What do you think of when you contemplate being intimate with your partner? Many would answer ‘sex’ or some variation on that theme. But romance researchers tend to look more broadly at intimacy than that, and with good reason. Good sex in long-term relationships rests upon a deeper, more full connection than ‘just’ sex, cuddling or romance. One useful model for thinking about what generates strong intimacy between partners has been put forward by Solomon and Teagno of the Relationship Institute. In this model, there are three types of intimacy – self intimacy, conflict intimacy and affection intimacy. Couples who ‘gain maturity’ in all three, and particularly in conflict intimacy, are likely to feel the most intimate and satisfied with their relationship.
Self intimacy is about being aware of your own feelings, caring about those feelings, and sharing them with your partner.
Conflict intimacy is about learning how to interact – even around the most difficult topics - without aggression or without being defensive. In essence, being able to disagree constructively and with acceptance and love, even if you don’t even understand how your partner got to where s/he did.
Affection intimacy includes verbal, sexual, non-sexual physical and active expressions of love. This is what most people think of as being intimate.
I, for one, would love to be able to just jump into affection intimacy. But self-intimacy is the foundation of all of it. If you are not in touch with your own feelings, and not able to share them, you will have trouble addressing those feelings for yourself (thus maintaining good mental health), and have trouble sharing your feelings with your partner. Your partner will, in essence, have difficulty getting to fully know you and respond to you in the appropriate and loving ways you both long for.
Self-intimacy, and the sharing of your feelings it implies, isn’t just about being verbal. Some people are better at expressing themselves non-verbally. But whether you are a verbal or non-verbal communicator, being in touch with your own feelings on a regular basis helps you thrive with your partner over the long-term.
I work specifically with couples impacted by adult ADHD, so I have to add here that self-intimacy skills can be a particular issue for couples impacted by ADHD. Some research suggests that those with ADHD are less self-aware than the population in general. So some ADDers may find that they must try extra-hard to assess and express their feelings. This can be particularly true for men with ADHD, who may have grown up – as have many non-ADHD men - in a family or group that imposes a ‘real men don’t talk about their feelings’ attitude, compounding the issue.
Happily, being in touch with one’s feelings is like a muscle that can be developed with practice by anyone. One way to do so (suggested by Solomon & Teagno and others) is to set yourself the assignment of stopping several times a day and asking yourself “how am I feeling right now?” The list of emotions words at my website can help you isolate more precise language to describe your feelings. “Angry,” for example, is not as clear a description as ‘worthless,’ ‘overwhelmed’ or ‘helpless,’ any of which might underlie feelings of anger. These ‘underneath’ words are very helpful in determining how to respond to the emotion, both for the person feeling the emotion and for his or her partner, should that emotion be shared.
Taking just a few minutes 3 times a day for several weeks to isolate and describe your feelings can significantly build your self intimacy ‘muscle.’
The next issue, of course, is making sure that one’s partner is ready to hear about your feelings. For that, the receiving partner needs to focus on neutral listening. I hear far too many partners (particularly frustrated women who have developed a habit of critiquing or ‘educating’ their partners) say they want to hear how their partner feels, only to immediately shut him or her down with judgmental, negative, or topic-changing responses as soon as these same partners open up. This usually isn’t intentional. It’s easy to think that you are just sharing your opinion with your partner when, in fact, that opinion carries with it an unintended critique or put down. Here, for example, are several ways to shut down one possible comment:
Struggling partner: “I’m feeling really overwhelmed right now.”
Some ‘shut down’ responses:
“You always get overwhelmed so easily” (judgmental)
“You shouldn’t be, what you are doing is pretty easy” (criticism and negation of statement)
“I understand you are feeling shut down, but that leaves me in the lurch” (didn’t really hear the original statement…adds to the overwhelm with additional burden instead of responding compassionately)
Perhaps surprisingly, responses to emotional revelations don’t have to be positive in tone. Marriage researcher, John Gottman, suggests that neutral responses can result in just as healthy a relationship as positive ones.
Whether positive or neutral, how you hear and respond to your partner’s expressions of self-intimacy is, of course, the start of ‘conflict intimacy’ – interactions around emotional issues. Self intimacy and conflict intimacy are quite entwined. And conflict intimacy is actually where sex and affection usually break down over the long-haul.
Ultimately, the process of developing and maintaining intimacy looks something like this:
You can see how each ‘step’ builds upon the previous one.
So, if you are looking to improve the intimacy you feel with your partner, it’s best to start with building your self intimacy ‘muscle.’ And, of course, since we are talking about relationships here, both partners need to stay focused on creating an environment in which their expressions of emotions can be received in either a neutral or positive manner. Done right, these things lead to the affection intimacy – and yes, the long-term sexual closeness you probably seek.