Emotional intimacy is that wonderful feeling of knowing you have mutual unconditional positive regard with your partner. It is feeling connected, supported and heard, and knowing that they trust you with their most intimate thoughts and feelings.
I have spent years learning how to be someone who CAN be intimate, and while it wasn’t exactly easy, it was effort well spent, because now I am learning about the rewards that come with allowing yourself to be vulnerable with another person.
When I met my partner Mark, I was a passive aggressive communicator when things got rough. The passive part is that I would hold things in, because, those little things are not worth talking about, not worth a fight. But the aggressive part is that I would resent it as those little things piled up. I would use sarcasm disguised as humor, if asked I would say I was “fine” while obviously not being fine. I would hint, feel sorry for myself and wonder why no one appreciated the time and effort I give as I martyred myself.
Mark would tell me that he really needed for me to share my thoughts and feelings, not just when I was happy, but when I was hurt, or angry, or frustrated. I would argue that you should pick your battles , only share the really important stuff, not nit pick every little thing, but he gently disagreed with me. He argued that when we don’t share those little things, that they can build up into large things. That by not giving each other the chance to validate and then respect those little moments of annoyance, hurt or anger, that we miss opportunities to grow closer, to learn how to trust one another.
I was beyond skeptical. In our first few months together most of our disagreements centered around my not being absolutely transparent regarding any negative thoughts or feelings, and my resentment that he would ask such a stupid thing of me (and my resentment over the small slights and hurts that I perceived, but never shared).
Then one day I verbalized my concerns assertively, rather than with snipey comments and punitive silences. I told him that when I share some stupid little annoyance about him, that it feels spiteful and petty to do so. That when I say, “I feel (angry/hurt/etc) when you (minor act or wording here), I know I am hurting your feelings, denting your pride-all over something stupid. Especially if I know it is something stupid, and is more about the mood I am in, or that I am hungry, and not really about you anyway.”
He didn’t argue with me. He just listened, then looked thoughtful for a bit. Then he said, “I get that. When you explain it like that it makes sense. You see telling me that when I do something or say something it annoys you or hurts your feelings, that verbalizing that to me causes you to feel bad?”
I agreed, and we ended up talking about why. We talked about our families growing up, the different ways we learned to communicate from watching them. We talked about past relationships and the things we learn from them too.
Then he turned to me and asked, “Do you think you could try to just say, ‘this is mine to deal with’, rather than pretend nothing is wrong when I ask?”
He explained that when he checks in with me, with the feeling that I am unhappy about something, and I deny any such unhappiness that it causes him to doubt his own perceptions, and he promised that he would try to let it go and not press me to share the reason I am upset.
We agreed, and the next time it came up, we stuck to our agreement (I said, yes I am annoyed, but this is mine to deal with, and he said ok, and gave me time to do exactly that). And the next time. And the next time.
And something very interesting happened.
His respecting my input, and our both respecting our agreement created trust. I felt I could trust him with my thoughts, even when I disagreed with him. We both experienced the value of each other in that exchange, and we were each validated, heard and respected.
By creating that safe space for honesty, he opened a door for me to be able to share those little things-if I chose. He demonstrated that he could hear my disagreement, or criticism, and not go on the offensive.
This is but one of the many examples of Mark and I working hard to create a safe space for each other, in order for us to be intensely honest with one another. And each of those experiences deepened that trust, which created more intimacy.
The day I turned to him and said, “You know how when we are talking you sometimes will step in like this (pointing at him, where he was leaning against the counter, his tall frame blocking my exit as we talked)? In the front of my head I am aware that it is not a threat, but the part of me that has dealt with abuse begins to freak out when my exit is blocked. I get anxious and afraid, and that spills over in my tone.” i cringed, waiting for the fallout, for him to tell me that is stupid, that of course he would never blah blah.
But instead he turned his body so he was no blocking the wax, and with a very concerned look on his face he said, “I would never want to do anything to make you feel that way. Thank you for trusting me with that” And he still, to this day, does not ‘trap’ me by blocking the way out when we are talking, and when I show signs of anxiety he asks me if there is anything he can do to make me feel less anxious
He didn’t take it personally.
He respected that I was vulnerable in sharing that truth with him.
He made sure he respected my feelings in that moment, and in the future.
When something happened where he had hurt my feelings, and ‘fucked up’ a little, and I told him how I was feeling and why (“I felt very hurt when xyz because xxyyzz), he apologized. He owned it. He came up with his own solution to not make the same mistake again.
And anytime this has come up, it has been a calm positive conversation about our growth, not an incident that is used as a weapon or source of guilt for past wrong doing.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but that also helped create a safe space in our relationship for resolving conflict.
We don’t play tit for tat. When one of us comes to the other with a problem, hurt or woe, the other does not respond with “Ya? Well you did this!” We listen, we try to understand, and most importantly, we are not judging one another’s character.
We have unconditional positive regard, knowing that we each have faults and that is ok.
It’s been over five years since we first met and fell in lust, then love, and we are incredibly close and still learning to be closer. I hope that our journey together is a long one, and I look forward to learning and growing with him.