Even in the best of relationships, couples sometimes struggle with emotional connection. They want to feel close, but it seems like there’s a wedge between them.
If this has ever happened to you, I want to help you successfully overcome this hurdle. Consider the following situation.
Imagine that your partner wants to tell you about his anger, or hurt or displeasure.
Now imagine your automatic reaction. What do you feel? What happens in your body?
Do you want to lean toward your partner and listen? Or do you feel on edge?
Many of us would say, “I think I’d rather not hear this story.” Our quick computer-like mind calculates how we can get physical or psychological distance so we won’t have to feel uncomfortable. Even if we stay physically close, our mind and our heart might not be very open.
The following behaviors prevent the exploration of emotional material that would help us understand our partner on a deeper level. In most cases, these behaviors occur innocently and unknowingly.
1. Give advice: “Listen to my suggestions and you’ll feel much better.”
2. Rescue: “Here, let me make it all better for you.”
3. Praise: “I know you’re a strong enough person to handle it.”
4. Criticize: “That’s a ridiculous way to feel. That’s stupid.”
5. Intellectualize: “You have no reason to feel that way. Think about it my way.”
6. Defend: “Yeah but, you never listen to me either. You hurt me, too.”
7. Convince, dominate: “My way is better than your way. Do what I tell you to do, pleeeease!”
8. Exit: “Oh, I just remembered that I have to call Sylvia back.”
Our partner won’t feel that we deeply connect with them.
When we distance, we often do so nonverbally as well. We break eye contact when we start to feel uncomfortable. We may turn away or walk out of the room.
Sometimes, we want to strike out with words or behavior.
Our instinctual brains go into protection mode. We call it the fight or flight phenomenon.
Sometimes intense emotions scare us. That’s why we want to get away from feelings in the first place. We might be afraid that we will go out of control and hurt ourselves or hurt someone else.
When we learn to contain our emotions
we don’t go out of control.
Why being intellectual does not work.
Our society prizes smart productive people. There is a certain amount of intimacy that occurs on an intellectual level, and that’s great. But more often than not, we feel deeply loved when our partner meets us on a heart level.
We hurt when we have unmet emotional needs. We want our feelings to be understood by our partner.
We need to learn how to stop intellectualizing and start feeling our suppressed and repressed emotions. We need to find an effective way to stay emotionally present with each other. We must learn to do this in a responsible way. We shouldn’t dump our reactive anger all over our partner.
When we feel distant from our partner, we can remind our selves that we want an intimate relationship. We can tell our partner that. That’s a good first step.
As we look for ways to create emotional intimacy, it helps to ask ourselves if our ideas will generate true closeness. Do we use sex or embraces or flowers or conversations or vacations? All of these can be absolutely wonderful, but do they generate enduring repairs for a troubled relationship?
Have you ever felt close for a little while, but the intimacy fades away all too quickly? Do you say to yourself, “There’s something wrong with this relationship. I keep trying to get close, but the moments are too fleeting. Is this all that I can expect from an intimate relationship?”
Maybe you focus on the flaws in your partner. Maybe you try to get him to change. You think, “He’s the one with the problem. If he would just change it would all be OK.”
Or maybe you decide that you are the one with the problem. You spend hours psychoanalyzing yourself, reading books and talking to friends. You understand your pattern better, but the same old feelings haunt you.
The antidote is to develop the ability to feel our vulnerable emotions and stay 100% present.
We can develop the ability to unconditionally love ourselves. We can invite the unconditional love of God. Then we can experience our Authentic Self as larger than the emotional experience of the moment.
We can experience our emotions, but they no longer have power over us.
Then we feel centered.
Then our partner can experience emotions, and we can stay emotionally intimate with ourselves and with our partner. We don’t get reactive. We can listen well.
We can handle all the ups and downs of a conflict like navigating the rapids of a river.
We can come through the experience together as partners rather than as adversaries.
The Remedy: Empathy for Self and Our Partner
We all want to be understood and cared about. Empathy is one of our most powerful tools.
When we empathize with our partner, we feel their emotions to some degree and see things through their eyes.
That does not mean that we need to agree with our partner. And it does not mean that we lose our selves in the process.
that we let our partner know
that we feel what they feel and
that it makes sense to us.
Empathy pulls for empathy from our partner.
To empathize effectively, we must stop distancing from our own uncomfortable feelings that arise in the presence of our partner.
We must go deep inside of our own caves and caverns where we have not yet ventured to visit our uncomfortable emotions. We must find a way to make peace with our challenging emotions. Sometimes it is really dark in the cave and we might be frightened to venture in alone. We might want to ask for help from a therapist.
The deeper we are willing to go inside of our own emotions and explore our internal world, the more self-aware we will become. There may be all kinds of feelings that we have shied away from … hurt, anger, pain, sadness, fear, insecurity, guilt, or shame. These feelings may have been formidable enemies for us.
If we are not willing to make friends with these so-called enemies, these emotions will always have power over us. They will rise up in the most unexpected and unacceptable moments. They will be uninvited disruptive guests.
We may try to get rid of uncomfortable emotions, but they will cycle back around again.
So we try harder to make them go away.
We eat too much or sleep too much. We might drink too much alcohol or take drugs. We might talk with friends. We work too much. We shop for things that make us feel good temporarily. Or maybe we run into the arms of another person to try to feel good … or at least not feel so lonely.
We have all kinds of ways of running away from intimacy with our selves.
When we don’t stay 100% present with ourselves, it is impossible to be close to our partner when he is experiencing difficult emotions.
How to Make Peace with Our Uncomfortable Emotions
Imagine there is a part inside of you who feels the uncomfortable emotions. I often imagine this to be a child part of myself. Notice how old your inner child seems to be.
Now imagine that you also have a wise nurturing adult part of you. The nurturing wise adult is compassionate and wants to understand the child. She is willing to be fully present. She is a caring witness. She says, “Tell me all about it. I’m here for you. Tell me what you need and I’ll do my best to help meet your needs.” They explore the situation together. They build their relationship.
The child and the wise adult interact like a scene in a movie. As the wise adult tunes into the child, the child will eventually feel safe enough to open up. When the adult loves the child and tries to meet her needs, the child will receive the healing instead of being closed off.
It helps to journal this story as it unfolds in your mind so you can stay focused. Most people need to do a series of writings before their inner child feels safe and healed. You may require a skilled therapist to help you with this process.
When we feel safe to disclose our deepest pain in the presence of a compassionate “other,” we feel better simply because we have a caring friend. This “friend” can be our inner wise adult self, a spiritual being, our partner, or another friend.
We no longer feel alone or lonely.
Feeling supported, we can more easily accept ourselves. We can open to receive healing from our spiritual source. We can think more clearly and receive wisdom.
We can always sit down with our inner child, our spiritual source, and our wise adult and do this process. The inner dialogue helps us feel whole and remain patient and grounded until our partner can be emotionally available.
Hopefully, our partner will choose to engage in this process as well.
As we do more healing with our inner family, we feel more inner peace. Then we have more ability to be emotionally intimate with our partner. We can help him feel understood. We can express compassion and empathy. We are both healed by God’s love that flows through us.
This article only scratches the surface of how to develop emotional intimacy when you experience conflict. I hope you have gained a few good insights.
If you are serious about developing your ability to maintain emotional intimacy, look for a therapist who has done his or her own healing work … someone who has ventured into their own dark caves and made peace with the emotions they have found there.
Some people complain about spending years in therapy and not getting the results they want. They intellectually explore their patterns, but their lives don’t significantly change. That’s why we need to do deep emotional healing work.
Transformation occurs on the emotional level.
Intimate relationships are possible.
It takes a dedicated commitment and desire to cultivate intimacy within yourself and with your partner.
It requires handling conflicts and emotions as they arise and not running from yourself.
It requires realizing that you and your partner are mirrors for each other. What you see in your partner is often a reflection of yourself. If you don’t like what you see in your partner, it is probably because there is a counterpart that you haven’t made peace with inside of yourself.
If this sounds like a lot of work, it is. But just like any labor of love, it is worthwhile for those who have a burning desire for the riches of genuine emotional intimacy.
About the Author
Benita A. Esposito, MA is a licensed professional counselor in Georgia with four of decades experience. She is also a spiritual counselor available by video conference to people worldwide. Click here to read her credentials.
If you would like to see if you are a good fit for Benita’s services, please click here to complete the contact form and request a complimentary 10-minute phone session.