PaulHutchinson, Ph.D.

Emotional Intimacy

Psychologist and Therapist, Individual Therapy,  Bellevue, WA

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How to Foster Emotional Intimacy

For most of us, our love relationships are the most important thing in our lives. We deeply want to keep these relationships strong and close, but this turns out to be harder and more complicated than we expect.  Romantic relationships in particular typically start out strong and close, with the closeness seeming to happen naturally.  Then after some years have gone by it can feel like something has gone wrong with the closeness, something has gotten in the way. 

Closeness is one of those things that we all recognize when we see it and feel it, but how it happens is a bit mysterious, and seems more like an art than a science. Closeness can happen in a number of ways. Closeness can happen by two people touching each other. It can happen when one person takes care of another. It can happen just hanging out, having a cool experience together.  This article is going to focus on one of the main ways that closeness can occur, talking to each other.  For a seemingly simple activity, talking can go wonderfully right, or terribly wrong. Two people can talk to each other and feel deeply connected, or they can feel hurt, misunderstood, and lonelier than before. This article will explore how these things happen, and how a couple can more consistently have conversations that leave them feeling connected and loved.

The Emotions of Closeness

At its heart, feeling close to someone is an emotional experience, although there isn’t one clear emotional word for it. Talking with a loved one or a close friend can leave a person feeling known and understood and cared about.  It feels like the very opposite of loneliness. We feel like we have someone with us, someone who is holding us in mind and thinking about us, someone who understands what we are going through and cares about it. Each of us spends our lives inside our own experience of the world, and much of the time we may feel like we are alone inside that experience, that no one else realizes what we go through or understands what it is like to be us. A good conversation in which we share important things with each other can leave us feeling like we aren't alone, that we are known, and going through something together.  A good conversation can leave both people feeling this way, can leave both people feeling like they are together in this world, with each other and on each other’s side. This article is about how to help that happen in a conversation.

Let me also note that lots of conversations are trying to accomplish something other than closeness.  Those conversations can be good in other ways, can be fun or productive or engaging. Joking around playfully during a game of cards is a fun kind of conversation. Talking about books and current events can be an interesting and engaging conversation. Some conversations are very practical, making plans and sorting out logistics. And it certainly happens that people in these conversations can feel engaged with each other in a way that feels connected and feels good. But my focus in the rest of this article will be on conversations that help people feel closer by knowing each other better.

To Feel Known and Cared About

I'll start with the simplest description of this, and then I'll go on to describe how every single part of it can get complicated.  Simply put, here is what needs to happen for a person to feel known and cared about:

  1. I have to tell you what is going on in me, which probably means that I'll have to be vulnerable and tell you about something that matters to me. 
  2. You will have to listen and grasp what I am telling you.  You'll have to both get the ideas I'm expressing and also get the feelings, get it that this matters to me.
  3. You will have to care about what I am telling you, because this thing is important to me and you care about me. 
  4. You will have to reflect this back to me so that I can feel that you get what I am telling you, and you care about me..  The key to the whole thing is that I will need to feel that you get it and you care.. 

Closeness and emotional intimacy come from joining someone else in their experience, sharing their joy or their pain, and having them really feel that you are in there with them, that you are feeling something about what they are feeling. 

And in a nutshell, here is what often goes wrong:

  1. I don't share much, because I'm afraid that you won't get it, or won't care, or won't like the version of me that is confused and sad instead of strong and confident.  If I don't share what matters to me, then you will never even have the chance to know me.
  2. If your responses don't make me feel understood and cared about, then I'll shut myself down, and I won't be so vulnerable in the future. 
  3. Even if you understand the words I am saying, if I can't clearly see that you are feeling something about this, I won't feel cared about. 
  4. The most common way that I will fail to feel cared about is if you are too quick to give me advice.  Advice will feel like you are saying, "Here's your solution; are we done here?"  I may feel cricicized by your advice, or I may feel like you are just looking for a way out of the conversation, rather than feeling understood and cared about. 

So, now let's dig a lot deeper, because all of this gets way complicated.  ( If it weren't complicated we would all be able to do this without half trying. )

Having Deeper Conversations With Your Bank Teller

Let me pick an odd place to start.  In our ordinary interactions with each other, do we let people know us?  We don't need to let everyone know us all the time.  But let me make a case for doing some vulnerability and having some small bits of intimacy, in everyday interactions.  If someone says, “how are you?” and you say, “I’m fine,” I would say that you are choosing to keep your defenses up, and to not really engage. That may be a perfectly reasonable choice if you are responding to the bank teller.  But be aware that you are choosing to have a bland and disconnected conversation with that bank teller.  I’m going to suggest that you work to be aware of how much you choose to let people in to your experience, or keep people out, even if the person in question is only the bank teller.  Letting people know who you really are allows for more possible connection with everyone, not just with your loved ones. Let me try to persuade you to give yourself a nudge toward being one notch more vulnerable, even when you are talking to a stranger.

The bank teller asks, “how are you?” The conventional, defenses up, answer to this question is, “I’m fine.” But what if you gave a less conventional, more revealing answer? You could say, “still kind of asleep and wishing for my coffee,” or “just been walking my dog, and that always makes me good,” or “I’m still trying to decide if I’m OK with the state of the world,” or “I’m dragging a bit more than I should be for a Tuesday.” In saying any of those things, you have been more revealing that people often are, and you have been less conventional. You haven't violated the norms of what is acceptable to say to a bank teller.  But you have taken one step away from a conventional, meaningless response.  Doing this actually does put your bank teller on the spot a bit.  You have gone off script, and now they might have to actually think about what they say next.  But you have done two things that are very important: You have been more personal, which may allow a moment of connection, and you have been less conventional, which may make your trip to the bank more fun and interesting for both you and the teller. If we all stick to the conventional script, life gets tedious, bland, and unsurprising, and we all keep our distance.

Having Deeper Conversations With Your Spouse

Let's hang onto both parts of that bank teller lesson:  Let your guard down a notch more than usual, and try to avoid your automatic, conventional response. If your loved one asks, “how are you,” start by reminding yourself that they aren’t your bank teller, and they want to know something deeper than the bank teller wants to know. Ask yourself the question, “how am I really?” Substitute the question, “what did I care about the most today?” or, “what actually stirred some emotion in me today?” I have encouraged couples to swap out “how are you” and swap in the question, “what is going on in there?”  The basic principle is, "tell me something you care about."  To put it bluntly, if you aren't telling me something you care about, then why should I care?  And if neither of us care, then we aren't going to have a moment of connection with each other. 

When people who love each other have been apart for a day, they typically don't feel as close and connected as they did before.  I knew how you were at 7 AM this morning, and I know you in general, but I don't know how you have been today, and I don't know what you are feeling now.  Coming back together in the evening, if we are going to feel close, we need to reestablish that connection.  How do we do that?  Touching each other helps, so I recommend hugs and smooches.  Those signal, "I'm want to be close to you enough to touch you after we have been apart,"  and also, "I like to touch you."  That brings an easy burst of closeness, and a small experience of feeling wanted.   

The other part of reconnecting and re-establishing closeness comes from talking to each other, from what we say to each other.  If I say, "how are you," and you say, "I'm fine," even if that is true, it doesn't seem like much of a reconnection.  Partly that is because, even if it is true that you are fine, you have just responded to me with the level of intimacy that most of us give to our bank tellers.  It doesn't signal, "you are someone that I share myself with.  You are someone who I want to know me."  It also sends a subtle message of, "I'm not trying very hard here.  Maybe I don't care to try very hard."

 So, I know you may have other things to do when you get home.  But try to reconnect for a moment.  You can try to connect more later in the evening, when the chaos has died down.  I understand that couples come home tired, and often come home with kids to deal with or work emails still needing to be returned.  But we pair up with a loved one so that we can experience closeness, and for closeness we need to let the other person know us.  So, let yourself be known.

How to Share:  Tell Them What Matters

At the heart of it, a romance is an emotional experience.  It is all about love and closeness.  The emotional intimacy that comes from conversation is all about having an emotional experience with each other.  The guiding principle for how to do that is:  Share some emotion.  Share what you care about.

When your spouse asks, "how are you," translate that into, "what did you care about the most today?"  "What mattered today?" 

Lots of parents have found when talking to their kids after school that they wind up having deep conversations like these:

"How was school today?"  "Fine."

"What did you do at school today?"  "Nothing."

There is an exercise that some parents use that is intended to nudge their kids to did a little deeper.  It usually goes by the name of "Rose, Thorn, and Bud."  The idea is to look back over your day and name the best thing that happened (the rose), the worst thing that happened (the thorn), and something that you are looking forward to,or that has the potential to be good (the bud).  This turns out to be a really great way to get your kids to did a little deeper in telling you about their day. 

For adults, you don't necessarily have to do the exercise just this way, but it is a good way to organize what you are telling your loved one.  Think of it like this:  Tell your loved one what meant the most to you in a good way, and what meant the most to you in a bad way.   

I'm a huge fan of sharing positive things with each other.  But sharing negative things, if it goes right, can bring a deeper kind of intimacy.  It means a lot to us to know that someone has our back, and cares about us, when we are having a hard time.  So, it is really important to share hard things and negative things with each other.  Sometimes that sharing goes really well.  Later in this article I'll talk more about what happens when that kind of sharing doesn't go well. 

How to Listen:  How to Draw Someone Out

If you are the listener, you want the person talking to feel listened to.  You want to do a good job of the basic things:  Make eye contact.  Give them your full attention.  Most people will share more if they feel like you are really getting it.  Usually that means getting what something means to them. 

Watch for the emotion in what they are saying, and reflect it back to them.  Make sure you reflect the emotion of the thing in your response, and especially the intensity of the emotion.  If you think they are understating the emotions of the thing, reflect it back to them stronger.  (They will feel more understood if you capture how much they are feeling, not how much they are showing.)

Look for signs of what they are feeling, and put those into words.  Try to notice when they have a particular look on their face, or tone to their voice, or stoop to their shoulders.  Notice it, point it out, and ask them what it means.

Ask Open Ended Questions

Show That You Get It And That You Care

This is probably the most important piece of advice in this entire article.  If you take away one idea about how to make your loved one feel cared about, it is this:  Your job is to make them feel like you get it and you care.  In order to get it, you have to get them to tell you about it, as described above.  But once you understand what they are going through, you need to show them that you understand, and show them that you care. 

Showing them that you understand means reflecting their experience back to them, putting it into words so that they see that you understood what they told you, and that you understand how strongly they feel about it.  That is reflected in some of the examples above.  And there is one more element that is just as important:  To feel that you care, they will need to see that you are feeling something in response to what they are feeling.  If they are happy, you show that you are happy for them, with the look on your face and the enthusiasm in your voice.  If they are sad, you show that you are sad for them.  If they are angry, you show that you are angry on their behalf.  (If they are angry at you it is more complicated, but more on that later.) 

Say something with feeling, that shows that you get the idea of what they are going through, and also the emotion of what they are going through.  They won't feel truly cared about unless they can tell that you are feeling something in response to what they are feeling. 

If you can, let them know that you get what it means to them:

If your loved one can see that you are feeling something in response to what they are telling you, they will feel that you are with them in what they are going through, that someone is on their side, and that they aren't alone.  That's the heart of the whole thing. 

The Puzzle of Typical Male Defenses

So, here we are talking about vulnerability and about sharing one's emotions, and how that fits with closeness.  In talking about this, I have to take note of something important about gender.  How about a sweeping generalization?  Many guys aren't very good at this stuff.  In general, men and boys are socialized to be wary of vulnerability.  Men are socialized that we are supposed to be strong and confident, and vulnerability often involves admitting that you don't feel strong or confident.

So here we are at the subject of gender roles, and the ways that men and women typically get socialized to embrace or avoid vulnerability. Some caveats are in order here. First, it is important to talk about gender because lots of research finds that men and women typically do approach vulnerability and self disclosure in different ways. But we are talking about a measurable tendency, and not a hard and fast rule. There lots of women who show a more typically male pattern, and lots of men who show a more typically female pattern. And there are plenty of people who are gay or lesbian, or who experience and express their gender in ways that don’t fall into the conventional male and female patterns. Whatever pattern you find most prominent in yourself, I find it useful to use these gender patterns as a way of talking about vulnerability and defenses against vulnerability.

In writing about gender patterns and vulnerability, I found that there was a great deal to say, and eventually I turned a that material into a separate article about  Males and Vunerability.  Check out that article for a deeper dive into the subject, but here are the basics:

For more on the gender patterns, take a look at my other article.  I will have more to say there about the human reluctance to be vulnerable, which is often well-founded.

The Role of One’s Upbringing

And since none of this is simple, let me add another wrinkle. When it comes to showing another person how we feel and what we need, there is another hugely important element in how we learned to do what we do. Here I will touch on an enormous subject that I will write about more fully in an upcoming article: If our emotions and our needs were well taken care of while we were growing up, we will be much more likely to express how we feel and what we need as adults. If our emotions and our needs weren’t taken care of all that well when we were growing up, then we will be less likely to share our emotions or our needs as adults. The field of attachment research has documented this in very compelling and interesting ways. And in the field of addictions, it is well established and accepted that growing up in a family with an addiction often leads to the same pattern, in which children learn not to express their emotions and their needs, and actually learn to not even be all that aware of them.

It may have occurred to you reading this that there is a lot of overlap between the “typical male defenses” that I have been describing and the defenses of someone whose emotional needs weren’t well taken care of growing up. There are differences, yes, but both patterns tend to produce an automatic, unconscious habit of not telling others what you need, and not showing others when you are hurting. As you might expect, a man whose emotional needs weren’t well taken care of growing up will have a particularly strong case of this.

To Recap:  What Are We Trying To Do Here?

Remember that the basic goal here is to make your loved one feel understood and cared about, to make them feel like you are in this with them and on their side.  Here are the steps of what you are trying to accomplish:

  1. Help them put what they are going through into words.  Sometimes we feel kind of bad and haven't yet figured out why.  Get your loved one to talk about what they are going through and how they feel.  You may have to be persistent and show that you are interested.  Sometimes we resist opening up until we are sure that the person is really interested, so show that you care.
  2.  Help them feel like you get what they are going through.  They have to know that you heard it and you understood it.  Reflect it back to them with emotion, some combination of what they told you, and your sense of what this means to them:  “Oh hell; that really sucks.” “I’m so sorry. That sounds truly crappy.”
  3. Did I mention the emotion?   They have to see that you feel something in response to what they are feeling.  And for them to see it, you have to show it.  You have to show in your voice and in the look on your face that you aren't just thinking about what they are going through, you are feeling something about it. 
  4. Be kind, comforting, and loving.   Touch them.  Even if it is something kind of small, most of us like to be touched when we feel bad.  Touch is also super versatile, because you don't have to figure out just the right thing to say.  Touch them and they will probably feel more cared about.  Tell them that you care about them.  Then tell them that you love them.   We try to be adult by acting all rational, and in doing so we all act about two notches too detached most of the time.  So shift yourself two large notches in the direction of being kind and loving, and you'll be in the right ball park. 

How About Reassurance?  Is It Good?

Reassurance can be great stuff, if it is done right.  You may be feeling sad or anxious, but if I'm feeling more hopeful, it may help for me to tell you that I think it is going to be all right. 

Here's when reassurance doesn't work:  If I think that you really don't understand the situation, then if you say, "it's going to be OK," my internal reaction might be, "how the hell do you know that it is going to be OK?  You just don't understand what I'm going through."

So, before you start with the reassurance, make sure the person feels like you really get it.  Draw the story out of them, and reflect it back to them so that they feel like you really get what is going on.  Then when you say, "I think it is going to be OK," your opinion will have some credibility.

And there are other reassuring things to say besides  "it's going to be OK."  I'm fond of these:

My take on reassurance kind of lines up with my take on all the rest of this:  What you are trying to do is to leave your loved one feeling like you care what they are going through, you are there for them, and you will go through it with them.  That is what we humans need from each other

Copyright 2019, Paul Hutchinson, Ph.D.

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