How to build emotional intimacy
Relationship experts reveal the best ways to build emotional intimacy and truly let your walls down with your partner.
In her late 40s, Susan Saunders developed a disorienting crush on a male friend. “Every time he was nearby, I felt tongue-tied. I blushed. It was a real mess,” says Saunders.
“I told my husband about it and how much I didn’t like what was happening.” His response amazed her: “My husband made an effort to get to know this man so that we’d have opportunities to all talk together. He was helping me get over it.” It’s a prime example of why she says, “I trust my husband more than any other person on Earth.”
For Priscilla Hunt, trust in the early days of her marriage meant knowing that her husband, Greg, understood the vulnerabilities she developed as the child of alcoholic parents. “We had a lot of serious conversations about that stuff,” says Priscilla, a Shreveport, Louisiana, training coordinator for the Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment, a program that trains “marriage mentors.”
“There were some places in our lives where it took years before we could really trust each other, or even had enough self-awareness to know what was going on. But we always worked on trust.” Says Greg, “I had to pay attention to how Priscilla’s childhood affected her. There were things that would really set her off and go way down into the visceral fears of the wounded little child.”
Trust—the intangible asset that Barry McCarthy, Ph.D., a psychology professor at American University in Washington, D.C., calls “the emotional bedrock of a good relationship”—takes decades, if not a lifetime, to build and nurture. Along with respect, it forms the core of emotional intimacy—the comforting sense that your relationship is a safe place where you will be valued for who you really are and where you can safely reveal yourself.
"Trust is the emotional bedrock of a good relationship"
“Trust, respect, and emotional intimacy create a tough, resilient bond between two partners that can withstand a crisis without crumbling,” says Dr McCarthy, a marriage and sex therapist and author of Getting It Right the First Time—Creating a Healthy Marriage. “You may not feel you need this in the early months of your relationship, but that’s the time to build this bond.”
Why? For one thing, most people aren’t aware of the things that best build—or break—trust. The biggest trust-breaker? “People think it’s an affair or jealousy. Those are big,” Dr McCarthy notes. “But the biggest, most common break in a couple’s trust bond is when one partner publicly puts the other down in front of friends, colleagues, or family. When that happens, you need to repair the breach with a genuine apology, by taking responsibility for breaking trust, and talking about trust in your relationship.”
What information must be kept safe and secure in a trustworthy relationship?
“It’s different for every couple,” Dr McCarthy says. “If you come from a family that had money problems or even bankruptcy, financial issues could be a vulnerability. You may have trouble getting close if you had a former dating partner who humiliated you in public. In other families, hypocrisy about religious beliefs creates vulnerable feelings. In my own life, it’s the fact that I cannot use machines. I cannot type, and even running fax machines is hard for me. So I’m very sensitive about people making fun of me about that stuff. My wife and I don’t like my difficulty with machines—it’s very inconvenient—but she never puts me down about it.”
Knowing and accepting your partner's stellar qualities as well as his or her idiosyncrasies, irritating habits, and truly weak points “flies in the face of romantic love,” Dr McCarthy says. But it’s the strong foundation of your relationship. “Romantic love is about an ideal, perfect illusion of your partner,” he says. “Respect means seeing them for who he or she truly is—warts and all—and still being loyal and loving. You don’t have to agree with everything your partner believes or does. You can acknowledge problems without demeaning or losing respect.”
Respect validates your partner on a deep level. To give it, listen and acknowledge feelings when your partner shares his or her daily experiences with you. Don’t demean them—either in your own thoughts, in conversation with him or her, or to friends and family. “Be a supporter, not a critic,” Dr McCarthy says. “Listen with empathy.”
Emotional intimacy 101
The two of you are close… but could you be closer? Sharing feelings, concerns, hopes and dreams is the core of emotional intimacy, notes American University psychologist and marriage expert Barry McCarthy, PhD.
Creating trust in your relationship is a matter of daring to tell the truth—about your past, your feelings and actions in the present, and your desires and hopes for the future. But self-revelation is only half of the equation. A deep trust also requires listening to your partner without judgment—and keeping the information to yourself. No retelling a top-secret truth to your best friend, bringing it up casually in the company of friends, or hurling it back at your partner in anger.
To strengthen the trust between new partners, Dr McCarthy suggests the following exercise:
- Find a quiet time, anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes, when the two of you can sit down and talk.
- Take a deep breath and share something from your past that you haven’t yet revealed. It could be a time when you failed yourself or your family—flunking out of college or getting yourself into debt—or that reveals a part of you that has long been set aside—the “rock and roll” days or the years of rebellion against your parents.
- Rules for speakers: Don’t talk about something to hurt your partner or simply trigger sympathy. The idea is to clear the air, get closer, and get one flawed, hidden part of yourself accepted. If the secret involves troubling behaviour, assure your spouse that you’re committed to not doing it again. “It’s a sad chapter of your life, not the essence of you,” Dr McCarthy says.
- Rules for listeners: See yourself as a partner in healing. You don’t have to fix the problem or minimise its importance to make your spouse feel better. The simple yet powerful act of listening, accepting, and telling your partner you love him or her as much as ever is profoundly healing.
Scared? The value of summoning all your courage and telling the truth is that you let your partner in on who you really are, deep down. You head off a potentially devastating, or at least disappointing, moment of truth later on if your partner should discover your secret on his or her own. You strengthen your bond when you feel that your partner knows you deeply—and when you offer respectful understanding and acceptance in return.
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