When people think of intimacy, the first thing that comes to mind is often sex. While sex can be a gratifying physical aspect of a relationship, most people also crave a different form of intimacy with their partners that can be difficult to articulate, let alone intentionally create and build within the relationship. This type of intimacy is about emotional closeness and bonding. The feeling of being emotionally intimate with someone occurs when you believe that a person deeply knows, understands, and accepts you for being who you really are. It’s a significant contributor to what creates the warm, fuzzy feeling we call love.
As much as we crave emotional intimacy, most people are never taught how to intentionally build it into their relationships. If you didn't learn it from your family while growing up, you likely fumble your way through relationship after relationship, often wondering where you are going wrong. An emotionally intimate relationship is something that two people are responsible for creating together. It requires that both people offer a safe space for the other, so that each feels comfortable being vulnerable enough to show who they really are.
Below are some specific steps you can take to help build a safe space for your partner while also learning to be more vulnerable.
How to build a safe space for your partner:
1. Be respectful and trustworthy. While respect and trust are not exactly the same thing, they are intricately linked, and without either of these, it is impossible to create a safe space. Respect demonstrates that you care about how the other person feels, and that you view them from your perspective with regard and value. You show that you respect someone by how you treat them. If you are ever in doubt about what is respectful behavior, start with asking yourself how you would like to be treated in the same situation. If the situation is hard to relate to, try asking your partner directly how they would like to be treated. Treating someone with respect is required if you want them to trust you.
2. Be supportive. Life is full of lots of ups and downs; one of the things that makes this bearable is having the support of people who love us. Being supportive doesn’t mean solving the other person’s problems, but rather letting them know that you are on their side and have their best interest at heart. It means letting them know you care about what they are going through. Often, offering to solve the problem can backfire, because the other person can feel criticized or think you are telling them that they aren't handling a situation correctly. Most of the time, just listening and helping to validate their experience is all that is needed to show your support. Remember, people crave to be heard and understood.
3. Be curious. Getting to know your partner sounds like an obvious part of being in a relationship, but people who have difficulty with emotional intimacy often keep their distance by not asking many questions. Creating a safe space, however, requires that you show your partner that you care about knowing who they really are. This "getting to know you" process doesn’t just happen on the first few dates. It’s normal to think that once you’ve been with someone a while you know who they are, but once you stop asking questions and being curious about your partner, you start to make assumptions and are in the danger zone of taking them for granted. While you don’t need to fire off 20 questions every time you see them, it is important to demonstrate that you are thinking about who they are as a person in their time when they aren’t with you. Ask their opinion, ask how they feel, ask about what they want most in life, ask about their job, their childhood, etc., their relationship with their parents, their friends, their past relationships with others. If you don’t care about these things, then chances are, you don’t genuinely care about them.
Creating a safe space is only half of the work. The other half, which involves being vulnerable, is often the more difficult part for most people. Being vulnerable feels like you are exposing yourself, and it’s what opens you up most to the possibility of being hurt, but it is also what allows someone to get to know the real you and develop that sense of closeness.
How to be more vulnerable:
1. Accept yourself. The idea of accepting yourself might sound like a tall order, but the reality is if you don’t like who you are, you certainly aren’t going to want to show those parts of you to someone else, especially someone you are afraid might reject you. You will put up barriers and engage in self-sabotaging behaviors that will prevent you from having the close emotional bond you are seeking. Learning to accept yourself starts with learning to be more self-compassionate. I highly recommend the book Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff as a way to train yourself into a more self-loving mindset. A chapter a week will alter your view on yourself in a few short months. (To learn how to silence your inner critic, click here. For a simple 30-day exercise that trains your attention to focus on your positive qualities, click here.)
2. Express yourself. Expressing yourself means telling people what you really think and feel. When you open up, it can be anxiety provoking, because you feel vulnerable to your partner’s criticism and/or judgement. But when you aren’t authentic about your emotions in a relationship, you can create an awkward distance that can push someone else away. The best way to get better at this is to practice in non-threatening situations and with people you are less close to. Start by saying the words “I feel____” out loud, while looking at yourself in the mirror. Don’t justify the feeling by saying why you feel a certain way — that usually involves blaming a situation or someone else. Just own the emotion without explaining it. It’s harder than it sounds. Then practice telling the people you encounter throughout the day how you feel. When the person taking your coffee order asks, “How are you?” instead of saying “fine,” as we are all conditioned to do, tell them how you really feel. I feel pretty good today, or I feel annoyed at the traffic. Work the words “I feel” into as many conversations as you can during the day. After a week or two, try it out with your partner. Sharing your emotions, without making someone else responsible for how you feel, is the foundational basis of creating an emotional connection.
3. Trust yourself. Learning to be more vulnerable doesn’t have to be scary if you trust yourself to take care of you. Trust yourself to listen to your inner voice, which is always there, giving you feedback about whether a particular situation is in your best interest and telling you when something doesn’t feel right. Trust yourself not to hide your feelings, trust yourself to make sure your needs are met, and trust yourself to know that you won’t lose your sense of self-identity just because you are creating a close bond with someone else. Trust yourself to know that if the relationship doesn’t end up working for some reason, you will be able to leave and still be a wholly functioning individual. When you trust yourself, being vulnerable isn’t scary — it is liberating. If finding this kind of trust in yourself seems very difficult on your own, you may wish to work with a professional who can help you learn how to do this.
Finding a great relationship isn’t about swiping right or left until you stumble upon it. Building an emotionally intimate relationship is a process that takes time and work, but it is one of the most rewarding aspects of life and well worth the effort.