The Challenges Of Emotional Intimacy

By Ashley Brown|Updated March 29, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Laura Angers, NCC, LPC

When we hear the word intimacy, most of us think of sex. However, emotional intimacy and sexual intimacy, although not mutually exclusive, are distinct 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. Commitment and companionship are two of the top reasons people get married.

Do You Feel Like You Struggle With Emotional Intimacy More Than Others?

 

Examples Of Emotional Intimacy Issues

You strike up a friendship with a charming acquaintance. They're a successful employee, quickly rising in the ranks, and will likely be promoted to an executive position. They're very popular, and everyone likes them. The two of you begin flirting, and a romance develops. They're attentive, and you always have a great time together.

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 they don't seem to notice or care. It also seems that every time you share your feelings, especially your feelings of affection for them, they either turn it into a joke or shut it down completely. Worst of all, they never share their feelings, not even their feelings for you, making you feel rejected and excluded from their life.

Here's Another Scenario That Might Be Familiar

You and your partner 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 you don't know everything about them. You talk about children, schedules, and finances, but sometimes you'd like to talk about deeper things: your hopes, your dreams, your fears. However, whenever you try to do that, they shut you down, giving you the excuse that they're too busy. If you insist, they get a bit frustrated. "What do you want from me?" they say.

Moreover, you're not sure how to answer. You know that even though they're your partner, you feel disconnected. Even though you live in the same house, you often feel like they're 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 of the partners who feel rejected in the above scenarios is wrong for desiring emotional intimacy with their partners. We all need it.

 

Benefits Of Emotional Intimacy

Here are some of the essential benefits of achieving emotional intimacy in a relationship.

 

  1. Physical and emotional safety. We can trust someone to help us in our most vulnerable moments.
  2. 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.
  3. Being alone will not hurt you, but loneliness has harmful consequences, from depression to heart disease. A deep connection with another person can shield you from loneliness.
  4. Fewer disappointments. When you have a deep connection with your partner, you intimately understand their failings and limitations. Realistic expectations ensure that neither party feels disappointed in the other.
  5. 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.

Humans are hardwired to seek out emotional intimacy within their relationships for many other reasons. Sadly, many adults 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 various 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 develop, 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. They shape our understanding of relationships, especially with the opposite gender, for the rest of our lives. 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 different parenting styles can cause us to struggle with emotional intimacy as adults.

Shame

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 harshly and punitively. 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 emotional responses, we grow up out of sync with our feelings, unable to express our own emotions or empathize with others.

Trust

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.

Do You Feel Like You Struggle With Emotional Intimacy More Than Others?

 

It can be a long and difficult journey for people who have been abused to learn to trust and build healthy relationships again, but with professional help and support from loved ones, there is hope.

If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or Text "START" to 88788. You can also use the online chat

Smothering

At the opposite extreme from the emotionally distant parent, some parents intrude too much into the emotional lives of their children, communicating a message of anxiety. In this case, children learn to disconnect from their emotions early on 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 their emotions to avoid causing the parent more distress. Over time, this becomes a learned behavior, which persists into adulthood.

Obstacles

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. When your reality is very different, you may feel shocked to hear your partner say that they don't feel loved or cared about.

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 overcome your challenges in building emotional intimacy.

  1. Spend more time with your partner. When you take the time to understand your partner and build a relationship truly, 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.
  2. Please communicate with your partner frequently about your struggles and make sure that they understand why you are sometimes distant. Make sure the lines of communication go both ways.

3. 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.

4. Make sure that you are being fair to your partner. If you have spent a lot of time together, you know what makes someone sad or happy. Try not to irritate 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 talking to an expert. The trained counselors at BetterHelp 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.

"Jodi has been of great help and has helped me work on a few different aspects of my life. I've struggled with intimacy-related issues that have caused my self-esteem to dip, as well as career path anxiety. He's been a great help in guiding me to feel better about everything, which has allowed me to improve and get better. I'll be coming back to him in the future if needed."

"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 me find our better place. She made us grow as a couple and individually. Thanks, Steph!"

Conclusion

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.

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