There is no common sense in couples therapy. Common sense tells us that emotional intimacy is an easy-peasy process...or that it should be. 

It is, in fact, nothing of the kind.

Unfortunately, some of us come into this world poorly equipped to handle that one special relationship that we eagerly signed on for. But our partners still need us to show up.

For some, if not many of us, emotional intimacy is wicked hard. Many of us struggle through time to better understand it.

Our capacity for emotional intimacy pulls on all of our family of origin insecurities like a puppy pulling on a pork chop.

Our family of origin is like a pocket knife; always with us and able to equally slice or serve us. What matters is whether we grasp our memories by the blade or the handle.

Emotional intimacy is wicked hard

The late David Schnarch reminded us that intimacy isn’t for victim mindsets, control freaks, the perpetually gridlocked, or any other denizens of the shallow end of the emotional pool of love and life.

On the other hand, in my humble opinion, emotional intimacy can be pretty damn difficult for some of us. 

I remember seeing John Gottman speak in the mid 90’s. Someone in the audience asked him about the then-popular ideas of Dr. David Schnarch, and the notion of having sex with your eyes wide open (more about that later).

Dr. Gottman was dismissive of notions of a “chosen few” who had a deeper, more robust capacity for “authentic” intimacy; erotic or otherwise. 

I could not decide at the time if he was embarrassed by the idea, or whether he just thought it was a cheap parlor trick.

Gottman reminded the therapist audience that he saw himself as a “plumber” roto-rootering out the pipes so the emotional crap doesn’t back up.

But there was one thing Gottman believed and that was that emotional intimacy is best built with intentional practice. And the best intentional practice also helps couples to better self-define.

So in the spirit of examining the limits of human emotional endurance, here are 7 intimacy hacks that are wicked hard to do...these are not for the faint of heart! 

These 7 interventions are the base-jumping of emotional intimacy!

1. Go eye to eye...a quick 3 minute Oxytocin hack from neuroscience

  • Set an alarm for 3 minutes. 

  • Sit face-to-face with anywhere from a  1  to 3 inch distance between you. 

  • Close your eyes, take 3 deep breaths with an exhale 3x as long as your inhale. Slowly open your eyes, on the last exhale and meet your partners’ gaze.

  • Look into your partner’s left eye first, then both eyes. Quiet your face down, as you will see a tendency to defensively grimace. 

  • Settle into not talking but blink as you normally do. 

  • You’ll notice vulnerable feelings arising, and for some even anxious or intrusive thoughts. These are just unwelcome visitors. Notice them, but don’t greet them. For most, these feelings will quietly settle down into a warm familiarity. Your eyes and facial muscles will soften as you relax into your partner’s gaze.

Neuroscience tells us that gazing into your intimate partner's eyes is a reliable way to release Oxytocin into the brain. Research on this sort of eye contact has shown that it promotes trust and empathy.

Practice this eye-gazing ritual for 3 minutes daily for 30 days. That’s a monthly investment of an hour and a half per month for regular injections of Oxytocin. 

Eye-gazing is a brain hack; you’re intentionally using your brain as a chemical factory. 

It’s kind of a self-directed pharmacological intervention. It’s not easy, but the benefits are profound.

Seriously...what are the benefits of staring into my lover’s eyes?

Oxytocin makes us feel warm and fuzzy. We feel good, connected, safe and loved. Oxytocin is released in the body to soothe and alleviate stress. 

I could also tell you that higher levels of oxytocin helps protect against aging and helps rejuvenate old stem and muscle cells, according to recent animal studies.

Eye to eye contact between loved ones also engages the moral brain. We eventually pick up on our intimate partner’s emotions as we settle into a present moment awareness. 

This soothes and settles our nervous system in a profound way, using nature's own medicine. Intentional effort has its rewards.

But this can be an awkward and difficult exercise at first. 

So please try just 3 minutes. If 3 is too long, try to push past 3 minutes once you do get the hang of it and, trust me, you will.

Learn this. I’m not kidding, this is powerful juju.

2. Hugging until relaxed

Popularized by the late Dr. David Schnarch, it’s a remarkably simple exercise or so it seems.

Hugging till relaxed is elegant and simple. The basics require four sentences: stand on your own two feet. Put your arms around your partner. Focus on yourself. Quiet yourself down – way down. David Schnarch.

But a hug, seemingly simple at first, is a much more complicated division of labor for many spouses. 

You both have your part in holding up your end of the hug.

The politics of emotional intimacy or what kind of hug is this?

Many married couples hug briefly and mindlessly, the way they hug grandma when she’s been hitting the sherry. Unfortunately, too many marital hugs are both too brief and too perfunctory.

When does a hug end anyway? What are the politics of adding seconds to a hug...minutes to a hug? What happens if you get horny? Or if you start breathing funny?

With the hugging until relaxed intervention none of that matters. 

You’re gonna plow through all that mental noise with a singular intent: to hug until you are relaxed.

Yeah, I said you.

So with David’s forbearance, let me add a little meat on to the bones of his brief instruction.

  • Stand upright on your own two feet. Do not lean on your partner to support your weight in any way.

  • Embrace your partner with a mildly firm hug. You both need room for your lungs to expand and contract while breathing.

  • Resolve the politics of where your noses will briefly dwell.

  • The first 2 minutes or so may be tense and awkward for some. You may need some skills here. That’s ok. We can help with that.

  • Focus on yourself and not your partner. Only you can relax you here. Don’t feel responsible for your partner calming down, they will settle when you settle.

  • Breathe...keep breathing...then breathe more deeply. Oxytocin will be released into your bloodstream after you’ve been hugging for about 20 seconds.

  • Notice your thoughts-you feel resistance don’t you? What kind of a hug is this? Keep breathing. Exhale and notice.

  • You have 5 senses. Use them. What is each sense conveying? What do you see? Hear? Feel? Smell?

  • Now engage and recruit your senses. Hear their breathing. Listen for their heartbeat (and yours), smell the skin on their neck and smell their hair.

  • Notice your body. Does it feel warm? Are you relaxing? Notice and keep breathing.

  • Try to make it past one minute. It’s over when either of you breaks the hug. 

  • This is not an easy exercise. It’s wicked hard. Were either of you “directing” the hug? Was there a power struggle? What were the politics of disengagement? 

  • An intimate conversation afterward might fruitfully explore the inner resistances that you both felt as your protracted hug drifted deliberately past the Grandma Zone.

This is also an incredibly powerful practice, still difficult, but a bit easier than eye to eye.

3. Emotional intimacy Olympics! The synchronized breathing event…

Our bodies have their own wisdom and sometimes it’s fascinating when we can manage to become calm and connected enough to see it happen; just by noticing and not getting in the way. 

Let’s talk about synchronized breathing; breathing as one.

It’s also not as hard as going eye to eye, but the first few breaths settling in might be uncomfortable. Notice the anxiety, but stay with it. Until you breathe as one, it will pass.

  • Lay on your sides on the bed. Settle in. Get comfortable. 

  • Lean in together until your foreheads are gently touching.

  • Notice your own breath. Notice your partner's breath. Let your breathing be separate, but listen to, and allow your bodies to synchronize on the in-breath. 

  • Notice when your breathing is aligned. Watch the anxious thoughts arise. Keep noticing the synchronized breathing.

  • Stay with it for a while. Then share thoughts of what that experience was like.

This is also a powerful and approachable technique for building emotional intimacy.

4. Eyes wide open and sex with the lights on!

There is an unavoidable social-biology to sex. We are both physically and emotionally vulnerable during coitus. Many cultures have codified these anxieties with eyes snapped shut, lights out, and even strategically located holes in bed clothes.

In the mid 90’s, the notion of an heroic intimacy enjoyed by a “blessed few” distracted therapists from the far less sexy work of helping couples to build a “good enough” relationship.

This was David Schnarch’s mid-90’s head fake; gazing into your lover's eyes was a titillating idea but of little consequence compared to the more significant event of Gottman’s lecture tour, which presented a summary of 3 decades of significant research. Eye-Gazing Sex, to Gottman’s obvious annoyance, was getting way too much bandwidth at the time.

I imagine that for many of my gentle readers, eyes wide open sex could be quite anxiety provoking. I can personally vouch for the fact that it’s hard to reconcile with 4 years of Parochial School.

I remember attending a sexuality conference back then and hearing therapists raving that once you can have eyes wide open sex, your erotic “potential” explodes.

Gottman recoiled from all of this erotic elitism. There was an ancient morality peering through his obvious annoyance.

Couples are stressed to the breaking point and are fighting in front of their children...there is work to be done!

It reminded me of what Steve Jobs said to Pepsi executive John Sculley when he was trying to lure him to become Apple’s next CEO.

“Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?”

Gottman said it plainly, and I’ll never forget it.

He said, couples have varying capacities for intimacy, and as long as both assess their intimate lives as lovingly and respectfully functional (“good enough”), he saw no benefit in nudging them toward greater intimacy for its own sake.

That was almost 25 years ago and “good enough” still is. 

However, “good enough” only works as a shared assessment. Problems occur when one partner feels things are currently “good enough” but the other feels cheated.

It is also true that there is an athleticism to intimacy. It requires work, or emotional muscles will atrophy.

Both Gottman and Schnarch suggest that the ability to tolerate and manage differences is essential for greater sexual and emotional intimacy.

There is no research to endorse the merits of gazing into your lover’s eyes during sex per se. It might be hard for you to do comfortably because of family of origin or cultural issues but sex does release our old friend Oxytocin.

5. Boss Days

My friend Shirley told me about a therapist friend of hers who was working very hard on a childhood-trauma related to what she describes as a “martyr complex.” 

She wanted to intentionally build greater emotional intimacy with her spouse.

Her and her husband had "Boss Days” where one partner would get to be completely and unapologetically in charge. 

One ritual they actually planned for was their birthdays, now redefined as "Birthday Boss Days." 

How do Boss Days work?

Boss Days are nearly neanderthal in their simplicity…

The boss asks for what they want that day and their partner delivers!

But Boss Days aren’t so simple, they can be an opportunity for greater emotional intimacy.

She said the actual important work is the time she takes thinking about what she actually wants and what it would take for her to give herself permission to ask for it directly. 

Clearly in an unhealthy relationship this could be problematic but it worked for the two of them quite well (and they didn't have children at the time...so there's that).

This is an example of what David Schnarch called “self-validated” intimacy. In the “Boss Day” intervention, your emotional intimacy with yourself is what is front and center. 

You can’t avoid the question, it’s quite emotionally intimate-what do you want for yourself and what can you comfortably ask for? 

The challenge in getting exactly what you want is proverbial.

Can the idea that you want something suffice? Or do you feel the need for your partner’s approval? Explore and discuss.

6. The 6-second kiss

One of the important things that Gottman noticed was how important rituals of connections  are for building and maintaining emotional intimacy.

The 6 second kiss is perhaps the easiest of these 7 interventions. 

The 6-second kiss harnesses and recruits the powerful neurochemistry of kissing.

Kissing releases a powerful chemical sequence into your bloodstream. Let’s discuss this process one delicious chemical at a time.

First, the hormone oxytocin, inspires you both to feel close and emotionally connected.

Dopamine, the chemical of pleasure-seeking, and motivation toward pleasure hits the nervous system next.

On the heels of the Dopamine, the epinephrine and norepinephrine kicks in.

This accounts for why your heart beats faster, and why a thousand butterflies flutter ceaselessly in your stomach.

The late, great, Judee Sill wrote an achingly beautiful song about the power of a kiss nearly 50 years ago…

As the kiss lingers, your stress melts away as your blood pressure drops. This is because the 6-second kiss can actually lower your cortisol levels. 

This is the sweet communion of a kiss.

But remember that research tells us that from a chemical-hacking perspective the best kisses are at least 6 seconds long.

The 6-second kiss is a kiss with potential, a kiss worthy of eagerly coming home to

Gottman’s research recommends bestowing and receiving one 6-second kiss before you leave home for work.

A book-end 6-second kiss when you return home could be a delightful force-multiplier.

Kissing is a chemical love note. It says I see you, you see me, we’re here taking 6-seconds to acknowledge our emotional connection.

Kissing provides chemical confirmation of your sexual and emotional connection and wipes all your tears away.

Play with the 6-second kiss. Listen. Taste. Smell. Lean in closer. Silently swooping down...notice how your partner smells and tastes. 

Testosterone plays a role in kissing. Kissing is arousing to men, it’s a gateway to eroticism. The 6-second kiss contradicts the tendency to abbreviate kisses as familiarity curbs the urgency of new love.

Happy couples have a more expansive sense for the utility of protracted kissing. Couples who kiss frequently tend to be happier and more emotionally connected, they happily anticipate the sweet communion of a kiss. 

Again, it bears repeating...play with the 6-second kiss. Like going eye to eye, it’s a self-induced chemical hack that might reliably de-stress you and your partner... at will!

7. Any other intentional behavioral collaboration….

Any intentional effort to challenge relational laziness is going to invite the potential for greater emotional intimacy. 

Gottman has a 6-hours a week to greater emotional intimacy intervention that highlights the importance of rituals of emotional connection.

But deliberate change does not have to start out as a mammoth undertaking.

It can be a modest change, such as using a Gottman card deck for 20 minutes a week.

Intimacy avoidant spouses could decide to notice what they use to distract themselves from recognizing opportunities for greater emotional intimacy. We can help with that.

How do you distract yourself from opportunities for greater intimacy? Running errands? Your smart phone? Food? Shopping?

Some couples seek distance with sarcasm and fights about nothing. 

Admit that there are behaviors you rely upon to sometimes keep your partner at bay. 

Talk about them. Normalize them.

Pick one to notice, and consider committing to a 7-day fasting period from that particular behavior.

Notice what comes up when you do it and then talk about it with no designated bad guy

I am often humbled by how hard my clients work to achieve a deeper connection. 

Emotional intimacy is a wonderful thing, and pushing your capacity to deepen and grow makes sense for most struggling couples.

But some therapists continue to be enthralled by possibilities for ever-deeper emotional intimacy. And Schnarch’s ideas will continue to feed that fascination.

Emotional intimacy and self-validated intimacy

David Schnarch was a persuasive advocate for the primacy of what he described as “self-validated intimacy.”

Schnarch felt that the excessive focus on attachment injuries inhibited our innate responsibility for taking care of ourselves, to inhabit our own feelings more fully and confront our own pain.

Schnarch encouraged his clients to grow themselves up through regular, ongoing self-confrontation. He was firmly in the differentiation camp, and  debated attachment-oriented therapists on the moral peril of other-validated intimacy.

A greater capacity for self-confrontation, David argued, builds character, increases self-respect, and restores confidence.

But that doesn’t mean you avoid describing your attachment injuries...or minimize them. But David was annoyed that attachment-oriented therapists always moved forward from a model that something was “missing” in the relationship.

Schnarch lamented that most partners insist on a personal guarantee in advance that they will not be judged harshly, and that their partner will make it safe for them to disclose and even soothe them if need be.

The internet has commodified other-validated intimacy in ways that Schnarch could not have predicted way back in the 90’s.

David tirelessly argued that these restrictive, attachment-saturated conditions for what passes for intimacy  saps courage, undermines honesty, and promotes toxic dependency, deception, and cognitive distortions

In the light of the crushing impacts of COVID stress, I have warmed considerably to Schnarch’s perspective.

There are no personal guarantees with authentic emotional intimacy.

The reason emotional intimacy is so hard is because it involves more than just self-disclosure it also requires an ability to confront our own BS.

We have to learn how to take ourselves on sometimes. An occasional capacity for pitiless self-evaluation and radical acceptance will help build our inner resilience. 

All these wonderful capacities come courtesy of the new kid on the block, the neocortex.

What aspects of emotional intimacy do Schnarch and Gottman agree on? 

Schnarch and Gottman both hold that our capacity for greater emotional intimacy lies with our developing a more powerful, deliberate, neo-cortical approach to our attachment injuries.

Both see the limbic system as a blunt instrument, crafted by natural selection over millennia with a narrow agenda to “keep us safe.” 

As long as our eternally unworthy reptile brains are in charge of our emotional intimacy, we will focus on our partners more than ourselves; preoccupied with their willingness to reliably soothe us, to validate us and to accept whatever version of ourselves that we are preoccupied with at the moment. This will thwart our attempts at true emotional intimacy.

Final thoughts about how wicked hard emotional intimacy can be.

Schnarch warned us that safety was less important than truth. Authentic emotional intimacy is marinated in truth

But our inner world is primarily our own responsibility and how we choose to describe it to our partner matters. 

And frankly, many of our clients agree somewhat with Dr. Schnarch as well. 

CTI seems to consistently attract successful, driven couples that are hungry for a greater capacity for intimacy.

But at some point, the pursuit of emotional intimacy takes us back to our family of origin, and the lessons we learned, or didn’t learn, there...like an old pocket knife that has both a blade and a handle.

Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to notice our partner’s limitations than it is to perceive our own. We can help with that too.

Emotional intimacy is wicked hard but it can often become “good enough” with sustained intentional effort. Toward that modest, but glorious goal, we will do our best to help you get there.

References

  • Constructing the Sexual Crucible: An Integration of Sexual and Marital Therapy. WW. Norton & Company, New York, 1991, ISBN 0-393-70102-6
  • Passionate Marriage: Sex, Love & Intimacy in emotionally committed relationships. WW. Norton & Company, New York, 1997. ISBN 978-0393334272
  • Resurrecting Sex: Solving Sexual Problems and Revolutionizing Your Relationship. HarperCollins, New York, 2002, ISBN 978-006-01935-91
  • Intimacy & Desire: Awaken the Passion in Your Relationship Beaufort Books, New York, 2009. ISBN 978-1689933223

Daniel Dashnaw


Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

Getting started with Couples Therapy Inc

Leave a Reply

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}