Mia sat in my office in a tailspin of confusion, talking about her relationship with her partner, Anthony. “I want to feel emotionally closer and more connected to him, but maybe that’s just not realistic. I don’t even know what’s normal or reasonable to expect, anymore.”
She craved more heart-felt communication, she wished to feel more seen and celebrated, and she ached to feel the romantic tug of intentional, active love between them. But Anthony had different desires and expectations. He wanted her to “know” and “trust” in their connection without it taking so much effort to “show” her. He wanted her to feel his love expressed through his helpful deeds. And he wanted her to see that her expectations were driven by the media’s portrayal of romance, and were more fantasy than reality. Was he right, she wondered? Was she holding onto a childhood fantasy about how love should feel, and in the process destroying a “good thing” because it wasn’t living up to her expectations of a “great thing”?
In an individualistic culture that hyper-values autonomy and independence, the desire for connection is often judged as being “needy” or “dependent.” Men, in particular, are rewarded for stoicism, and the typically “feminine” soft skills for intimacy are undervalued or even deemed unhealthy. This is a sad state of affairs for everyone involved because humans are social creatures who benefit from deep relational engagement.
Emotionally intimate relationships improve our mental and physical health, increase life and relationship satisfaction, and even increase longevity. And, as an added benefit, couples who report high emotional intimacy are more likely to also report more satisfying sex lives. It’s true that real love doesn’t look like the movies. It’s true that long-term relationships don’t feel the same as start-ups. And it’s true that there is more than one way to express and show love. But it’s healthy to desire emotional intimacy, and it’s not too much to ask your partner to work at showing up for it.
If you’re anything like Mia, you may wonder how to know whether you’re imposing a romantic fantasy on your relationship, or whether it’s a wise part of you that is asking for something more. If you’ve been stuck in self-doubt, telling yourself that maybe your hopes and dreams of emotional connection are unrealistic, you may have internalized the patriarchal idea that needing and wanting connection is a sign of weakness.
Try this thought experiment. What if you saw your desire for connection as a superpower rather than a liability? How might things be different if you lived in a culture that honored expressivity over stoicism, feelings over thoughts, and inter-reliance over independence? Would that change your self-talk?
Instead of asking, “Am I asking too much?” try flipping the question and ask, “Am I asking too much of this partner?” Your desire for connection is a good thing, but not all partners are available to give it. Here are five indicators that your partner may not have developed the skills to engage in the healthy emotional connection you desire:
- Most obviously, emotionally unavailable people will have trouble sharing their inner world with you—it will be hard to lift the shade and get access to know them on a deep, emotional level. They will also have trouble making room for your emotions. While not hearing about your partner’s feelings can be hard, not having room for your own feelings can be downright stifling. If you feel like there isn’t space for your feelings to be heard and addressed, this is a red flag that your healthy desire for connection may go unmet in this relationship. For example, when you share about your feelings, does your partner listen with openness and curiosity, or shut you down with defensive or minimizing responses? When you talk about your own experiences, is your partner able to hear you out and reflect back what you are saying with reasonable accuracy and empathy, or do they only hear your feelings as criticisms of their own behaviors? If you relate to the latter, be wary. An emotionally available partner has the capacity to hear you saying that you are feeling hurt or angry and can take in and attune to your experience, rather than telling you that your feelings are wrong or hurtful.
- Our body language expresses our openness, or lack thereof, to emotional connection. Even in the midst of a difficult conversation or argument, we express our willingness to stay present and engaged by facing each other, making eye contact, and reflecting back facial expressions; in other words, if you are expressing deep sadness, an attuned partner will be looking at you with a facial expression that communicates sadness. We also express emotional availability through small, spontaneous touches, comforting cuddles, and sensual touches expressing love and desire. Touch communicates desire for and comfort with connection. If your relationship is void of these kinds of physical expressions of intimacy, you may also struggle to find emotional intimacy.
- Emotional connection takes work and an emotionally available partner shares in that responsibility. Do you find that you are the only one initiating conversations about your relationship; about needs, feelings, hurts, wishes, and conflicts within your partnership? If your partner doesn’t initiate these kinds of conversations, you may feel lucky at first. Less conflict, less mess, less drama! But in reality, it’s healthy to have feelings, needs, and conflicts in a relationship, and it takes emotional maturity and a commitment to the emotional work of a relationship to talk about them. If your partner doesn’t bring these conversations to the table, then you are left to do all the emotional heavy-lifting on your own. Over time you may find yourself being labeled as the “needy one” for having relationship “issues” you want to talk about. Emotionally available partners will be attuned to their experiences enough to identify feelings, needs, and conflicts, and will trust you and your connection enough to bring them to you.
- When someone is emotionally unavailable, it’s not about you. Oftentimes, it is the result of having been emotionally hurt or neglected in a way that makes connection seem scary and makes the skills for intimacy hard to access. As a result, when people are emotionally unavailable, it is often true across the board, not just in their relationship with you. If you feel like your partner may be emotionally unavailable, look around at their relationship landscape. Do they have emotionally intimate relationships with friends or family members, or is there a larger pattern of surface-level, emotionally distant relationships? If there’s a pattern, consider that you may be with someone who struggles with emotional availability. But if you notice that your partner seems to connect deeply with others, then maybe there are some dynamics specific to your relationship that could be addressed to open up a more satisfying emotional connection.
- A key ingredient of emotional availability is authenticity. It’s a risk to be vulnerable enough to share our authentic selves with a partner, and when we take that risk and feel lovingly received, and we feel a partner share authentically, in exchange, the emotional intimacy that results is the best reward. But without authenticity, we cannot find deep emotional intimacy. We can’t feel deeply connected if we aren’t showing up as our true selves. If you feel like you have to conceal parts of who you are to fit the relationship, or if you feel like your partner doesn’t risk showing up authentically with you, you may be with an emotionally unavailable partner. Withholding vulnerability and authenticity is a way to maintain emotional distance; for some people, this feels safer than the risky territory of authentic connection. But if you are someone who craves emotional intimacy, you are likely to feel your capacity to love and be loved stunted by this version of emotional unavailability.
So, now what? What if you find, upon reflection, that you are with an emotionally unavailable partner? I wish there was a simple “one size fits all” answer. Predictably, there is not. Sometimes you can work together to develop relational skills and deepen your emotional intimacy. Sometimes you can fill your cup with emotional intimacy outside of your partnership, and enjoy the other strengths you and your partner have, together. And sometimes it’s more aligned for you to leave the relationship and experience new frontiers of intimacy elsewhere.
The only person who can tell you what the right path is for you is you. But you won’t be able to hear your inner guidance if your intuition is being drowned out by the internalized message that you shouldn’t need the connection you crave, in the first place.
So start there. Start by honoring your desire for emotional intimacy as a sign of health and maturity. Start by thanking your heart for being open and courageous enough to seek connection. Step out of self-doubting loops and validate that your feelings are legitimate. This allows your core, the part of you that instinctively acts on behalf of growth and wellness, to take the wheel, and there is no more trustworthy driver for your journey.