A few weeks ago I was interviewed by Rachael Schultz for an article in Men’s Journal about how to be a better partner and have better intimacy – emotional and physical – in relationships. Covid-19 made life in 2020 difficult and strained many relationships due to stay-at-home orders, physical distancing, work shut-downs, and many other stress-inducing events. This article addresses the importance of intimacy and how it improves relationship connection and satisfaction.
For many men one of the benefits of having sex, besides the obvious sexual release and pleasure response, is one of creating intimacy or connection with their partner. Often men feel more emotionally open and willing to be vulnerable with their partner as a result of being sexual with each other.
Chemicals such as oxytocin and serotonin are released during sex, and a byproduct of their release is an emotional response expressed as lowered emotional defenses which creates opportunities for both partners to feel safe enough in the moment to talk about the relationship. Talks about relationship plans, worries, hopes, fears, and dreams for the future are all more likely when a partner is feeling satisfied and emotionally connected.
“…many female partners need emotional connection as foreplay before feeling vulnerable enough to have sex…
Many men who are missing feeling emotionally connected to their partner initiate sex as a pathway to the ultimate goal of feeling closer. A female partner can sometimes misread the male’s attempts for closeness cues. Because many female partners need emotional connection as foreplay before feeling vulnerable enough to have sex, they may feel hurt or assume their male partner is ignoring or minimizing the lack of emotional connection prior to the initiation of sex. More often than not, the male’s advances may be rejected and the dance of pursuing sex as a bridge to emotional connection and rejection due to lack of prior emotional connection continues.
We all get into relationships because we want to be seen, acknowledged, and cherished by another human being at a deep level. Feelings of closeness, emotional safety, and being appreciated for who we are is how we gauge if we are on track to having a satisfying and emotionally intimate relationship.
Couples who feel close and connected during sex but feel alone or disengaged when they are out of the bedroom have likely not learned to differentiate between sexual intimacy and emotional intimacy. They are not the same thing. If a partner can only open up when they are experiencing a release of oxytocin or serotonin, the relationship is going to be limited in its ability to create a sense of trust and close connectedness.
“True emotional intimacy requires openness, affection, and the ability to trust that the relationship will survive…difficult conversations…”
True emotional intimacy requires openness, affection, and the ability to trust that the relationship will survive when difficult conversations need to be had. When one partner lets the other down, emotional intimacy allows for a belief that the relationship can weather those disappointments. It reassures the partners that they will not be judged when they are not at their best or have a bad day.
In healthy relationships, emotional intimacy provides the kind of support that makes couples feel more like best friends rather than “business partners” who are making and receiving very few emotional deposits from each other. When partners simply feel like roommates, the result can be a feeling of loneliness even when both partners are in the same room. This is not sustainable in the long run. Human beings are not cut out for this kind of emotional vacancy, and it requires energy to keep the unmet needs on hold.
When we are stressed we often go into a physiological state of arousal better known as our fight, flight, or freeze response. What means is that we go into survival mode to protect ourselves from the perceived threat that is causing us to experience stress.
“The brain is an erogenous zone, and without the ability to access those intimacy tools, the desire, drive, or ability to function with one’s partner in a loving, intimate way flies out the window.”
When the body goes into fight, flight, or freeze, it activates the parasympathetic nervous system to bring all hands on deck in order to fuel the body with enough adrenaline to protect ourselves if necessary from the perceived threat. If this happens, the body simultaneously shuts down power to the brain as a way to conserve energy to use to utilize for survival. The brain is an erogenous zone, and without the ability to access those intimacy tools, the desire, drive, or ability to function with one’s partner in a loving, intimate way flies out the window.
Think of emotional intimacy more in terms of emotional balance. None of us are an island unto ourselves. We all need to feel heard, seen, understood, and acknowledged in order to achieve a healthy balance of emotional energy in our lives. Receiving assurance that one person in the world accepts you and loves you exactly the way you are, faults and all, requires you to take the risk to be vulnerable and show another person those faults and worry points.
The result of being willing to be vulnerable, if your partner receives it well, is increased emotional intimacy and the ability to feel less lonely, more connected, and part of something stronger than just what one person can provide to themselves individually.
“Emotional intimacy is the next level of comfort in a relationship because it means you have trusted your relationship to handle the complicated, less attractive parts of a relationship…”
We are all drawn to relationships because we want to know that someone cares enough about us to claim as us their special person. Emotional intimacy is the next level of comfort in a relationship because it means you have trusted your relationship to handle the complicated, less attractive parts of a relationship and you have weathered the storm together creating shared confidence in the strength of your emotional connection.
From a biological perspective, women are built both physically and hormonally to give birth to and provide primary care for offspring. Traditionally, men were typically out gathering and providing food and shelter for their dependents. As a natural offshoot of this arrangement, women typically found themselves tasked with fostering emotional connection in relationships – partly because of DNA and partly because it became a function of the nesting parent.
I know that my guy clients HATE talking about feelings, but unfortunately women view it as foreplay. So, if you can invest some time in the emotions of the relationship, then you will likely be rewarded with getting to the sexual part, which is where men often feel most emotionally connected.
I find the reason most of my male clients hate talking about feelings is not because they don’t have them. In fact, my male clients more often than not feel things very deeply and are generally incredibly sensitive and concerned about how they are doing in generating good feelings from their partners.
In my experience, the reason guys hate talking to women about their feelings is that they feel like they have to do something about them or solve them. Most men are problem solvers and fixers. They want to be their partners’ heroes, and it’s incredibly uncomfortable for them to see their partners in pain. When a guy experiences a sense of helplessness or an inability to solve his partner’s problem of sadness, frustration, or worry and not know to how to make it better, it creates an intolerable emotion that feels like it needs to be avoided at all costs because it plays into a guy’s sense of worth in the relationship.
“…sharing…feelings…creates emotional intimacy for women.”
The hardest thing for my male clients to understand is that there is no “fixing” of feelings. There is only listening, support, and understanding. A partner is not sharing their feelings because they don’t know how to handle them or want you to take them away. They want to share them because the act of doing so is what creates emotional intimacy for women. When a guy doesn’t back away from his partner’s emotions, tell his partner she is too much, or tell her she should stop thinking about it, then emotional safety is created.
I encourage the couples I work with to practice something called a 20-minute stress-reducing conversation. This is helpful to most of my male clients because they know it has an end in sight. It keeps them from breaking out in sweats envisioning spending the rest of the evening talking about feelings.
The stress-reducing conversation allows each partner approximately 10 minutes to open up about a stressor (either good or bad) that they experienced during the day and to talk about how it impacted them. The listening partner does not try to give any input on how they should handle things differently, how they could find a solution, or least of all side with anyone other than their partner. Deep listening and understanding with support is the only task. This is much harder for men than it is for woman because they are hardwired to want to take action and be directive.
The emotional intimacy happens in the space where the woman feels acknowledged and validated in feeling the way she does because she doesn’t have to defend herself, convince her partner that she should be justified in feeling the way she does, or worry that her partner thinks she is “too emotional”. Giving your partner the gift of letting them know they are not alone in the world, that you have their back, and that you believe in them and their decision making is a definite way to create a spark of connection in your relationship.
You can pick up a copy of the January/February issue of Men’s Journal to read Rachael’s article.
Check out my other blog articles here.