The Challenges Of Emotional Intimacy
Updated December 20, 2018
Reviewer Laura Angers
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 probably be promoted to CEO eventually. Also, 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. But 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 just shuts down completely. Worst of all, he never shares his feelings either, not even his feelings for you, making you feel rejected and excluded from his life.
Is this you? 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. But whenever you try to do that, she shuts you down, giving you the excuse that she's too busy. If you insist, she even gets a little bit frustrated. "What do you want from me?" she says. And 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 within them?
If so, you may be experiencing a fear of emotional intimacy, either your own or that of your partner.
What Is Emotional Intimacy And Why Do We Need It?
When we hear the word "intimacy," most of us think of sex.
But 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 one another. They can share their deepest feelings without fear of criticism or ridicule. They feel secure that the other person is truly their best friend, with whom they can share all their secrets.
And neither the rejected girlfriend or the rebuffed husband in the above scenarios are wrong for desiring emotional intimacy with their partners. We all need it. 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. But 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, to joke around, and to laugh. Spontaneous fun and laughter have key health benefits too, decreasing stress, elevating mood, and boosting your immune system.
For these and many other reasons, humans are hard-wired to seek out and to build emotional intimacy within their relationships.
Sadly, many adults find that they lack the tools to connect with others at that deeper level necessary to establish emotional intimacy.
Their partners can find themselves constantly thwarted in their attempts to achieve it, and they end up feeling rejected and excluded. This can be very painful and frustrating. It's difficult not to take it personally when a partner (or a potential partner) consistently shoots down your efforts to establish emotional intimacy with him or her.
But if you're the partner in this situation, rest assured that it has absolutely nothing to do with you.
There are a variety of reasons why someone may enter adulthood with a crippling fear of emotional intimacy. Most of these 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 and how to relate to it. These are formative years when our brains are developing, and our experiences are narrow, so our parents' examples and their 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 is the first relationship of significance that we ever have, and they shape our understanding of relationships, especially concerning opposite genders, for the rest of our lives. Even more importantly, it has been found that the opportunity to form secure attachments to our parents during infancy and early childhood directly impacts the quality of our attachments and relationships later in life.
Here are some specific ways in which different parenting styles can cause us to struggle with emotional intimacy as adults.
"You should be ashamed…"
In some cases, we learn to fear intimacy because our parents feared it, and 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 emotions (such as tears or angry outbursts) are signs of weakness and reasons for shame. Conditioned to such a response to emotion, we grow up completely out of sync with feelings of any kind, unable to express our own emotions or empathize with those of other people.
A Matter Of Trust
Mutual trust is the foundational building block of any emotional intimacy; however, those of us who endured any form of physical or emotional abuse at the hands of parents or caregivers find it difficult, if not impossible, to trust others.
That's because the person we trusted the most in our formative years for our basic needs let us down.
It can be a long and difficult journey for victims of abuse to learn to trust and to build healthy relationships again, but with professional help and with support from loved ones, they can do it.
"Don't Smother Me!"
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 parent less anxious. As an adult, we might become fearful that intimacy might pull us back into a similar smothering relationship. This also happens in cases where 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.
Surmounting The 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. You may feel shocked to hear your partner express that he or she doesn't feel loved or cared about when your reality is very different.
The good news is that once you have accepted 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.
Here are some steps to take in overcoming your challenges in building emotional intimacy.
- Learn how to label and assert your emotions using "I" statements. ("I feel scared," "I feel overwhelmed," etc.).
- Communicate with your partner frequently about your struggles and make sure that he or she understands why you are so distant and does not take it personally.
- Check in with people from time to time about how they're feeling. Paraphrase your understanding of their emotions back to them to make sure that your understanding is accurate.
- Take "baby steps." Go easy on yourself and realize that it took you a long time to learn these behaviors, so it will also take you a long time to "unlearn" them.
- Get help if necessary by talking to an expert. Our trained counselors at Better Help are always available to help you navigate towards greater emotional availability and improved relationships.
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 a lot of understanding.