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The Voice of the Black Community

Life and Religion

Relationship RX: 9 tips for establishing emotional intimacy
Intimacy goes much deeper than sex
Published Wednesday, March 26, 2014
by Paul Dunion Ed.D, LPC

When I ask couples in counseling to tell me about the current status of their intimacy, they inevitably start talking about sex. After explaining that I’m talking about emotional intimacy, the man quickly turns his gaze toward his wife, and she typically speaks of the loneliness and isolation she experiences in the marriage. She may not know exactly what, but she does know that something is missing.


Most of the couples I counsel likely love each other, but sometimes they are unsure how to express, or even receive, that love.

When dreams of love’s promises begin to unravel, couples often turn to blaming, criticizing and/or avoiding each other. The truth is they were never given the skills necessary to transform love into a deep, emotionally intimate connection. It’s pretty much a set up to be significantly disillusioned, especially if trust has become significantly eroded. The couple either settles in to emotional mediocrity and alienation or get divorced.

It appears that we emerge from the womb with strong needs for emotional and physical attachment. These needs quickly translate into a natural inclination to experience deep heartfelt sentiments characteristic of loving and being loved. However, these feelings, regardless of their strength, are not enough to engender emotional intimacy, which is a learned competency.

The first step in developing emotional intimacy skills involves learning to prioritize our responsibility to love ourselves, and not asking significant others to do it for us. This means we need to grow enough mindfulness to be aware of being plagued by self-loathing and committed to learn how to interrupt it. People who love us can support this interruption process, but they cannot do the work for us.

It is also important to learn to identify your own emotional needs, which may include: the need to be seen, heard, encouraged, considered, included, nurtured, understood, accepted, engaged, touched, held, desired, forgiven, collaboratively joined in problem solving and decision making and the recipient of affection. (This skill can be especially challenging for men since male acculturation mandates that males should not have emotional needs.)

Each partner has to find their voice in the relationship and the ability to express their needs by making clear, concrete requests, with all requests being legitimate. (This helps to avoid getting into long-winded evaluations of requests, which simply distracts from attending meaningfully to requests.)

For men, when it comes to knowing and accepting their emotional needs, it is often helpful to have strong emotional support from other men. Often times when men come into their emotional needs with no other support aside from the significant females in their lives, they run a high risk of maternalizing their relationships, thus becoming sons of these women, which is not intimate.

The road to emotional intimacy also involves addressing breakdowns in a relationship where someone feels hurt and/or angry. To do so, it is important to identify the problem as someone’s unmet need and the person with the problem being the one with the unmet need. This breakdown protocol is critical since most breakdowns go unresolved because the problem and who has who has the problem go unidentified.

After identifying the nature of the unmet need, negotiate the means by which the need might be met and plan to talk along the way about how effectively the need is being met.

In a relationship, the ability to have honest conversations about fear is crucial. There are two fears which are a part of any committed relationship: the fear of losing ourselves to the preferences, values and beliefs of our partners and the fear of losing our partners either to some endeavor or to someone else. Agree to be open about having these conversations without shame and placing blame.

Developing the above skills should not be read as a formula, which if followed, guarantees a satisfying and an emotionally intimate relationship. Similar to love, emotional intimacy is a profound mystery, which will not be penetrated. It is a daring undertaking, calling for an earnest commitment to continue learning about who we are and what our relationships are asking for. And most of all, living with a softness, that allows us to forgive ourselves and those we love, as we fumble with the large energies flowing through emotional intimacy, such as passion, love, loyalty, betrayal, fear, anger, trust and distrust, commitment and disillusionment.

Paul Dunion Ed.D., LPC, is a therapist, cofounder of Boys to Men (mentoring teenage boys),  and author of the book, “Path of the Novice Mystic: Maintaining a Beginner's Heart and Mind,” available at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com and indie.com.


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