- Healthy intimate relationships are a promoting factor for social support, emotional and physical well-being, and emotional regulation.
- Behavioral patterns, like criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, can corrode intimacy.
- Pay attention to how you express your needs, genuinely apologize, and listen to your partner's bids for connection.
It is no coincidence that the renowned developmental psychologist Erik Erikson identified the ability to form intimate relationships as the pivotal task of young adulthood. Healthy intimate relationships have been shown to serve as a promoting factor for social support, emotional and physical well-being, emotional regulation (Horn et al., 2018), and even positive health outcomes (Reis & Franks, 1994).
It is important, then, to learn about what behaviors foster or weaken feelings of intimacy in our close relationships. And, as any couples therapist will tell you, there are a number of habitual ways of interacting that may subtly but chronically corrode intimacy. Much has been written about the more obvious relational patterns discovered by John Gottman and named the Four Horsemen of the (Relationship) Apocalypse: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling (Gotman, 1995). There are, however, more subtle and even unconsciously-motivated relationship behaviors that can, over time, result in reduced intimacy, increased relational distress, and feelings of isolation.
1. Not expressing your needs. For many of us, especially those who may have grown up in difficult environments, expressing our needs can feel scary. You may worry that your partner will be burdened or overwhelmed by your needs or that they may reject you once you express them. However, holding back creates a dynamic that, on the one hand, leaves your partner out of your inner life and, on the other, implicitly teaches you that you are not worth having your needs met. Gradually, such a pattern of relating erodes intimacy and creates more emotional distance between people.
2. Not apologizing genuinely (or at all). Apologizing properly is an acquired skill for most, and especially for those of us who may have grown up in families where the adults did not apologize to each other. A genuine apology is both healing for your relationship and confirms a deeper truth about human nature—that we can all make mistakes.
Owning up to ours and apologizing without excuses, rationalizations, or explanations signals to our partners that we are willing to face the difficult emotions that come with being accountable. It also models for them that it is ok to mess up as long as one is willing to genuinely do the work of repairing after. When we fail to do so, it is as if we are saying to our partners that they cannot trust in our integrity.
3. Redirecting when your partner expresses a concern. Pay attention if any of these lines sound familiar: "I don’t know why this bothers you. It doesn't bother me when you do it" or "Oh yeah?! Well, I may do X, but you do Y, and that annoys me?!"
When expressing concerns, we inherently wish to be heard and elicit change in our relationships. In their essence, much as they may feel uncomfortable, our partners’ attempts to approach us with a request or an issue is their way of fighting for the relationship and opting to try to reduce negative emotion.
If you meet your partner’s requests to discuss some of your behaviors or patterns by redirecting to theirs, you risk leaving them feeling unheard and lonely. In turn, this may discourage constructive discussions in the future or squash their desire to approach you, which further erodes intimacy.
4. Failing to recognize and reciprocate bids for connection. Imagine the following scenario: You come home from work tired and distracted. Your partner has been waiting for you, maybe they are excited to see you, or perhaps they want to plan something with you. So, they ask if you want to go out to dinner on Friday or perhaps for a hike over the weekend. You are so exhausted that you cannot think about it right then. What do you do? Do you say, “You know what, I don’t know right now; I can’t make a decision”? Or perhaps, “You know I am really tired and need to rest. Let’s talk about it later.”
While those responses may feel true, they also leave your partner (and their enthusiasm for spending time with you) hanging. You do not have to agree to what they are offering or make a commitment. However, responding to a concrete request with a vague answer could create distance and may hurt intimacy.
What your partner did in asking you to do something together is extend a bid for intimacy. They are saying, “Hey, I miss you. I yearn to spend time with you. Do you feel the same?” Failing to recognize or respond to it in a way that fosters connection can send a message that you are not interested in them and further undermine the relationship.
Why Fostering Intimacy Is So Important
With the emerging work in research focused on integrating psychological and neurobiological science, researchers have also been able to better explain what John Bowlby discovered a long time ago in his work with orphans–that positive attachment is crucial for our development and psychological health. Namely, oxytocin–called the connection hormone–has been found to lower the risk of developing PTSD after exposure to traumatic events (Frijling, 2017). Oxytocin regulates immune function by performing an antibiotic-like function, promoting the healing of wounds and tissue regeneration, and inhibiting inflammation and stress-related immune disorders (Li, Wang, Wang, & Wang, 2017). The hormone largely produced when we feel connected appears to literally physically heal us from within. For concrete steps to foster intimacy in your relationship, head over to 5 Easy Communication Tweaks That Can Increase Intimacy.
Facebook image: TimeImage Production/Shutterstock
Horn, A., Samson, A., Debrot, A., & Perrez, M. (2018). Positive humor in couples as interpersonal emotion regulation: A dyadic study in everyday life on the mediating role of psychological intimacy. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36(8), 1-21.
Reis, H. T., & Franks, P. (1994). The role of intimacy and social support in health outcomes: Two processes or one? Personal Relationships, 1(2), 185–197. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6811.1994.tb00061.x
Gottman, J. (1995). Why marriages succeed or fail. New York: SImon & Schuster.
Li, T., Wang, P., Wang, S. & Wang. Y. (2017). Approaches mediating oxytocin regulation of the immune system. Frontiers in Immunology, 7. 693.
Frijling, J. (2017). Preventing PTSD with oxytocin: effects of oxytocin administration on fear neurocircuitry and PTSD symptom development in recently trauma-exposed individuals. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 8(1), DOI: 10.1080/20008198.2017.1302652