The Challenges Of Emotional Intimacy
By: Ashley Brown
Updated November 19, 2019
Medically Reviewed By: Laura Angers
When we hear the word intimacy, most of us think of sex. However, emotional intimacy and sexual intimacy, although not mutually exclusive, are different and do not always coexist. Emotional intimacy is, in fact, the deepest level of connection that can be experienced between two adults. It is the form of connection that many of us spend our whole lives striving to achieve. It allows two people to be completely open and vulnerable with each other. They can share their deepest feelings without fear of criticism or ridicule. They each feel secure that the other person is truly their best friend, with whom they can share all their secrets. In fact, commitment and companionship are two of the top reasons people get married.
Examples of Emotional Intimacy Issues
You strike up a friendship with a handsome, charming acquaintance. He's one of the most successful employees at his office, quickly rising in the ranks, and will likely be promoted to CEO. He's very popular, and everyone likes him. The two of you begin flirting, and a romance develops. He is attentive, and you always have a great time when you're with him.
Everything seems perfect. Then suddenly, just as things get more serious, you realize there's something wrong. You try not to let it bother you, but you can't help but take it personally when you're feeling down or having a bad day, and he doesn't seem to notice or care. It also seems that every time you share your feelings, especially your feelings of affection for him, he either turns it into a joke or shuts down completely. Worst of all, he never shares his feelings, not even his feelings for you, making you feel rejected and excluded from his life.
Here's Another Scenario that Might Be Familiar
You and your wife have been married for many years. You are 100% committed to each other . . . or so you think. But you can't help but feel like something is missing, something you can't quite put your finger on. Even though you live in the same house and sleep in the same bed, you feel like you just don't know everything about her. You talk about children, schedules, and finances, but sometimes you'd like to talk to her about deeper things: your hopes, your dreams, your fears. However, whenever you try to do that, she shuts you down, giving you the excuse that she's too busy. If you insist, she gets a bit frustrated. "What do you want from me?" she says. Moreover, you're not sure how to answer. You just know that even though she's your wife, you feel disconnected. Even though you live in the same house, you often feel like she's miles away.
Do either of these scenarios sound familiar to you? Can you relate to any of the people in them? If so, you may be experiencing a fear of emotional intimacy, either your own or that of your partner. Neither the rejected girlfriend nor the rebuffed husband in the above scenarios is wrong for desiring emotional intimacy with their partners. We all need it.
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Benefits of Emotional Intimacy
Here are some of the essential benefits we get from achieving emotional intimacy in a relationship.
- Physical and emotional safety. We have someone we can trust to help us in our most vulnerable moments.
- The ability to overcome challenges in the relationship. Conflict in any relationship is inevitable. Nevertheless, close bonds of trust make it easier to surmount such obstacles, increasing the likelihood that the relationship can withstand the test of time.
- Connection. Being alone will not hurt you, but loneliness does have all kinds of harmful consequences, from depression to heart disease. A deep connection with another person can shield you from the ravages of loneliness.
- Fewer disappointments. When you have a deep connection with your partner, you intimately understand his or her failings and limitations. Realistic expectations ensure that neither party feels disappointed in the other.
- Spontaneous fun. When you feel deeply connected with another person, it's easy to relax, joke around, or laugh. Spontaneous fun and laughter have health benefits too, such as decreasing stress, elevating mood, and boosting your immune system.
For these and many other reasons, humans are hardwired to seek out emotional intimacy within their relationships. Sadly, many adults find that they lack the tools to connect with others at that deeper level. Their partners may find themselves constantly thwarted in their attempts to achieve intimacy, and they end up feeling rejected and excluded. This can be painful and frustrating. It's difficult not to take it personally when a partner consistently shoots down your efforts to establish emotional intimacy.
There are a variety of reasons why someone may enter adulthood with a crippling fear of emotional intimacy. Most have their roots deep in childhood.
How We Learn to Fear Emotional Intimacy
It's no surprise that many of our adult beliefs and behaviors are learned from our parents. When we are children, we look to our parents' examples to show us how to live in the world. These are formative years when our brains are developing and our experiences are narrow, so our parents' examples and words become key elements in determining who we become later in life.
When it comes to relationships, parental influence is even more powerful. Our relationships with our fathers and mothers are the first significant relationships we have, and they shape our understanding of relationships, especially with the opposite gender, for the rest of our lives. In fact, it has been found that the opportunity to form secure attachments to our parents during infancy and early childhood directly influences the quality of our attachments and relationships later in life. Below are some specific ways in which different parenting styles can cause us to struggle with emotional intimacy as adults.
In some cases, we learn to fear intimacy because our parents feared it, and they taught us to do the same. As children, we are helpless and look to our parents to fill our physical and emotional needs. Some parents feel overwhelmed with that neediness and respond in a harsh and punitive way. They may even shame us for showing our emotions or betraying weakness. When we are very young, we may be taught that expressions of emotion, such as tears or angry outbursts, are signs of weakness. Conditioned to such responses to emotion, we grow up out of sync with our feelings, unable to express our own emotions or empathize with those of others.
Mutual trust is the foundational building block of emotional intimacy; however, those of us who endured any form of physical or emotional abuse at the hands of parents or caregivers will find it difficult, if not impossible, to trust others. Someone we trusted for our very survival in our formative years let us down. It can be a long and difficult journey for victims of abuse to learn to trust and build healthy relationships again, but with professional help and support from loved ones, there is hope.
At the opposite extreme from the emotionally distant parent, some parents simply intrude too much into the emotional lives of their children, communicating a message of anxiety. In this case, children learn early on to disconnect from their emotions to make their parents less anxious. As adults, we may become fearful that intimacy will pull us back into a similar smothering relationship. This also happens when a parent is emotionally fragile, and the child learns to shut off his or her emotions to avoid causing the parent more distress. Over time, this becomes a learned behavior, which persists into adulthood.
If you struggle with a fear of emotional intimacy, you may not realize it until you are in a committed relationship that fails, or in which your partner expresses concerns. You may feel shocked to hear your partner say that he or she doesn't feel loved or cared about when your reality is very different. The good news is that once you accept that you struggle with emotional intimacy, you can begin to work on the problem and open yourself up to a deep and fulfilling relationship that you never imagined could be possible.
How Can I Work on Emotional Intimacy?
Here are some steps to take in overcoming your challenges in building emotional intimacy.
- Spend more time with your spouse or mate. When you take the time to truly understand your partner and build a relationship, everyone's needs will be easier to meet. The more time you spend with each other, the more time you will have to work out any issues or disagreements.
- Communicate with your partner frequently about your struggles and make sure that he or she understands why you are sometimes distant. Make sure the lines of communication go both ways.
Source: pressfoto via freepik.com
- Keep up the faith and don't give up. You may not know what happened to a loved one that caused an aversion to emotional intimacy until you spend some time getting to the bottom of the issue.
- Make sure that you are being fair to your spouse. If you have spent a lot of time together, you know what makes someone sad or happy. Try not to trigger them; instead, be patient with them. Chances are they will do the same for you.
Perhaps one of the best ways to get help is by talking to an expert. The trained counselors at Better Help are always available to aid you in navigating toward greater emotional availability and improved relationships. You can access BetterHelp's network of licensed counselors from the comfort and privacy of your own home (or wherever you have an Internet connection). Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.
"Stephanie is a gem! She's very thoughtful, thorough, honest, insightful but most of all helpful. This is coming from a person that never wanted to do counseling and just "knew" I didn't need it. She's been key in helping my wife and I find our better place. She made us grow as a couple and individually. Thanks Steph!"
You don't have to settle for a distant and disconnected relationship. All the joys of deep emotional intimacy are available to you. It just takes a little work and the right tools. Take the first step today.