Emotional Intimacy in marriage is challenging enough during ordinary times. But tough times introduce external stressors that can make married life extraordinarily stressful.
The more we actually study emotional intimacy in marriage from the vantage point of neuroscience, the more we discover that an abiding sense of emotional connection is difficult for a brain and nervous system which, as a rule, privileges safety over intimacy.
And when your safety is threatened daily, your nervous system already has a plan for you…getting back to safety… pronto.
But what makes a partner feel unsafe?
The danger and threat that we experience in our emotional world is sometimes at the hands of our most intimate others.
But it is the accumulated emotional weight of our conversations that establishes a baseline sentiment override with our intimate partner.
That baseline is either positive or negative… and influences nearly all of our relational experiences.
Here are 7 reasons from neuroscience why emotional intimacy in marriage is so hard these days:
1. What your partner sees, and how they hear you is more important than the words you say.
Intimacy is driven by a sense of safety which is secured by external cues, but unfortunately, we tend to place more importance on our sentences than on our stance.
Words are important, but your partner’s nervous system responds more reliably to the volume, tone, and pitch of your voice, as well as your facial expressions, quality of eye contact, and overall body language.
Don’t get me wrong, in couples therapy we focus a great deal on the impact of your words. However, if your partner doesn’t “feel” safe, words alone will not suffice.
2. Don’t just pay attention to your partner…make a greater effort to bestow attention
We tend to permit our attention to become easily distracted.
But during times of great upheaval, we can’t be sloppy communicators with our best friend and life partner. The human brain and nervous system require a congruent presentation, a set of boxes to check that convey a sense of safety.
When you bestow attention, competing distractions are dispensed with. Clear signals of interest are singular and focused. There is no divided attention, no competition. No phone, no food, no pets.
You are singularly focused on your partner, and you are relaxed, friendly, open, and curious.
3. Without safety there can be no emotional intimacy in marriage
When we display divided attention at a critical moment (such as when a phone alerts us, and we shift attention away from our partner), we have just altered their safety level.
Your partner's brain and nervous system notice these cues.
In an instant, their degree of safety shifted. What story will your partner create about the meaning of your responding to your phone? Will you have to de-escalate the situation? We can help with that.
So what happens next when emotional intimacy in marriage gets hijacked?
A couples therapist might tell you that it depends on your sentiment override, but a neuroscientist will tell you it depends on how safe your partner feels. This is because we human beings can sometimes feel unentitled to our own feelings.
Safety matters. We need to feel validated, and have the felt sense that the thoughts or feelings we are experiencing in the present moment can be disclosed and discussed.
It helps when our external culture reflects our inner experience, and doesn’t scold or condemn us. Then we know whether or not our thoughts or feelings are even safe to talk about.
The prevailing thinking in couples therapy is that in order to attain emotional intimacy in our marriage, we first require a shared understanding that it is safe, acceptable, and even advantageous to do so.
This sentiment among couples therapy thought leaders is apparently universal, (Huff, 2012), (Johnson, 2008), (Gottman,1999) (Hendrix & Hunt,1999), Fishbane, (1986, 2013), and Wile, (1995).
4. You gotta go eyeball to eyeball
We tend to confuse shared amusement with intimacy. Parallel play, like watching a movie together, or sitting next to each other with devices. Proximity might be soothing…but it isn't necessarily intimacy.
You have to go eyeball to eyeball. A generative conversation once a week will help you build more emotional muscle, and build your intimacy skills.
Once in a committed relationship, we tend to take each other for granted. It’s an unfortunate truth that eventually our relationship behaviors tend to become more reflexive and automatic.
Emotional intimacy in marriage is a skill which is honed by the effective management of healthy conflict.
If your partner's brain doesn’t get enough bestowed attention from you, their safety level will eventually decline. That conflict requires immediate attention.
Emotional intimacy means talking about how you talk.
5. Be here now…and hover like a drone
Our nervous systems are reactive, not reflective. But we can decide to breathe, notice, and slow down instead.
One of my recent clients called it “presence.” which she described as a felt sense of safety that arises when she experiences her partner’s bestowed attention…the special feeling of being on the receiving end of her partner’s singular focus, congruence, gentleness, and curiosity.
Once you feel sufficiently safe, you and your partner can creatively hover over the conversation like a drone and go “meta.”
Going “meta” means having a conversation about your conversations, and describing emotions as visitors that typically come and go.
Gottman’s famous “Dreams Within Conflict” intervention teaches couples that effective conflict management is an unavoidable aspect of intimacy.
Our nervous system, with its endless preoccupation with safety, actually blocks our awareness of what lies beneath our defensive reactivity, because we can get emotionally flooded so quickly.
When we reflexively accommodate our fears, we consign ourselves to a relationship of pain and confusion.
But when we can playfully have “conversations about our conversations” and roleplay different responses, we might just figure out a way of being more present to one another.
Emotional intimacy can be accelerated when you can go “meta” and talk about how you hold conversations.
You might prefer this newer way of talking to what you are doing now out of sheer habit and muscle memory.
6. Do it now; practice makes progress
We think we should “just be ourselves.” We want emotional intimacy in marriage to be easy, and perhaps we’re annoyed whenever we find it’s not.
If you want a deeper emotional intimacy in your marriage, practice talking differently. I’ve found that card decks have been very helpful for couples looking to escape the rut of their automatic stimulus/response banter.
Once the novelty of a new relationship wears off, we might become more uncertain about our partner…will they have our back? Can we count on them? Will they consider our needs as equal to their own?
If the answer is no, the brain will prioritize safety, because trust has been violated.
But it’s also true that realistic expectations sometimes take time to emerge.
Healthy relationships are based on how well you handle your differences, not on caving in too quickly, or ignoring them.
7. Slow down and notice; for most of us, our brains and nervous system work too damn fast, and we make stuff up
In good couples therapy, you’ll take a hard look at your automatic speech habits. You’ll learn about softened startups, defensiveness, and repair attempts. Because while intimacy is sweet…it isn't always easy.
“For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been given to us, the ultimate, the final problem and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.” - Ranier Maria Rilke
Final thoughts on emotional intimacy in marriage
From a neuroscience perspective…intimacy is new-fangled. It’s the hardest part of being human.
Our autonomic nervous system has no problem with feeling happy and secure in a committed relationship…but sometimes it has a different agenda.
In other words, our brains and nervous systems are utterly preoccupied with keeping us safe in an increasingly anxious and chaotic world.
The background stress of living through successive waves of a lethal pandemic, profound economic and political uncertainty, and the heartbreaking events in Europe show no signs of letting up.
We live in anxious times. Breathe. Notice. Talk about how you talk.
Be kind, curious, and present a little more often, you don’t have to elevate everything you do… or bestow attention all of the time… it just has to be comfortably “good enough.”
Emotional intimacy in marriage isn’t always easy…but If you can occasionally manage to do this…who knows what will happen?
You might, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once quipped, “slip briskly into an intimacy from which you might never recover.”
Fishbane, M. (1986, Jul). No Time for Sex? Chatelaine. 59, 56-58.
Fishbane, M. (2013). A neurobiological-relational approach to couples therapy. In Creating connection: A relational-cultural approach with couples (pp. (2013), p 2166-2414).
Gottman, J.M. (1999). The marriage clinic: A scientifically based marital therapy. New York, NY: W W Norton.
Hendrix, H., & Hunt, H. (1999). Imago Relationship Therapy: Creating a conscious marriage or relationship. In Preventative approaches in couples therapy (pp.(1999), p 1169-1610.
Huff, S. C. (2012). A Review of “Love and War in Intimate Relationships: Connection, Disconnection, and Mutual Regulation in Couple Therapy”, by Stan Tatkin. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 11:3, 271-272, DOI: 10.1080/15332691.2012.692950
Johnson, S. (2008). Hold me tight: seven conversations for a lifetime of love. New York: Little Brown.
Wile, D.B. (1995). An ego-analytic approach to couples therapy. In N.S. Jacobson & A.S. Gurman (Eds), Clinical handbook of couples therapy (pp.91-120). New York: Guilford.