Although a strong marriage thrives on lightheartedness, spontaneity and sharing a good laugh, it also depends on something deeper -- emotional intimacy. Emotional intimacy occurs when a couple expresses and validates emotions in a way that is tender and constructive. It requires the ability to respond in a loving way to a partner's feelings. Emotional intimacy allows us to foster a strong connection with our partner and helps ensure the success of a relationship.
It is easy for an emotionally charged conversation to go off track and devolve into a shouting match. But with some practice it is just as easy to have a productive intimate conversation. Speak only about your experience and don't blame the other person for your feelings, whether overtly or covertly, advise Linda and Charlie Bloom, social workers, relationship experts and authors of "Secrets of Great Marriages." Instead, be responsible for your feelings and deflect hostility by not reacting similarly. Hold back judgments and stay committed to being honest and sensitive. You don't want to tip-toe around the issue, however. Be true to your concerns and express them clearly.
Emotional intimacy requires communicating honestly with a degree of vulnerability that might make you deeply uncomfortable, according to Linda and Charlie Bloom. Being this raw will make many of us anxious. Over time and with practice and patience you'll find it easier. University of Houston research professor Brené Brown defines vulnerability as being open with our feelings, needs and fears and having the courage to ask for what we need. Without vulnerability, says Brown, relationships will experience a significant deficit. The Blooms suggest building the courage to share your mistakes, your embarrassing moments, your feelings of not being good enough and your dark side. A relationship doesn't need to be all sunshine, it is also about sharing your true self. Still, you will want to be able to share your dreams and hopes too. To get there, you'll need to practice communication. Show your spouse that you're on his or her side and committed to bettering the relationship.
Brown's vulnerability research points to shame as the major roadblock to vulnerability. Vulnerability means letting ourselves be seen as we really are; shame is fear of people seeing this very thing. To ease past shame, practice setting boundaries. This might sound like a counter-intuitive way to let people in. But in a busy society, saying no and carving out time for family is an act of vulnerability. Combating shame also means sharing it -- either with your spouse, your friends or with a trusted therapist. Shame gains power through secrecy and silence. Naming your shame kills this power.
Understand Your Spouse's Shame
Your spouse likely has shame too. This blocks communication and loving intimacy in a relationship. Understanding that he or she also has shame will help you feel compassionate when you encounter communication roadblocks. Shame stems from perceived variance from the norm. For men the norm is dedication to work, control over women and emotional stoicism. Men experience shame due to rejection and criticism or being perceived as weak. Sex is an especially touchy issue as men can feel their worth is tied to it. For women the norm is beauty, thinness, niceness and quietness. Each gender reacts differently to shame: men usually blow up or tune out and women engage in self-loathing. Your partner may not be ready to confront his or her shame. Still, feeling tenderness towards pain is a good step towards effective communication.