Humans are hardwired for social connection. Without the ease of electricity, running water, or Starbucks drive-throughs, the collective survival of our early ancestors depended on being able to work together; to trust one another.
Emotional intimacy — a closeness between two people who feel safe and secure with each other — is one of the ways we form that trust.
Unfortunately, many of us have built-in barriers that make it difficult to build emotional connections.
For example, depression has been shown to strain romantic relationships while some personality disorders make it hard to get close to other people. Or, if you were raised to hide your emotions, being open and vulnerable in relationships might feel super uncomfortable.
But if emotional intimacy is a mountain in your path, know there are routes to the summit — even if you can’t see them clearly yet. This article will cover what emotional intimacy looks like and how you can cultivate more of it in your life.
We often define relationships as being high in emotional intimacy when there’s trust, good communication, and closeness, says Dr. Joti Samra, a registered psychologist and CEO and founder of MyWorkPlaceHealth.
By no means does the relationship need to be sexual in nature, she adds. While emotional intimacy helps hold romantic relationships together, you can be just as emotionally intimate with a platonic friend as with your significant other, she says.
Here are some examples of how emotional intimacy might be expressed and formed:
- A close friend confides to you that they were bullied as a child. You offer emotional support and listen nonjudgmentally to their experiences.
- You and your S.O. have a hard conversation over where your relationship is headed. After working through difficulties, you emerge with a healthier bond.
- You tell your parents about a behavior of theirs that has distressed you. They listen carefully to your complaints and seriously discuss how to improve.
- After a stressful day at work, you tell a friend that you’re unhappy in your career. They validate your feelings and support you in reaching your own decision.
Don’t confuse emotional intimacy with harmful relationship habits
Emotional intimacy is built on equal communication and trust. If your relationship is one-sided, it may be time to reconsider how that connection is going, says Samra.
For example, unloading your emotional burden on someone to get pity or cause guilt is not being emotionally intimate. Neither is trauma bonding, a term used to describe the bond that forms between a victim and their abuser.
Similarly, depending on another person to the point where it blurs personal boundaries is not emotional intimacy and may be a sign of a codependent relationship.
How to know if there’s a lack of emotional intimacy
According to Samra, if you’re not getting emotional intimacy in a relationship, you might feel:
- unsafe or that the other person doesn’t have your back
- on edge and apprehensive when the other person is around
- unfulfilled by the relationship
- unheard, unacknowledged, or misunderstood
- like communication between the two of you is ineffective
Building emotional intimacy isn’t like baking bread — there’s no set formula. Everyone develops it differently and has differing levels of comfort around it, said Samra.
But you can get the ball rolling by applying some of the following advice.
Work on being an engaged listener
According to Samra, communication is the bedrock of building trust. And real communication happens when people actually hear one another. “It’s being able to hear someone, listen to someone, understand them, and then, behaviorally, to be able to execute and [act] based on what those needs are,” she said.
Problem-solve difficult feelings
If you have high emotional intelligence, identifying and communicating emotions — in yourself or in others — might feel second nature. But know that it might not be so easy for your partner. So when things get tense or hard, start by asking broad questions.
“If someone says they’re upset, [ask] what does that mean? Is it anger? Is it sad? Is it fearful?” says Samra.
If you have trouble putting labels on your emotions, you might find emotion wheels help you get specific.
Leave your comfort zone
Inside each of us is an internal fortress that safeguards all deepest truths, the pieces of ourselves we’ve decided need protecting.
Being vulnerable is like opening up a side door in the castle wall and letting someone else in. It’s a way of signaling that you trust them, and usually it helps the other person feel like they can trust you in return.
Couples, have more (healthy) sex!
If you’re in a partnership, being physically intimate can go a long way in making you feel close to your partner. One study found being sexually satisfied significantly predicted the level of emotional intimacy between married people.
If you want to improve your sex life, a good place to start is working on having emotionally healthy sex.
Create a safe space
Fundamental to building emotional intimacy is asking: What does the other person require for safety and trust? says Samra. In order for the other person to let their guard down and be vulnerable, they first need to feel safe doing so.
Don’t rush the process
Building trust can take time. We shouldn’t expect the other person — nor ourselves — to immediately be comfortable with vulnerability, says Samra.
Check-in questions after an intimate moment
If you want to get a better understanding of an intimate encounter, ask yourself these questions about how it went.
- Did you feel safe and supported during the interaction?
- Did you feel like you could have said anything without being judged?
- Were they invested in what you said, rather than just waiting for their chance to speak?
Unfortunately, emotional intimacy can also be lost. This can feel devastating and sometimes intensely painful. However, there may be a path toward rebuilding what you lost, if the other person is willing.
- Take accountability. Own up to what you did, however painful it might be.
- Apologize (sincerely). It’s important that you really are sorry for what you did; it’s not enough to only say the words. Whether they accept your apology is up to them.
- Be patient. To rebuild trust, it’s important to give the other person the time and space they need to heal and process.
- Accept that the relationship will be different now. Although it may be painful, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to return to the relationship as it once was; be prepared to start over from square one, or somewhere close to it.
- Commit to changing problematic behaviors. You can’t expect to get different results if you keep acting the same way. It’s going to take effort — and maybe professional help — but it’s worth it if you really care about maintaining the relationship.
- Respect their wishes. The ball is now in their court. You can try your best to rebuild that emotional bond, but if they’re not comfortable trusting you, you have to let them go.
What to do if you’ve been hurt
If someone has hurt you, you might be scared as hell to let them back in. That totally makes sense. Your situation is unique to you but one thing is for sure: you need to get real about how this person affects your life. To help you understand if it’s time to put some distance between you and this person, ask yourself these questions:
- Do they cause you regular stress and anxiety?
- Have they broken your trust before?
- Do they seem genuinely invested in your happiness or are they always focused on themself?
- Do they put effort into changing problematic behavior?
One of the downfalls of modern day partnerships is that we expect to get all of our needs met by our significant other. Not only is this taxing on both people, it’s pretty limiting to rely on one person’s perspective and advice.
Plus, relationships end. You don’t want to get yourself into a situation where the end of a relationship means the end of your emotional support system.
So in parting, we encourage you to keep up with your platonic relationships, too. Give your best friend — or maybe your mom! — a call tonight. They’ll be happy to hear from you.