Intimacy implies closeness or feeling attuned, known by your partner, and connected. Emotional connection is the main reason we seek committed relationships. We are all wired for intimacy. Intimacy is usually thought of as physical and sexual in nature. True, but another avenue to intimacy is through conversation, i.e., the manner in which couples converse on a daily basis. Many people think that effective conversation entails making yourself sound interesting to others when actually it is all about being interested in others and listening or feeling heard by others when expressing needs and vulnerabilities. Attuned communication in everyday life is necessary to maintain any relationship. So what does attuned communication involve?
1. First, put your feelings into words. It is difficult for some people to verbalize their emotions. Because they aren’t sure what’s going on inside, they are unable to share their feelings with their partner. This can be a huge obstacle when trying to connect. Please don’t be dismissive of your emotions or ashamed if you have difficulty articulating them. Instead, let your partner know that identifying your feelings is a challenge. We often express our feelings through anger, but beneath most anger is a deeper more vulnerable emotion. Consider enlisting him or her to assist you in figuring them out, like help me out here… or give me a minute….I’m having a hard time saying what I am really feeling.
2. Ask open-ended questions. Avoid queries that your partner can punt with single words such as “yes,” or “no:” which kill conversations before they start. Instead pose questions in ways that require a deeper response. Replace “Did you have a good day at work?” with “So, what was it like at work today?” Instead of “Did you like the movie?” try “What did you think of the movie?” This technique doesn’t apply just to everyday exchanges but also to conversations about significant issues. “Are you upset?” can close off further discussion but “You seem upset–what’s going on?” will encourage it.
3. Follow up with statements that deepen connection. After your partner answers a question, respond by saying back what you just heard, in your own words. It’s okay if your description isn’t 100 percent accurate, but don’t make assumptions or put words into the other’s mouth. When you reflect back your partner’s thoughts and feelings in an understanding manner, you encourage him or her to open up more.
4. Express compassion and empathy. This is central in intimate conversation. When your partner is upset, be on his or her team whether the issue is trivial or significant. If you think your mate is overreacting or should have a “different” emotional response, stifle the urge to offer your opinion and suggestions. Based on John Gottman’s research, we know that being the voice of reason is not always the best approach. Let other people play that role. Yours is to let the person you love know that you’re standing with him or her. You get and accept his or her emotions as valid–because “all” feelings are.
Although you have probably been tempted, don’t offer opinions or problem-solve until you’ve gone through all four of these steps. Ready advice sounds glib and insulting to many people. (“Are you saying I can’t think of a solution? I am not stupid!”) I would go even further and warn you not to give advice at all unless asked. Just being there and listening is an enormous contribution.
And that’s what I suggest to couples who are lacking intimate conversations. Follow this method in your daily interactions and you’ll be amazed by how much you discover about each other. I often recommend that couples schedule a “ritual of connection” or a “how was your day?” chats, using this method to check in and reconnect.