In many couples, despite partners who go through the motions of making outward displays of relationship perfection, there are real doubts and cracks beneath the surface. When a sense of psychological distance or insecurity creep into a relationship, it is often a sign that emotional intimacy is suffering.
Emotional intimacy is different than sexual attraction, excitement, infatuation, or even love. It refers to a level of closeness that takes time to develop. It requires comfort, communication, and authenticity. It requires feeling understood and accepted for who you are. Perhaps above all, it requires trust in order to flourish. And you can't buy emotional intimacy with regular date nights or forced conversations.
Here are six signs that the emotional intimacy in your relationship could use a boost:
Sometimes trust is broken suddenly, like when you discover a betrayal or catch a partner in a lie. Other times, it wears away gradually and you may not even realize it. You may have urges to check your partner's phone, or find yourself silently doubting where they say they are going. However it occurs, when trust is lacking, it erodes emotional intimacy in a variety of ways, and comfort and predictability are lost, causing stress. The ability to count on someone through thick and thin has disappeared. Your mind may start working overtime, constantly wondering what you don't know, emphasizing the distance and distress between you—which typically grows worse and worse without intervention over time.
Different couples share different levels of detail about their daily lives with each other, and that's okay. Maybe the ins-and-outs of your grooming rituals are not meant to be the stuff of dinner conversation. But when you find yourself regularly keeping meaningful things to yourself, in an active, deliberate way, that's a problem. Maybe it's because of embarrassment or fear, or of worrying that the other person wouldn't love you as much if they knew the "real" you. But keeping safe in this way prevents you from enjoying a high level of emotional intimacy.
Every couple goes through times where one partner or the other feels a bit like they're being heard but not listened to, or that the other is distracted and perhaps not as up-to-date on their daily life as they would like. But when such a situation grows chronic, it can lead not only to disagreements but to a flat-out disconnect, even if things are peaceful on the surface. Maybe you find yourself frequently baffled by assumptions that your partner makes about your hopes, fears, or desires. Maybe you feel judged or unable to make your voice heard. Either way, it's the opposite of feeling like your partner really gets you, and it's a problem.
In any relationship, the couple consists of two individuals. Those individuals can be expected to grow and change over the course of their lives together: This is good not just for themselves, but for the relationship. But ideally, growth and change happen with understanding, communication, and transparency within the couple. When one person experiences a sudden or severe change in temperament, social life, spending habits, or life goals, there is no sense of both parts of the couple being along for the ride together. This can often drive a wedge between partners, leaving one feeling like they're in a relationship with a stranger.
Even the closest relationships can occasionally get stuck in a holding pattern. When other responsibilities get particularly stressful, it is not uncommon to go through phases where conversations with your partner don't seem to get deeper than daily itineraries and logistics. This makes long-term partners feel like roommates. But more problematic is a longer-lasting feeling of drudgery, of not knowing your partner on a level deeper than whether he or she is picking up the dry cleaning that day.
Yes, the dirty-socks-on-the-floor trope teaches us that most couples have housekeeping pet peeves or occasional friction about habits when living together. But a serious threat to emotional intimacy arises when, instead of discussing and resolving (most of) these annoyances as they come up, one partner just starts silently seething about them. Stonewalling and keeping mum about things that are bothering you about your partner, or being passive-aggressive when frustrated instead of openly discussing the real issue, can be a death blow to emotional intimacy—much more potent than the smelly socks that started it in the first place.
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Andrea Bonior, Ph.D. is a speaker and licensed clinical psychologist. She is the author of the upcoming book Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World, and The Friendship Fix, and serves on the faculty of Georgetown University. Her mental health advice column, Baggage Check, has appeared in the Washington Post Express for more than 11 years. She speaks to audiences large and small about relationships, work-life balance, and goal-setting, and she is a TV commentator about psychological issues. Follow her on Twitter or on Facebook.