Relationships thrive in emotional intimacy.
Feeling connected is key to intimacy and maintenance of healthy relationships. A relationship that only exists in a mind is nothing but a concept one can experience mostly alone. It is the presence and emotional availability to oneself and another human being that forms true relational matter be that with self or others. To open the heart and and tune the powers of awareness, focus and analysis on what the body senses demands courage and vulnerability. Such mind, heart and body integration is a deeper experience of aliveness.
If you’re often finding yourself feeling drained by your relationship, get a regular sense of aloneness even though you have a partner, experience rejection or fear being rejected, if you feel or worry you’re not as important to the other person as you’d like to be, emotional distancing may be an issue to consider.
When the people we love are not present to us physically and/or emotionally relationships feel distant and cold. Without two hearts, minds and bodies interacting there can be no ground for that critical spark we call “falling in love” and if there was one to start with, it will soon extinguish without emotional intimacy providing the fuel. This is where minds can help us improve by first understanding what’s happening.
Problems in emotional relating cause physical pain
An unmet need for closeness physically hurts. Not convinced? Talk to someone whose partner died. Emotional closeness, however, is a paradox. To experience it, one must lower the protective shields and let others in. To lower our guard, however, necessitates vulnerability. It is at this juncture that two nervous systems meet and the magic of connection takes place. If you’ve ever been puzzled by how your good intentions keep getting mixed results in your key relationship chances are emotional distancing was or is at play. Emotional distancing may be causing mixed signals that will be confusing to the other person. In essence, their mind and heart won’t know what to do.
Here’s the good news. Emotional availability has little to do with how nice or loving someone is. It is a skill that one can learn and strengthen. If you desire to connect with others in a deeper and more meaningful way keep reading.
Change triggers emotional reactions
In times of change, fear of the unknown, excessive thinking and complexity tend to disconnect the mind from the body and our emotional center.
Most change also brings unavoidable loss and with it, grief. The experience of change is emotionally demanding. One way of coping is to deny such feelings altogether. One way of doing this is by numbing to them. To achieve this the mind has to disconnect from the body and the heart.
You may recognise this process in a common phrase such as: “Pull yourself together!”
If you’re not used to languaging how you feel, it does not mean you don’t have or experience feelings. It simply means that those sensations and emotions are happening inside you and you can’t easily access them. In other words, you may be distancing from them. When you’re able to connect and process what you feel and experience, the only tool you can rely on for safety is the mind. This will leave you rational but emotional numb. Worst still you may think others as “too dramatic” or “overly-sensitive” when in reality your sense of the other person is simply a comparison with yourself and how integrated you are.
Times of change and stress trigger our most habitual emotional reactions
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, people had much on their minds and little time to clarify and process feelings. For those who struggle with emotional intimacy and find communicating their feeling hard work, the current crisis will likely push towards withdrawal and isolatation.
The default coping mechanism one falls back on during a crisis is what’s most familiar, whether or not it is effective.
Under stress, we fall back on what we did previously because stressful situations is exactly when emotional highjacking can occur. If this is scary or too overwhelming we will try to avoid it or deny it.
In a crisis, the nervous system is hyper-aroused and needs to return to safety. Emotional presence with others helps restore balance and homeostasis. It’s a large part of why therapy works. However what happens if your relational experience with others has never given you such safety? Or worst still, what if you remember feeling ridiculed and called weak for telling others that you were scared? What if you found yourself in a crisis and there was no one there for you? For example, as a child, your carers were overwhelmed too. You may still believe there is no point in reaching out to others emotionally or that if there was no one there when you were a child why should this change now that you’re an adult.
In all these situations your past experience will push you to isolate. Such isolation, however, will also become your future prison. It will rob you of connection, intimacy and strength that comes from no longer feeling alone.
Change and stressful situations will either push people towards:
- Connecting with others more though keep in mind that not all connection produces emotional intimacy.
- Withdrawing and isolating further.
Are you emotionally disconnecting and isolating further?
- Do you numb or switch off with a Netflix series?
- Plunge into work to avoid feeling things?
- Intensify your exercise routine in an effort to escape by grit alone?
- Watch more news to see what others are doing and how they are coping?
- Listen to music or have an extra drink before bedtime because doing this soothes you?
Notice how all the above activities require no emotional connection to a specific person – not even yourself. Instead, they connect you with isolation.
It is worth to keep in mind that joining WhatsUp groups and Zoom calls or firing off 10x more texts per day does won’t necessarily bring emotional intimacy. To feel heard, seen and to have trust it is safe to show yourself to others calls for loving presence, unconditional positive regard, emotional maturity and skills of relating beyond the small talk of “How are you?”, or “Is everything ok?” It demands one can be comfortable with silence, emotional discomfort, not knowing what to say, not being able to control what will and won’t happen or how someone will react and still trust oneself to feel safe.
Self-diagnosing question 1
What is my default means of coping with difficulty?
How we react emotionally is a spectrum with polar opposites. At one end lies withdrawal or going within and at the other relational connection. This has little to do with introversion or extroversion tendencies and lots to do with our skill for effective nervous system resourcing so that we can stay safe, calm and in relationship with those we love.
What emotional closeness offers
The whole point of emotional closeness is to find the balm of empathy, safety and unconditional acceptance with another person. To discover that by sharing what’s happening for you and how you feel, your emotions won’t overwhelm you or the other person. Emotional relatedness builds trust in fellow human beings and in oneself. It restores key safety mechanisms because we feel seen, heard and accepted as we are and we are not afraid to show up as ourselves. Emotional closeness invites connection. It gives others permission to come to your aid. Emotional closeness connects minds and hearts.
If your past experience of dealing with emotions or talking about them has tarnished your trust in this process of confidence in your abilities keep this in mind:
The past does not equal the future.
If we keep to the past our future can’t expand beyond what was.
Our reality is shaped by what we choose to believe.
And so, we must find the courage to reconnect mind and heart. We can do this within by showing up and becoming curious about what we feel and noticing how emotions affect us. We can then share this with others. The pace each of us adopts in this work will be unique to each person. What matters most is to keep showing up. Efforts here pay off double because we’re doing invaluable self-work and relational work at the same time.
At MTC we’re devoted to helping clients reconnect with their wholeness. We invite you to explore these webpages and our various offerings. Our key belief is that when we heal within we become more grounded and able to show up more resourcefully with and for others.
Emotional distancing indicators
Here are key signs that emotional distancing is taking place
- Other activities squeezing our quality time together and emotional connection.
- Lack of or rare incidence of emotional vulnerability and/or display of emotions.
- Sharing of feelings be missing in conversations.
- A heartfelt outpour of emotion and needs is not acknowledged or returned thus discouraging future emotional relating.
- Small emotional vocabulary.
- Increased tension and frustration including passive-aggressive exchanges as emotional needs go unmet.
- More awkward silences.
- A sense there is little or nothing to say or talk about.
- Feeling highly connected at one moment and totally dropped the next.
What makes things go from bad to worse
Here are things that will push people to isolate themselves further. Keep in mind that the most common motive for this is to save oneself and others from further pain.
- Feeling like your needs are not being heard or may even be actively ignored.
- Emotional availability and presence are controlled by one side – I choose when and how you can express how you feel.
- Lack of empathy, anger and aggression when the topic of emotional connection is brought up.
- A feeling of powerlessness that comes from appearing to be more invested in the other person than they seem to be in you.
- Feeling trapped chasing how one wants to feel instead of creating shared experiences and joy.
- Resentment growing over love like unwelcomed ivy.
- Deciding to invest your energy into other activities to keep yourself from feeling the emotional pain.
Notice how each of these experiences prolonged over time will erode trust, healthy self-respect and invite more separation.
Self-diagnosing question 2
Looking at the list above how many of the bullets ring true for me and for my partner?
Each of us comes with different baseline of need and tolerance for emotional distance. These parameters are often set in early childhood experiences and echoed through traumas and past relationship problems. Highly sensitive people may often feel scared to get hurt and may fall back on emotional distancing as a protective shield. The paradox however is that such behaviour distances them from others and will sabotage connection.
Emotional closeness is possible and we can help you
Addressing emotional connection may require the presence of a third party to bridge the divide. Skilled professionals can also help up-skill both sides in terms of how to develop emotional intimacy.
Check out some of our resources at the end of this article to help you on this journey.
Below are 5 tried and tested ways to get started.
1. Practice naming what you are feeling.
Give yourself time to be with your feelings. If this is something you’re not very used to, begin to pay more attention to your body when you’re with others. This can be done in real situations as much as visualizing yourself in different scenarios. Here are three things to try:
- What are your top 2-3 thoughts when you bring your partner to mind? And, what can you sense happening in your body?
- What feelings or sensations arise when you imagine being emotionally or physically close to someone? And, what would make this safe and deeply rewarding for you?
- What are the top three emotions that dominate your current interactions? Where do they really originate from within you?
2. Becoming curious about what is actually happening – mindful presence
When it comes to emotional relatedness, what matters most in healthy committed relationships is not where one starts from but one’s interest, desire and dedication to improve. This takes conscious effort and demands that we pay attention to verbal and nonverbal feedback. Here are some body signals to pay attention to:
- Physical distance. With trust physical distance grows small.
- Body movements. Are you and the other person at ease or look rigid.
- Physical movement in relation to one another. As you move closer does the other person move away to keep an equal distance or to avoid further intimacy?
- Facial expressions especially the eye muscles. Think of a baby that is sleeping warm and snug or someone who feels simply wonderful in your presence.
People tend to mirror each other. If you notice someone appearing tense bring their attention to this or change what you’re doing and watch them respond.
3. Using the mind to help clarify emotional needs
Emotional relating starts with understanding oneself better. We all have a relationship with emotions. If your default reaction to emotional needs is dismissive or defensive, you may want to explore the roots of such reactions with a trained therapist or counsellor.
We cannot understand what others feel if we are disconnected from our feelings. Many of my clients are deeply surprised at how their apparent comfort as they isolate or withdraw from the emotional connection is a defence tactic to cover up painful past and illusion of control they use to feel stronger.
Reluctance to talk about feelings is often connected with painful experiences during childhood, low self-esteem, relational wounds as an adult that have not been healed, and trauma.
Numbing is also a feeling. And silence speaks volumes.
Pay attention to what is and is not happening.
Self-diagnosing question 3
What are my key emotional needs and how do I meet them?
Note. If your immediate response is “I have none” or “Emotions are for the weak and needy people” seek help.
Self-diagnosing question 4
- With whom have I ever felt truly safe emotionally?
- Who in my circle of relationships feels well supported and safe with me when it comes to their emotional needs?
- What do I bring into my best emotional connections and what do I tend to bring to those that lack the same spark?
4. Make time to talk about feelings and how they impact you
Connecting with our emotional self is a spiritual practice.
Imagine yourself for a moment feeling deeply loved, admired and appreciated. This is how being with your emotional center should feel irrespective of what you’re feeling. To achieve this level of awareness and mastery takes patience and a great deal of self-compassion. Don’t expect it to be easy. Expect it to be deeply worthwhile. Showing up to our whole selves builds self-compassion, a greater understanding of who we are, and builds heartfelt empathy for the feelings of others.
Few useful questions to explore here include:
- If I compared what I feel to the weather, what sort of weather do I carry in me right now?
- If I bring my attention to my abdomen, what can I sense happening in there?
- If my feelings were a color, what color(s) appear? What other things do I connect them with in my mind?
Once you can connect with what you’re feeling, get into a regular practice of sharing this with the people/person you want to deepen your emotional closeness with. This will help them understand you. Trust that they want to know you! One of the key reasons people avoid emotional closeness is the fear of being rejected.
Self-diagnosing question 5
- Do I normally summarize what I hear to check my understanding?
- Has my partner or significant other complimented me recently on how well I listen?
- Do I make time to be deeply present with people I love or care about?
5. Use two-way feedback often
Words not heard fall dead to the ground.
The only measure of effective communication is the behaviour that follows. If your relationship is giving you more emotional safety and warmth you’re heading in the right direction. If you still feel ambivalent about the quality of your togetherness and opt for other activities instead, more work is needed.
Don’t be afraid to speak your truth. The right person will listen and care to improve. The wrong one will select out.
Give praise for what works and focus it on how this makes you feel.
Practice compassion. Emotional intimacy thrives in mutual acceptance of how we are now while having one eye on a richer and ever better future.
Good relationships evolve towards greater connection and intimacy. Great ones build emotional closeness proactively.
While you should expect to be the sole steward and guardian of your emotional state – there is no doubt that what others bring you, will affect how you feel. But you do have a choice. Notice what’s happening and always work towards improving on what is.
Self-diagnosing question 6
Do I pay close attention to the emotional notes of what is being said and what may not be said?
Self-diagnosing question 7
If I was to name the top need my partner has from me at this moment, would I know what it is? And, am I meeting it well?
Acknowledge and appreciate all you have
Emotional distancers often get angry that someone complains about their behavior. What if instead of acting defensively, you began to appreciate how lucky you are to have found someone who wants to love and connect with you. Many people feel incredible sadness unable to find that.
Relationships are true gifts because they have the power to transform us.
If you’re sensitive and needing more emotional closeness, check whether you may be avoiding emotional depth or lack a greater range of skills to elicit it. Consider taking a communication or personal development course to get to know yourself better. There are many ways of languaging needs. Exploring them will give you more options.
If talking about feelings comes easy to you, keep in mind that your talent for this may inhibit your less-skilled partner from giving it a go. Minds like to compare and internal critics like to judge and evaluate. You may want to find other ways of developing intimacy together by focusing on physical presence and practicing seeing one another with fresh eyes and love. A feeling of being seen with unconditional love and acceptance is deeply healing to the nervous system and builds emotional connection also. See my TEDs talk on this.
Bottom line: Be gentle, compassionate and patient, and keep showing up!
Self-diagnosing question 8
What would happen to my relationship if I stopped being afraid?
What I find teaching mind and heart connection work is that all relationships are a lot like pair-dancing.
- It requires two people with the desire to dance.
- What emerges is what they co-create together which demands that they pay attention to the other and not dancing alone together.
- When the music stops each must decide the best next step.
If you want to dance alone, try a rave or a disco but don’t mistake people moving to music for emotional connection.
Call to action
- You may enjoy deepening your self-awareness, relational and problem-solving skills with our fantastically powerful and deeply practical life improvement online programme
- Check out Body Talk book to deepen your mind-body connection and explore feelings through this powerful approach.
- Explore our Heart and Mind connection retreats where you can do deeper level personal work.
- Book a 1:1 session to explore how you can strengthen and heal your relationships.
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