We can start by saying this: to be known and understood by the other is what we all deeply long for. And we sense that this is the key to intimacy and joy in our relationships!
How do we promote intimacy?
Healthy couples and partnerships work hard to stay open to each other, to remain emotionally available, and to preserve a state of authenticity and vulnerability in their relating.
Vulnerability? We see with health couples that vulnerability does not mean neediness or engaging in a stifling merger with your partner. It doesn’t mean weakness, lack of conviction, or spinelessness. Rather, if we observe closely, the healthy couple shows us that being vulnerable means you can say what you want to say in a spontaneous way and without fear of being cut off. Being vulnerable means you can ask for what you need in a non-defensive way and without fear of being scorned. Being vulnerable means you can be emotionally generous because you’re not afraid of being shamed. It means you can invite the other to share a criticism of you because you are relatively intact and aren’t afraid of being destroyed by a negative comment. It means you can understand someone else’s feelings, even when you’re feeling criticized.
Vulnerability means both partners are engaged in creating a safe and respectful environment, one governed by an important social contract. The social contract that governs the healthy relationship holds that: I won’t mock or show contempt for your needs, your position, your feelings, and in exchange, you’ll work hard to be emotionally authentic, generous, and accessible. Of course, it goes without saying that this agreement runs in both directions!
If writing about intimacy is easy, then certainly practicing intimacy is very very hard. Traumas, disappointments, deprivations and age-old behavioral habits can undermine one’s ability to be able to make oneself vulnerable, leading to a lack of intimacy in relating. Tragically, where the couple is not practicing intimacy, unhealthy relating becomes the norm.
If you’re in a relationship in which contempt reigns, then the social contract isn’t in effect and it’s impossible to work toward developing intimacy. If you’re in a relationship in which feelings and emotions are devalued, then it’s impossible to work toward developing intimacy. If you and your partner have fallen into bad habits that leave no room for emotional generosity, then it’s impossible to develop intimacy.
Good marriage counseling or couples therapy can help the partnership to restore the social contract. And good marriage counseling or couples therapy can also help the partnership regain its vitality and intimacy by teaching each partner about vulnerability and authenticity in relating and by leading the couple through a series of steps designed especially for couples in conflict and which promote mutual openness and vulnerability.