Emotional Intimacy in Marriage: A Primer

emotional intimacy in marriage

When you hear the word “intimacy,” you may think of lovemaking or romantic physicality in general—two people being physically intimate with each other. (Or perhaps the concept of intimacy scares you and makes you want to run in the opposite direction…)

That image isn’t “wrong”—intimacy does represent the profound, powerful, physical connection between two people. However, in marriage or long-term relationships, it’s much more than that. It goes beyond the physical. It involves the heart and mind.

The type of intimacy we’re talking about today is emotional intimacy, and if there’s one thing you take away from this article, I hope it’s the realization that emotional intimacy in marriage is not something that exists in a vacuum, but impacts every facet of your love life. And therefore the emotional connection with your mate is so worth nurturing.

So let’s look at emotional intimacy in marriage more closely:

Like any abstract concept that deals with the complexity of human thoughts and emotions, it’s hard to pin down “emotional intimacy” with mere words. But I feel compelled to try!

First of all, emotional intimacy is not the same thing as physical intimacy (you can be physically intimate with someone while not involving your heart), and yet in a marriage or committed relationship, meaningful emotional intimacy will make physical intimacy much more fulfilling than otherwise.

Emotional intimacy in marriage lays the foundation for physical intimacy. It allows physical intimacy to grow. In essence, it allows the marriage between the heart (emotional) and the body (physical).

Sometimes people think being emotionally intimate means endless discussions about “feelings.” A lot of the men I work with in couples counseling think this, and they cringe when they say it. Sometimes a fear of emotional intimacy is based on an individual’s own definition of the term, or what they assume being emotionally intimate with their mate is “supposed to” look like.

Emotional intimacy in marriage doesn’t necessarily mean focused feeling-talk, though it may require verbal communication if that’s what one partner needs. (Couples communication is beyond the scope of a single article, but if you’re looking for help with how to effectively communicate with your partner, you can take a look at my ebook on the subject, Communication Breakthrough. Sometimes faulty communication is at the root of intimacy issues in marriage. It’s hard or impossible to nurture emotional intimacy in marriage or long-term relationships when you and your partner aren’t receiving each other’s messages.)

As I said, emotional intimacy is an abstraction (but that doesn’t mean it’s not crucial to your marriage—it is!), so it can’t be defined the way “apple” or “paper clip” or “coffee bean” can. So I think the most elucidating way of discussing this type of emotional connection will be to highlight its core tenets.

Emotional intimacy rests upon the following core tenets:

It allows you to be authentic.

We all wear “masks” throughout our lives, taking them off, putting them on, and switching them out when the situation requires it. This isn’t a bad thing, and doesn’t mean we are duplicitous creatures!

We can’t always be our authentic selves…for instance, there will be times when you’re dealing with a difficult or painful personal issue, and you will have to go to work anyway and interact with co-workers or customers. You wouldn’t dream of “unloading” everything you’re thinking and feeling with someone you just met and someone with whom you have a strictly-professional relationship.

But being emotionally intimate with your mate means you can take off all your masks and just be yourself. The real you. There’s incredible freedom in saying (metaphorically or literally), “This is me. This is exactly who I am.” In fact, that’s what many people prize about marriage more than anything else—the freedom to be your true, unmasked self in that one place in your life…authentically and unapologetically.

It allows you to feel safe.

Here’s one of the paradoxes of emotional intimacy in marriage (and perhaps marriage in general): You will likely never be more emotionally vulnerable than you are with your spouse/partner (because you aren’t wearing any self-protective masks), and you will also likely never feel safer emotionally than you feel with your mate. It is that willingness to be vulnerable that allows you to achieve a special kind of emotional safety and security that perhaps is available in no other human relationship.

Emotional security leaves you room to feel expansive happiness. When we’re not worried about being judged, we can explore ourselves and our partner in an open, uplifting way, without fear of shaming or reproach. It gives us permission to “play,” which makes for a happier life overall. This safety is at the heart of meaningful emotional connection.

With that said, there are times when we try something new (in the bedroom or otherwise) that makes us anxious and worried about being judged by our partner. (Often this fear of judgment isn’t something that our partner has fostered, but is rather something we stir up on our own—it’s the brain’s way of protecting us from potential rejection or embarrassment.) Feeling that anxiety does not mean that you’re suffering from intimacy issues in marriage or no intimacy in marriage! If you always or usually feel emotionally unsafe with your mate, there may be an intimacy problem between you.

It allows you to feel seen.

It’s one thing to give yourself the permission to be your authentic self. It’s quite another to know that your partner will see your authentic self. That s/he wants to see you fully and completely.

emotional intimacyAfter all, we’re always our authentic selves with ourselves—the measure of emotional intimacy is judged on how often our mate sees our authentic selves. We want to be seen, and we want our love to want to see us.

(And we’re not talking literal eyesight here, we’re talking about seeing and celebrating your partner’s true self, the self that most others don’t get to see.)

It’s like that mind-twisty conundrum: If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? If a human heart in relationship wants to be seen in its fullest, most authentic capacity, and the other heart can’t or doesn’t want to see it, is that true emotional intimacy?

You may have heard people say that they were never as lonely as when they were in a bad relationship (more lonely than when they were literally alone and not with any partner at all). Part of that comes from the fact that they wanted to be seen and they didn’t feel seen by their mate. That longing to be seen, and the failure to be seen can provoke extreme loneliness.

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This may go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: you can’t have emotional intimacy in marriage if you don’t trust your partner. If your partner has betrayed you in some way, or if you believe your partner is likely to betray you, your self-protective resolution will be to close yourself off from him/her. This may be the best bet for your psyche, but if it becomes the status quo in your relationship, it will prevent emotional intimacy from flourishing.

A common problem with couples dealing with the fallout of an affair is that trust has been broken, and therefore emotional intimacy is lacking. Sometimes additional help is needed to forgive and reestablish trust post-affair. Sometimes the individual’s willingness on its own isn’t enough. (I’ve worked with many couples in that position, and a section of my ebook, Hurt by the One You Love: The Power of Forgiveness in Intimate Relationships deals with just that issue.)

And another point: true emotional intimacy in marriage or committed relationships is reciprocal, meaning it goes both ways. That also feeds into trust: why would you share your deepest self with your mate if you knew s/he wasn’t planning on doing the same?

So the next time you hear the word “intimacy” in conversation, think about the multi-dimensionality of it, and especially the vital emotional component of it.

Here’s to a rich emotional connection between you and your mate!

Dr. Rich Nicastro

(Top featured image courtesy of Ohmega1982 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)