness is your aim, then sharing your feelings is ideally done with a tone of respect, vulnerability, and sensitivity. Bring your A game when it comes to self-awareness, non-shaming, and non-judgment. And above all, lead with your genuine intention to share and listen for the purposes of feeling closer.
RELATIONSHIP AS A PROCESS OF CHANGE AND GROWTH
You’ve all heard the idiom, “Cannot see the forest for the trees” which means that a person cannot see the big picture because they are focusing too much on the details. In your attempt to follow the intricacies of the ebb and flow of emotional intimacy with your partner during any given day or moment, it’s easy to lose sight of the changes and growth that occur in your relationship over many years. Let’s take some steps back and look at emotional intimacy from the “forest” perspective.
Just as emotional intimacy takes regular practice and is not about a fixed state, but rather a process of ebb and flow from day to day and moment to moment, emotional intimacy over the long haul is also a process, but from this larger perspective, it consists of adapting to the changes and growth in your partner and in yourself over time. So even from the forest perspective, emotional intimacy is still a process, not a fixed state.
Emotional intimacy is a process, not a fixed state.
I’ve been asked many times by friends and clients, “How do people stay close after being together for many years?” The key to sustaining a deep level of closeness and connection after many years is that you must grow and change when your partner grows and changes and vice versa. Because although essential elements of every person remain the same and likewise, essential elements of the relationship stay the same, there are inevitably changes that occur. If you can’t roll with those changes, the relationship will likely come to an end or you’ll stay together but the emotional gap between you will become impassable.
If you can’t grow and change when your partner grows and changes then your emotional intimacy will get sacrificed in the process. Years into your relationship, you’re a different person than you once were, and your partner is a different person than they once were. You will need to find a way to be close to your partner from this new version of yourself and you will need to find a way to be close to this new version of your partner.
For example, by the time I finally entered a Ph.D. program after many years of wrestling with the idea, I had already started to transform into a different person. In my wrestling with the various internal experiences that stopped me from pursuing it sooner, I changed and grew. For one thing, I became more comfortable with the idea that together we would take out large financial loans for the sole purpose of me pursuing a dream for myself, not for anyone else. That was previously forbidden to me, kicking up an inner critic that insisted I was being a burden to my partner and that being a burden is a relationship no-no. It took lots of inner work to wrestle with this and other opposing internal voices in order to become empowered enough to proceed from a new place inside. It also took a lot of relationship work to sort through what feelings we each genuinely had about my taking this next big step, how it impacted us, and what changes we would need to make individually and together to make it happen.
All of this meant change and growth. It meant changing how we would relate to one another and even changing how much time we would spend together. I would be different and therefore, he would be different, and ultimately, we would be different. These changes are not easy for any relationship, but with a commitment to growing together, emotional intimacy does not wither—it thrives.
Drs. John and Julie Gottman and co-authors Doug Abrams and Dr. Rachel Carlton Abrams (2019) perhaps say it best in their book Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love:
Amazing things happen in relationships when a couple can grow and change and accommodate the growth of the other person. The sum is greater than the
parts, and relationships can be more than just two individuals coming
together—they can be stories of transformation and great contribution and
meaning in the world (p. 186).
Emotional intimacy is a process without a fixed terminus. The feeling of being close and connected naturally ebbs and flows like the ocean and takes practice. Over time, you will grow and change as will your partner. If you insist on locking up or ignoring parts of you and your partner that fall outside the norms of your relationship thus far, you will only grow further apart, neither one of you showing up as a whole person and thus, no longer fully available to meet or be met.
Emotional intimacy thrives when two ever-changing and growing partners share their feelings along the way, with the aim to connect. The arms of the relationship get wider, allowing it to move forward with formerly suppressed experiences now integrated into the relationship. It means each partner has to be willing to self-reflect, communicate honestly and openly, work through painful conflict, and live closer to their individuated and more authentic self. This is not an easy path, but if both partners are willing to follow rather than resist the process, you will be able to ride the inevitable waves together and enjoy a renewed bond of closeness.
Dworkin, J. (2019). Make love better: How to own your story, connect with your partner, and deepen your relationship practice. Belly Song Press.
Gottman, J., Gottman, J. S., Abrams, D. & Abrams, R. C. (2019). Eight dates: Essential conversations for a lifetime of love. Workman Publishing Co.
Mindell, A. (1992). The dreambody in relationships (2nd ed.). Arkana-Penguin.
Perel, E. (2006). Mating in captivity: Unlocking erotic intelligence. Harper.
Waring, E. M., & Chelune, G. J. (1983). Marital Intimacy and Self-Disclosure. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 39(2), 183–190.