Emotional intimacy is the feeling that brings us closer to one another and allows us to be vulnerable and build trust with our partner. Yet this is often the most difficult part of building a relationship for many people, precisely because of the vulnerability that building emotional intimacy requires.
Building emotional intimacy in your relationship is something that happens over time, but it can wax and wane over time during the course of a long-term partnership. Sometimes a couple may feel very close to one another in the early stages of a relationship, only to find that the intimacy is drained over time as life’s responsibilities take precedence and tensions heighten due to conflicts. Other times, there may be conflicts that arise in the course of building a partnership that have roots in a fear of vulnerability and an unwillingness to open up and be vulnerable with your partner.
Establishing and nurturing the emotional intimacy in your relationship is a key part of having healthy communication, healthy conflict resolutions skills, and restoring trust in times of turmoil. Building emotional intimacy requires a few things though, including:
- Facing the fear of vulnerability
- Understanding your feelings
- Taking responsibility for your own feelings
- Knowing your own value
- Being willing to take risks
Understanding the power of vulnerability and the work that you need to do as an individual to be ready for emotional intimacy can help you strengthen your bonds as a couple and build trust and partnership.
Facing Your Fears: Why Is Vulnerability So Hard?
Vulnerability is very difficult for us as human beings because we have an innate need to protect ourselves, which includes protecting ourselves from emotional pain. None of us want to risk being emotionally vulnerable with someone only to have them violate your trust and hurt you in some way. We protect our emotional vulnerability because it hurts so bad when someone rejects or mocks or exploits that vulnerability. This can make it hard to build trust in our relationships, especially if you have been hurt by someone in the past, which is true for many of us.
I always like to take a look at the sociological reasons behind many of our behaviors, problems, and needs. In this case, the fear of vulnerability can be trace to our deepest instincts for survival. As humankind evolved over the millennia, being vulnerable or too trusting could be dangerous. If you put misplaced trust in someone, it could mean death. We have evolved to look for threats and make calculations about when we should trust someone and when it could be too dangerous.
This translates into our relationships now in many different ways. You may not want to tell your partner about something in your past because you fear being judged harshly. You may also fear that they will look at you differently or treat you differently. You may not want to talk to your partner about your insecurities, because you worry they will see you as weak, or perhaps violate your trust by using your insecurities against you.
There are many ways that our fear of vulnerability factors into our relationships, but ultimately the cost is that emotional intimacy is not as strong as it could be and this could cause conflicts. Facing the fear of vulnerability and recognizing how important being vulnerable with your partner is will help move you forwards to building stronger bonds as a couple.
Understanding Your Feelings
If you don’t understand your own feelings, it will be impossible to communicate them to your partner. Learning to identify how you feel and communicate that feeling is a key step in building emotional intimacy. This may involve you really looking deeper into your own emotional life to examine and express your feelings to your partner.
This is where it becomes important to distinguish between a thought and a feeling. “You’re being an asshole” is not a feeling. This statement is a thought or an opinion, not a feeling. So when you say “I feel like you’re being an asshole” you are actually not expressing your feelings at all. Try to examine how you actually feel before you communicate those feelings to your partner. “I feel disrespected when you speak to me in that way” is a better way to communicate and express what you’re really feeling.
You need to know how you are feeling when conflicts arise so that you can actually say what that feeling is. Many conflicts can be resolved not by deciding who is right or wrong, but by listening to how an event or statement impacted both partners on an emotional level.
Taking Responsibility for Your Feelings
Part of building a strong emotional bond with your partner is taking responsibility for your own feelings, as well as understanding the limits of your partner’s impact on you. This means that while your partner’s words and behaviors certainly have an impact on your emotional life, you are ultimately responsible for how you handle your own feelings.
Your partner cannot be responsible for making you happy. You have to take responsibility for your own happiness, because if you leave it up to anyone else, you will always be disappointed. Of course our relationships impact our mood and our general life satisfaction. Relationships with others in general are arguably the # 1 most important factor in how happy people are. You can have all the money in the world but if your relationships with other people are terrible, you will still be lonely and unhappy.
However, it is not your partner’s responsibility to fill you up and make you happy. I have seen some couples where one person is bending over backwards to make their partner happy and yet there is still conflict and tension because the other person is ultimately not happy with themselves. You have to own your feelings and take responsibility for your own emotional health rather than requiring your partner to always say or do the exact thing you need in order to feel happy.
Sometimes this means expressing your needs rather than expecting your partner to know what your needs are. You may have to be really clear about what your needs are, because your partner may sincerely not know. If you want more verbal reassurance from your partner, you need to be able to say “Sometimes I just need you to listen and tell me it’s going to be okay because we’ll get through things together”. Expecting them to know exactly what you need to hear to feel better is not always a fair expectation.
Knowing Your Own Value
Another important building block of emotional intimacy is knowing your own value. Sometimes, those feelings of insecurity and fear of vulnerability brings conflicts into our relationships when we don’t know our own value and want others to show us that we are valuable.
Certainly you want a partner that values you and expresses that to you. However, just as with owning your own feelings, you ultimately have to know your value and be able to feed yourself the confidence you crave rather than expecting your partner to fill that void. Being confident in yourself allows you to create emotional intimacy because it helps mitigate the risk you take when you open yourself up to be vulnerable. When you know that you can be vulnerable because no matter what you still love and value yourself, then it is easier to open up to others, especially your partner.
Willingness To Take Risks
Once you understand and own your feelings and feel confident in your own value, then you need to be prepared to take risks with your partner to create that emotional intimacy you want. This means actually doing the work of facing your fear of vulnerability to let someone know when you feel hurt or devalued in reaction to something that has happened.
Opening up to your partner to be vulnerable is a risk, because it is always risky to let your guard down and let someone else into your emotional space. Yet it is precisely this act of being vulnerable and open with your partner, even when it hurts and you fear they may not give you what you need, that the deep emotional bonds are created. The beauty of this risk is that sometimes you will take that risk and be vulnerable, which allows you to find out that your partner not only validates your feelings, but also opens up in return.
This shared expression of vulnerability is the process by which emotional intimacy is built and strengthened. When you have more of these intimate moments together, you will create a stronger bond together as couple and will feel safer with each other because you understand each other on a deeper level. That is what most couples are seeking when they are looking for someone to share their life with, and that is what the power of vulnerability will bring you.
For more information about relationships and building a strong partnership, check out my author page for a link to my book for couples “Work It Out: A Survival Guide to the Modern Relationship” and if you want more resources for building a healthy relationship, subscribe here and I’ll send you the free Couples Communication Toolkit that I designed to get you on the right track with your relationship communication.
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