One perk of bring in a committed relationship is feeling truly connected with your partner. Not only do you share a life but the knowledge that no one understands you better. But over time, the emotional intimacy you share with your partner can be compromised, leaving your relationship vulnerable.
So, how can you maintain that intimacy in the long-term, or get it back when it has begun to erode? Here, relationship experts share their insights.
“In a romantic relationship, emotional intimacy is a willingness and ability to connect with your partner at an emotional level,” says Lyn Fletcher, director of operations at Relationships Australia NSW. “It’s about knowing more about your partner than most other people would – understanding their feelings, fears and dreams, their strengths and weaknesses, and being vulnerable enough to share these things about yourself with them. This involves a level of trust – trusting him and demonstrating your trustworthiness – that can only be developed over time. If a relationship is to survive, a level of emotional intimacy is important.”
Emotional intimacy is also important for a satisfying sex life. “The best way to have better sex with someone is to know how to connect with them,” explains relationship expert Dr Nikki Goldstein.
“Many people only discover the importance of emotional intimacy when sex becomes a problem, and they realise that sexual pleasure can be heightened when they unlock that key about connecting and being vulnerable.”
The stresses and demands of everyday life are most often to blame for lost intimacy, says Fletcher. “Emotional intimacy requires quality-connected time and, of course, that’s going to suffer with life commitments such as raising children and work,” she explains. “Not having time or not making time for each other and falling out of sync can damage emotional intimacy, as can not sharing what’s going on for you in everyday life.”
More relationships, she points out, are damaged by an erosion of trust rather than a breaking of trust, such as infidelity or major conflict.
“It can be upsetting to look to your partner for reassurance or connection and they don’t respond to you or trivialise your needs,” says Fletcher. “You can start building up a wall to protect yourself, making it harder to regain intimacy over time.”
“When people are feeling hurt, sometimes the easiest way to deal with that is to just switch off and go along with those emotions,” adds Goldstein. “This can be confusing for your partner who might not understand why you’ve become so detached. You might not even be aware that you’re still holding onto something that’s keeping you disconnected from your partner, until you start doing a little self-work.”
Familiarity can also cause an erosion of emotional intimacy in a long-term relationship. “We’re usually very good at sharing our feelings and desires in the beginning of a relationship because we’re very eager to get to know our partner,” Goldstein continues, “but, as we go on through life, we can start to think, ‘I don’t want to burden my partner or criticise them or hurt their feelings’, so we stop telling them what’s on our mind. The danger here is we can start acting out because we’re unsatisfied, undermining emotional intimacy.”
For many of us, the ghosts of bad relationships or experiences can chip away at emotional intimacy. The two most common fears include being rejected or losing a sense of oneself.
“All of us have defence mechanisms that we use to protect ourselves from being hurt in relationships, so self-awareness is important,” explains Fletcher. “Ask yourself, ‘Is it a reasonable fear or an unreasonable fear?’ and work through seeing your defences for what they are – necessary in some circumstances but harmful in others. It’s worth getting some professional help if you can’t make sense of your fears alone.”
Goldstein says many people fear intimacy because they don’t really know how to express it or what it means for their partner. “Everyone has a different definition of what emotional intimacy is, which is why it’s useful for couples to take a closer look at how their families expressed intimacy and affection growing up,” she explains.
“For instance, your need for sharing and caring might be higher is you come from a more demonstrative family. Your partner, on the other hand, who came from a less demonstrative family, might believe he’s meeting your intimacy expectations. Having a conversation about what intimacy means for both of you can lift the burden off your shoulders.”
Bit by bit, says Fletcher. “Emotional intimacy isn’t something that can be fabricated,” she says. “And you can’t expect that setting up a candlelit dinner will instantly restore it to your relationship. As intimacy usually gets eroded over time, it needs to be built up again piece by piece.”
Start by creating opportunities for emotional connection.
“Where on your list of priorities is your relationship?” asks Goldstein. “If it’s last on your list, then you’ve got a problem. People talk about scheduling sex, but it’s not sex you schedule but time together. Schedule couple time in the diary that’s as important as your other commitments.”
Also, don’t overlook those small, everyday acts of kindness because they count but often get lost in married life. “Relationships are all about pleasing each other, so do things you know your partner likes,” says Fletcher. “Be affectionate, appreciate each other’s efforts and acknowledge your importance to one another. And when you share an intimate moment, savour it.”
It’s also important to own your feelings, rather than play the blame game, she adds. “Letting your partner know how you feel is a form of intimacy in itself. The key is to be open about what you’re feeling in a non-blaming way and to simply ask for what you want, rather than getting into the intimacy-deflating habit of dumping a load of stuff onto him.”
If all else fails, go outside of your comfort zone. “The emotional intimacy early in a relationship is because of the unknown in the other person,” says Fletcher. “And it does require effort to keep that sense of wonder alive in a long-term relationship. If things are a little stale, it’s time to do things differently. Find a new ‘favourite’ restaurant or try a different place to holiday. Add that freshness.”
- Start the day with a kiss. “It’s not so much a matter of sparking things up physically, but creating an intimate moment, so I always recommend giving your partner a passionate kiss before setting off for work,” says Goldstein.
- Ban the technology. Constantly checking social media or spending hours in front of the computer or TV can quickly kill intimacy. Switching off from the external world can boost your emotional connection, says Goldstein. Agree to shut down all screens at a set time each night.
- Prioritise your partner. Friendships are crucial for your wellbeing, but you shouldn’t be spending more time with friends than your partner. Nor should you feel closer to them. “By opening up to someone else, you’re excluding your partner in some way,” says Fletcher. “Ask yourself: why is it easier for me to talk to this person rather than my partner?”
- Be open to sex. “It’s often said that women need to feel loved in order to have sex, and men need sex to feel loved, but being tuned into your physical desires creates a level of intimacy that can be tapped into at an emotional level,” explains Fletcher.