Self-Connection Is the Foundation for Emotional Intimacy

emotional intimacy

When you think of how to spice up your marriage or relationship, when you desire deeper emotional and sexual intimacy with your partner, do you ever consider the relationship you have with yourself as the starting point?

Many of us don’t, and this is a mistake.

Let’s look at why our relationship with ourselves (self-intimacy or self-connection) is where the potential for sexual and emotional intimacy with our partner starts.

The journey into adulthood consists of twists and turns and emotional bumps and bruises, even under the best of familial conditions. It is the relationships we are born into and the ones we later co-create throughout our lives that profoundly shape this journey—on the plus side, our relationships steer us, giving direction, mirroring and supporting our natural inclinations while challenging us to reach beyond the thresholds that define us. On the negative side, certain relationships are a mismatch between what we truly needed as children and what was offered. In these instances, our unfolding self-experiences and potentials went unseen or worse—this negative parental reaction can run the gamut from silence or a pulling away from the child to overt anger, disgust or even abuse.

During such mismatches (especially those that are chronic), the child learns to contort her/his emerging self into the caregivers’ version of who s/he should be.

These types of early relational disconnects (the emotional mis-attunements between our emerging self and the predominant responses of our caregivers) have the potential to generate a type of self-segregation were the self-experiences that created the relational rift become cordoned off (metaphorically, they go underground or are split off from the rest of the self). This occurs as the child learns which kinds of self expression lead to an adverse reaction in the caregiver; and since as children we so desperately need our caregivers, we will find ways to internally shape ourselves in order to maintain this vital relational connection to the other.

The Beginnings of Self-Judgment and Self-Deception

When empathic failures become the norm, surpassing moments of emotional resonance in number and scope; when the child’s needs continuously go unnoticed or are supplanted by the needs of his/her caregivers; when traumas overtake and shatter the child’s emotional core…under these and similar relational conditions, the child is forced to forgo him/herself by disconnecting from his/her own internal world, a world consisting of unmet needs, longings and desires.

Why would a child slowly dislodge herself from her own inner world of feelings, needs and desires, even when faced with unresponsive or chronically mis-attuned parenting?

A double bind is created when the child discovers that his emotional life evokes a negative reaction in the caregiver. In these instances the child learns that authentic expression is the very thing that derails the emotional connection s/he requires from his/her caregiver. So to acknowledge and remain connected to these inner experiences—the very experiences that appear to upset or push the other away—is to remain connected to the darkest aspects of oneself (i.e., the parts of me that are unwanted by the other).

The positive and negative dynamics that play out between the child and caregiver may at some point get internalized and play out within the self—in other words, you may start to react to your own self-experiences in a fashion similar to the ways in which your caregivers reacted. For instance, you may minimize or turn away from certain feelings; or you may move into self-loathing for simply having needs that make you vulnerable, a vulnerability that was judged by someone you looked up to.

Why Self-Connection Is the Foundation of Emotional Intimacy and Sexual Intimacy

Intimacy (whether sexual or emotional intimacy) involves the ability to be open and accepting of the other. Deep and authentic connection occurs along psychological pathways that are clear of emotional debris, a pathway that allows you to see the other clearly rather than distorted by your own hang-ups and emotional conflicts. To be intimate is to meet and make contact with the other’s rich and varied internal world, even when this world creates discomfort within you.

But how can you remain open to the other when you remain closed off, in some fashion, to your own emotional landscape?

Let’s look at an example to clarify this issue:

Samuel readily recalls disappointing his father as a child. “He used to call me ’emotional’ in this condescending way. Sometimes it was subtle, but at other times it felt like he didn’t really like me whenever I was upset about something.” Samuel’s father had a very difficult time tolerating his son’s emotional vulnerability, a vulnerability that was expressed through sadness and tearfulness whenever Samuel felt ostracized and picked on by his peers. So in order to “please” his father, Samuel learned to hide feelings of vulnerability, first from his father, and then, over time, from himself as well.

In order to disown our own vulnerability, we must cast a wide emotional net that also compromises our ability to be compassionate and empathic to ourselves and others. After all, how can we remain open and attuned to experiences in our partner that resemble the very experiences we hide from within ourselves? In short, we can’t.

So whenever Samuel’s wife Terri expressed certain insecurities about being accepted by her peers at work or fears that their son was being bullied at school, Samuel quickly shut down emotionally which immediately broke the empathic bridge between him and his wife. He closed off the very psychological pathways needed for emotional intimacy to flourish. His lack of self-intimacy (self-acceptance and self-connection) was the hurdle to the intimacy in their relationship.

This pattern also expressed itself in the bedroom. Early on in their sexual history, Samuel became so overcome by the strong emotional connection he felt with Terri while making love that on one occasion he started to cry. She loved that he was able to be so sensitive, and she held him during this intense emotional experience. But her loving acceptance wasn’t enough to quiet his internal judge, a harsh voice that reached all the way back to his relationship with his father, a voice that had now become Samuel’s own. So rather than remain emotionally vulnerable and open during sex (a vulnerability that had the potential to enhance emotional and sexual intimacy with his wife), Samuel remained somewhat emotionally distant during sex. He had trouble looking into his wife’s eyes whenever they made love (a very intimate act requires openness and vulnerability), and while sex was physically pleasurable to Samuel, it did not fill the emotional void that plagued him (a void that arose from his lack of self-connection).

Samuel’s internal reaction to his own vulnerability (which consisted of flashes of self-loathing as well as physical discomfort and anxiety) caused him to turn away from this vital part of himself, a part that offered his relationship the ingredients needed for both sexual intimacy and emotional connection.

We all have parts of ourselves, self-experiences, particular emotions and reactions that make us uneasy—the parts of ourselves that we deny, turn away from and/or judge/attack. This relationship to parts of yourself can be so automatic that you aren’t even aware it is occurring. So instead of being able to watch the process as it unfolds, you might just feel the end result of these internal interactions with yourself (the end result might be feeling disconnected or lonely or depressed or anxious…).

So if you are looking for greater emotional and sexual fulfillment in your marriage or relationship; if it feels like intimacy between you and your partner is occurring mainly at a superficial level, a good starting point to overcoming these intimacy obstacles might be looking inward and developing a more intimate relationship with yourself (with the full range of experiences and feelings that make up the multi-layered person that you are).

(Featured [top] image Lady with Reflection” by Adamr/