Summer love in Denver: Emotional intimacy

24 Jul

I’m grumpy! I’ve had a full week in my counseling practice. I’ve helped the last five nights at my church’s VBS. I’m exhausted and longing for my weekend. But I’ve put off writing this blog for two weeks in a row. So I really should write this “!#%&* blog” before I relax this evening. I’m grousing about some little matter and Robin asks me how I’m doing. I tell her the above. She said, “It’s OK that you’re grumpy.” She said more than that, but I don’t remember the rest. I remember her accepting my feelings because that’s what went into my heart. “Suffering shared is suffering divided. Joy shared is joy multiplied.” I just had my suffering divided by the experience of emotional intimacy with my wife.

It is hard to write briefly on the topic of emotional intimacy because an entire encyclopedia could be written on the topic. You already know what it is: closeness that comes from two people sharing their emotional lives with each other. So you ask: “Why is emotional intimacy so hard to accomplish?” That is the wrong question. The better question is, “Why is emotional intimacy so hard to sustain?” You see, every couple that falls in love accomplishes a deep emotional intimacy. It is common for me to hear distressed couples describe that early in their relationship they “could talk for hours.” As they fell in love, they took emotional risks to be known by the other and the acceptance they received invited them into still-deeper levels of emotional intimacy. (OK. Some couples only get as far as “emotional intensity”, but most couples really do accomplish a deep emotional intimacy early in their relationship.) So why doesn’t the couple sustain that emotional intimacy? It is because, “shit happens.” Each person’s bad interpersonal habits, each person’s “ghosts” from their dysfunctional families growing up (yes, all of us had dysfunctional families growing up), each person’s traumas (small and large) gum up the works of the couple relationship until the relationship devolves into “pursue – withdraw” or “blame – blame” or whatever merry-go-round you create as a couple. Now the real work begins: to develop habits of sharing our emotional lives with each other that aren’t fueled by “being in love” but are fueled by a desire to create a mature, mutually-supportive relationship.

It is crucial to understand that at the heart of emotional intimacy is love. It isn’t enough to know that you understand what I’m feeling or even that you validate that what I’m feeling is reasonable (though both of those things are extremely important). I need to know that you care. Does my emotional experience matter to you? If so, then I not only feel understood, I feel supported. I experience that you have some skin in the game. I have a partner in my struggle of life. And all of us struggle. And all of us need our partners in that struggle with us.

OK. So this is what you really want with your partner. Right? So let’s talk about some specific things you can do to grow your emotional intimacy to the next level.

1. Commit to having one month of weekly “Heart dates.” This could be over a dinner out or even sharing a glass of wine on the back patio after the kids have gone to bed. At each date, ask your partner three questions:
a. This week, what has made your heart glad?
b. This week, what has made your heart sad?
c. As you look ahead to the coming week, what makes your heart afraid (or anxious)?

2. Have a “Chick-flick feeling pick.”
a. Google “feeling word list image” and print off one of the lists of feeling words.
b. Have the woman partner choose a favorite “chick flick” to watch together. (This alone will make a sizable deposit into her “love bank!”)
c. Pause the movie at several spots, pick a feeling word from the list that describes what the character is probably feeling at the time, and then share a time in your life when you’ve experienced that feeling.

3. Daily debrief.
a. “Let’s commit to doing this daily for two weeks.”
b. Find a place with no distractions: perhaps the living room couch. Tell the kids, “no interrupting unless the house is on fire.”
c. Set the kitchen timer for 10 minutes for each of you.
d. “Tell me about your day.” Take your partner’s side. Don’t try to fix your partner’s problem (or worse yet, try to fix your partner). Just show emotional support and caring for what your partner is going through.

4. Healing the heart exercise.
a. Tell your partner: “I would like to give you the gift of showing up for you around one hurt you are still carrying in your heart.”
b. Each person writes one paragraph: my memory of something that happened; I feel hurt, sad, disappointed, etc.; I forgive the person who caused the hurt
c. The first person reads the paragraph. The partner expresses: I feel sad (sorry, regretful, concerned, etc.) that you’ve felt hurt. I apologize for anything I did to contribute to your hurt. I want you to feel loved and cared about.

There probably is nothing that will spark “summer love in Denver” better than creating these heart connections with your partner.