Are your relationships as close and connected as you want them to be? If not, you may need to increase your capacity for authentic emotional intimacy. But what is emotional intimacy, and how can you create it in your most important relationships?
As an experienced couples counselor, I know that emotional intimacy is the backbone of healthy, loving connections. Without genuine emotional intimacy, relationships feel hollow and unsatisfying. But despite the benefits, there are a couple of barriers that stand in the way of the emotional intimacy that we all crave.
One, emotional intimacy is hard to pin down. We can spend a lot of time with someone, say all the right words and have the best of intentions, without building that deep emotional connection that intimate relationships need. And two, emotional intimacy is scary! It requires us to be vulnerable, show our true selves, and trust others with our innermost hopes and fears… knowing full well that they may reject, abandon, or disappoint us. It’s no wonder we avoid intimacy.
What Is Emotional Intimacy?
Intimacy is the invisible thread that weaves two people together in a profound way. It’s the art of getting close, allowing your authentic self to be seen, and embracing vulnerability. When there’s a high level of emotional intimacy in your relationship, you and your partner are party to each other’s inner worlds. No thought or feeling is unspeakable, and there’s a deep feeling of trust, understanding and connectedness that makes you irreplaceable to each other.
Sounds pretty great, right? I think so. And yet, we all have some fear around emotional intimacy. Being vulnerable implies opening yourself up to getting hurt. There’s always the possibility that your partner will judge you, or pull away from you, or leave you. It can feel safer to avoid the hard work of shedding our protective layers and leaning into emotional intimacy, which is very easy to do. But this is a mistake. Without emotional intimacy, we cannot have the soul-expanding connections we crave. Our relationships will sputter out or grow lonely, and we’ll experience the abandonment or neglect we feared anyway.
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Emotional Safety and Emotional Intimacy
Emotional safety and emotional intimacy go hand in hand. Until you feel safe expressing your deeper feelings in a relationship, you won’t be able to go there, and the relationship will remain surface level.
Emotional safety is something that has to be built up gradually over time. As you and your partner get to know each other better, share your thoughts and feelings and trust each other to respond with validation, understanding, and care, the emotional safety in your relationship increases. Then, deeper levels of emotional intimacy become possible.
But if there’s a failure in empathy or a misunderstanding that damages trust along the way, emotional safety can suffer. You may not even realize what happened. The only sign may be feeling a little more hesitant to share vulnerably with your partner. If you’re dating, the relationship may fail to progress (and you may believe they’re emotionally unavailable). If you’re in a committed relationship, it may start to feel a little empty.
Emotional safety is essential and delicate. Nurture it with care and your relationship will flourish.
Barriers to Emotional Intimacy
There are a few things that often stand in the way of emotional intimacy in relationships, aside from a lack of emotional safety.
- Insecure attachment — People with an avoidant attachment style often have a strong inclination to maintain emotional distance and self-sufficiency. On the other hand, people with an anxious attachment style may struggle to be authentic about their thoughts and feelings because they have a core belief that they must change themselves to be worthy of love and respect. Both of these tendencies can create barriers to emotional intimacy. (Read more about attachment styles in relationships in general and about anxious-avoidant relationships in particular!).
- Shame — Shame and a critical inner voice can play a big role in intimacy issues. If you don’t feel good about who you are, it’s hard to share yourself deeply with another person, especially someone you love and care about. Building self-love, self-esteem, and healing shame is the path to getting closer with others.
- Trust issues — If you have been in a relationship where your trust was significantly violated, you may have developed trust issues that make it hard for you to rely on others. You may even have experienced a betrayal trauma, especially if you were cheated on. In order to be vulnerable in a new relationship, you have to be able to take that leap of faith. Working with a good therapist can help you let go of the past and learn to trust again.
- Low self-awareness — You can’t share yourself deeply until you know yourself deeply. Self-awareness is your guide to your innermost thoughts and feelings. Low self-awareness will reliably lead to misunderstandings and failures in empathy, unmet needs, and a general sense of disconnection from others. The path forward is learning to connect with yourself on a deeper level, through journaling, therapy, or other self-reflective exercises.
Sexual Intimacy and Emotional Intimacy
Physical and emotional intimacy go hand in hand. In fact, many people substitute sexual intimacy for emotional intimacy, because they’re more comfortable cuddling up or having sex with their partner than talking about their feelings.
This can create problems when one partner wants sex more than the other, and the lower sex-drive partner starts to develop a negative narrative about how their partner only wants sex and doesn’t care about their feelings. This can leave the higher-libido partner feeling sexually rejected.
Remember, when your partner tries to initiate sex, they may be saying, I want to feel close to you. If you can start to interpret it that way, it will be easier for you to decline sexual invitations when you’re not in the mood, while also finding ways to satisfy that desire for emotional connection.
Support for Close, Connected Relationships
Couples counseling can be a powerful tool for deepening the emotional intimacy in your relationship. Counseling sessions provide a safe and structured space to explore your feelings, needs, and communication patterns. They serve as a jumping off point for deeper conversations that will carry you forward to a new level of emotional intimacy.
If you would like to do this valuable work with a skilled couples counselor on my team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation.
P.S. — You can find more advice on building close, connected, emotionally intimate relationships in my “emotional and sexual intimacy” collection of articles and podcasts. I made it for you!
Listen & Subscribe to the Podcast
Emotional Intimacy: What It Is & How to Cultivate It
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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