Emotional intimacy isn’t for the faint of heart.
It takes courage and faith to open your heart to another, to let down your guard and take off the masks commonly worn out in the world (competent employer/employee, supportive friend, in-charge parent, etc). Opening yourself up to the vulnerability that intimacy requires takes ongoing work—by work, I mean self-reflection, owning and being responsible for your own emotional baggage, ongoing communication, the willingness to take risks, the ability to give and receive constructive feedback…
When couples are able to truly show themselves to each other (without pretense or defense), an authentic connection is made that is emotionally pure and transcendent. In that moment of relatedness, there is no separateness: No me-you, no right-wrong, no feelings of superiority-inferiority. There are no battles to be waged—nothing to prove. During moments of authentic connection, everything that needs to exist is immediately present—peace, comfort, vitality, a sense of being deeply understood and accepted.
As one husband described, “Whenever my wife and I are able to connect at this level, I feel like I’ve come home emotionally.”
To achieve this level of emotional or physical intimacy, you cannot hide (from yourself or your spouse/partner) in any way. But the truth is, to differing degrees, we often hide emotionally—ducking behind socially accepted personae or dodging our deepest insecurities all in an effort to protect what is most tender and fragile. Oftentimes, fear and uncertainty are in the driver’s seat when emotional hide-and-seek is at work (these can be deep-seated, lingering fears left over from our childhoods or newer, more present-day fears).
There are different ways in which individuals and couples put up self-protective walls—but it’s important to remember that these walls come with a heavy cost to emotional intimacy.
Here are a few common ways in which you (or your partner) may dodge the risk-taking bullet in an effort to avoid being emotionally vulnerable.
5 ways we protect ourselves from taking emotional risks
1. An Attitude of Stoicism
The stoic denies or is cut off from his/her emotional needs, especially the need to be emotionally connected and vulnerable with another person. Needs for closeness may be devalued, seen as “weak,” self-indulgent, or simply unnecessary. The stoic remains an island unto him/herself, protected yet alone in the world of relationships that exist all around him/her.
2. Perpetual Motion
Some people never slow down and take a breath. People obviously have differences in their energy levels; some people like being busy and are active and productive in a healthy way. But for others, the inability (or unwillingness) to slow down is a form of escape from themselves or certain realities of their lives. Meaningful intimacy (emotional and physical intimacy) requires you to come out of high gear and slow down. You cannot simultaneously be in motion and connect with yourself and with another.
3. Excessive Care-giving
Focusing on and taking care of another’s needs (whether physical or emotional) isn’t a bad thing—in fact, acts of compassion and altruism are what makes us human. But the excessive caregiver rarely looks inward and self-nurtures. Instead, s/he is in the constant role of tending to another at the expense of her/his own needs. Remember, true intimacy is a two-way street that involves reciprocal emotional care.
There are many ways to numb oneself emotionally: Drugs, alcohol, gambling, zoning out in front of the television. Even sex can be used to numb and escape from certain painful emotional realities. There are many distractions that now exist in life, distractions that can keep us focused on everything but our emotional lives—and without attention and care, our emotional lives will sooner or later atrophy (along with intimacy).
5. Emotional Smokescreens
Certain emotions are simply not conducive to feeling connected to your spouse/partner. Anger and resentment are major blocks to intimacy, and these feelings usually arise when someone feels unjustly treated or disrespected in some way. Anger can be a self-protective emotion and helps to establish a boundary with the person who has offended you—the emotional wall and distance created by anger prevents you from being hurt by another. But there are other times when one’s feelings of anger (and the distrust that anger fuels) is held onto for extended periods long after the upsetting event has passed. In these cases, holding onto anger gives one an excuse to remain closed off, a justification to never take another emotional risk for fear of being hurt again. This overly cautious stance never allows the potential of intimacy to take hold.
Do you see yourself or your spouse/partner in any of the above ways in which couples thwart intimacy? If so, can you use this information to start a dialogue (see effective couples communication) about what is needed in your marriage/relationship to create the conditions where emotional risk-taking can occur?
When was the last time you gave your marriage/relationship a checkup?
Now you have a powerful, easy-to-use way to check the health of your relationship. For more information, click Relationship Checkup.
Dr. Rich Nicastro