Unpacking Emotional Intimacy

By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

One of the keys to long-term happiness in any relationship is emotional intimacy. After the “honeymoon phase” for a new couple wears off, the emotional bonds that hold partners together become a sustaining force beyond their physical attraction.

Experiencing emotional intimacy with a partner is one of the most satisfying experiences in life. For many couples, it’s almost as if they’re on a tightrope and balancing feelings of security with tension. This can cause them to experience anxiety when they are off balance but create a sense of calm when they are in harmony with each other.

In Hold Me Tight, Dr. Johnson explains: “To stay on the rope we must shift with each other’s moves, respond with each other’s emotions. As we connect, we balance each other. We’re in emotional equilibrium.” This may be especially true of couples who don’t share a long history of responding to bids for connection and learning to trust each other.

According to Dr. John Gottman, a tendency to turn toward your partner is the foundation of trust, love, and establishing intimacy. After studying thousands of couples over 40 years, he discovered that we have three ways of responding to our partner’s overtures and that turning towards your partner is an incredible way to deepen intimacy.

 Bid examples:

“Did you notice that I washed the cars when you came home?”

Turning Towards Response

This type of response enhances your emotional bond with your partner.

  • “I didn’t notice you washed my car. Thanks for telling me so I can check it out.”

Turning Against Responses

Another option is to turn against your partner’s bid for attention, be defensive, or shut them down.

  • Why do you always want credit for doing things around here?

Turning Away Responses

This last option can create disconnection and resentment between partners.

  • Turn on your computer when your partner makes a request or starts a conversation.

For instance, Tim, 43, and Jenny, 40, a remarried couple living in a stepfamily, are beginning to understand the importance of responding to each other’s bids for connection by “Turning Towards” each other. By sharing emotions and affection with one another, this couple became more intimate.

Tim reflects: When I’ve had a tough day at work and can look forward to spending time with Jenny unwinding at the end of the day, it helps lower my stress level. I used to feel that we were missing the mark, but lately we’re more in tune with each other’s day. I tell Jenny to let me know if she wants me to grab take-out on the way home so we can have more time to relax.”

Emotional intimacy can only occur when two people are devoted to taking total responsibility for their own feelings and needs. Couples must be aware of their personal experience in the moment and committed to working together as a team. It’s not possible to for a couple to do this without having a deep emotional connection. Ideally, both partners need to talk about their feelings in terms of positive need, instead of what they don’t need. Positive need is a recipe for success by the listener and the speaker because it conveys information and requests without criticism and blame.

In this example Jenny tells Tim what she needs without pointing out his faults or what he’s doing wrong. She put it like this: “I feel happier when you ask me what I have planned and give me a suggestion like “Can we eat dinner together and watch a movie Friday? This words much better for me that when you accuse me of being a workaholic or not spending enough time with you.”

When couples like Tim and Jenny can say what they need in a specific way, why they feel that way, and avoid being critical and making pointing their fingers at one another, this strengthens their bond.

In a recent article for The Good Men Project’s website, writer Raymond Michael, breakdowns the components of emotional intimacy and offers insight into how to maintain that closeness as couples grow together in a relationship.

Michael defines emotional intimacy as “more of a ‘feeling’ thing,” writing that “it involves a perception of being close to someone. This often creates feelings of being supported, comforted, and loved by that individual.” Building this quality for a couple requires sharing our “deepest vulnerabilities without the fear of judgement.” But beyond establishing trust, Michael lays out a roadmap to maintaining that closeness, and ensuring a successful, long-lasting union.

First, Michael argues that couples should be committed to sustaining “self-revealing behavior” — essentially, the “willingness to drop your defenses.” Next, couples should be mentally and emotionally present during their time together, or what Michael calls “positive interaction.”

Another tenet of fostering emotional intimacy is cultivating a “shared understanding” with your partner. In other words, developing a shared view of the world and a common experience, or as Michael puts it, “knowing or understanding aspects of the other spouse’s inner experiences… [and] knowledge of their private thoughts, feelings and beliefs.” According to Michael, this also “entails a knowledge of their characteristic rhythms, habits and routines.” Simply put, be there for each other, and be a part of each other’s inner world.

All told, practicing these behaviors will support emotional intimacy, and is a great predictor of relationship success. Couples will naturally start to develop shared feelings about their strengths and weaknesses, and these supportive behaviors will follow naturally, reinforcing and building upon an already strong bedrock. In the end, Michael sums up the effects of consciously nurturing emotional intimacy as the ability to “build a foundation from which new strengths can emerge.”

Find Terry on Twitter, Facebook, and, movingpastdivorce.com. Terry’s award-winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website. Her new book The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around was published by Sounds True on February 18, 2020.