What is the hallmark of a healthy, fulfilling marriage/relationship?
Couples often cite effective communication strategies as central to a lasting relationship. And while healthy communication can go a long way in keeping your relationship humming along, there is another relationship variable that should be given just as much attention.
Emotional Intimacy And Relationship Fulfillment
Emotional security and closeness are hallmarks to a fulfilling relationship. And intuitively, couples know this. As a psychologist/couples counselor, I often ask each partner to rate the level of emotional closeness they feel toward each other on a scale from 1-10 (10 = very connected ; 5 = moderately connected; 1 = little, if any connection).
This simple rating scale helps couples concretely assess the intimacy of their relationship.
Like all things in life, however, feeling connected with your spouse/partner isn’t a constant, linear experience—rather, emotional closeness/intimacy fluctuates, sometimes because of the circumstances of your life and relationship; and, at other times, these fluctuations may be a simple reflection of the fact that change is the only constant of life. When it comes to emotional intimacy, couples are frequently shifting back and forth along the continuum of closeness/connection—distance/individuation. And while dramatic fluctuations may be an indication that something is off-kilter, some level of fluctuation should be considered the norm.
Issues of balance are also at play when it comes to emotional intimacy. To feel obsessively connected (consumed) by your partner is just as problematic as feeling chronically disconnected from him/her. Usually when couples are hyper-focused on (and intensely connected to) each other, some other area of their life outside the relationship gets neglected.
Whenever your spouse/partner consumes most of your focus/energy (this frequently occurs during the infatuation stage of early love), you have little left over for your friends, family, interests, hobbies, work/career, etc; and inversely, when couples are too disconnected, you become vulnerable to outside influences and the danger of getting your intimacy needs met outside the relationship is heightened.
When thinking about your own level of emotional connection with your partner/spouse, it’s best to assess how close you feel in general to him/her (rather than focusing on a particular day or moment).
You can ask yourself the following question:
In general, how emotionally connected have I been feeling to her/him over the last couple of weeks or months? (Use the rating scale described above to help with this self-assessment.)
Relationship Help: Making Sense of Disconnection
It’s important to note that our need or desire for emotional intimacy varies widely. While you may desire a deeper level of emotional closeness, your partner may be very content with what currently exists between the two of you. And this need may change based upon circumstance (i.e., while under stress your need for emotional connection may increase or decrease).
With this in mind, it can be helpful to think about emotional connection along the following three dimensions:
1. Personality/Attachment Styles
We each have our own unique interpersonal-bio rhythms (some of us need more alone time/solitude compared to others who seem to feed off of interpersonal contact). Understanding each other’s particular rhythms can go a long way in negotiating the right intimacy balance that works for each of you. Too often, couples misinterpret each other’s need for reduced contact or solitude as a sign of trouble rather than a regular part of their unique personalities.
2. Unresolved Relationship Issues/Problems
Lingering relationship issues that need to be worked through can easily dismantle the conditions needed for emotional closeness. Issues that negatively impact emotional safety and security need to be monitored and dealt with. Ideally when these issues are discussed in an open-supportive fashion, you and your partner will move toward a mutual plan to establishing safety.
3. Unresolved Childhood Issues
Individual issues that may be left over from your family of origin—for example, as a child you never observed your parents expressing their feelings of love in an open and affirming way to one another and emotional sharing was discouraged. As a result, emotional expression feels very unnatural to you, and this expressive block is preventing you and your partner from achieving deeper levels of emotional intimacy.
In sum, while you and your partner work toward establishing a strong foundation of effective communication skills, it will be just as important to regularly check in with each other about the levels of connection/disconnection that exist in your relationship. Openly communicating what makes you feel connected and safe, versus disconnected and distant, will go a long way in making emotional intimacy a reality.
Dr. Rich Nicastro