Author’s note: If you are in a situation where speaking freely about what you think and feel could result in abuse or assault, the recommendations in this article are not for you.
To understand bold (emotional) intimacy, it’s helpful to look at its opposite: emotional distancing. Emotional distancing tends to cast a wet blanket on the joys that are possible in relationships. There are countless ways of creating emotional distance, but the common denominator is a withholding and a censoring of honest thoughts, feelings, and reactions (Davanloo, 2000). One form of emotional distancing in romantic relationships is arguing. During arguments, both individuals are not truly hearing each other. Instead, defensiveness takes over. As a result, no one is likely to feel seen, heard, and acknowledged. This is a lost opportunity for closeness, for bold intimacy.
The “Two-Person Relationship”
To address this issue, I want to introduce a new concept. I call it the “two-person relationship,” not altogether dissimilar from the concept of two-person psychology (Kafes, 2017). It includes several elements, but basically it’s a relationship dynamic wherein the feelings and needs of each person are given equal weight. In this way of relating, honest thoughts and feelings are shared directly but not unkindly, and the other is not treated as an extension of oneself. The concept of the two-person relationship does not have to be romantic or even limited to two people, but can apply to any relationship dynamic where increased authenticity and emotional closeness is desired.
What does it look like to not treat the other as an extension of oneself? My point of view doesn’t cancel out or overshadow your point of view; the feelings of everyone involved are acknowledged as having equal validity. When I see you as an extension of me, I operate on the premise that because I want something from you, you should give it to me. It’s denial of the other as a separate person—“denial [of the other as separate] through fantasy of sameness” (Fredrickson, 2017). The formula to keep in mind when you want to honor the other as an individual goes like this: “Here is what I would like, but how would that be for you?” We ask the other to factor in our feelings and wishes in their own decision-making process, but the other is free to decide, to be autonomous. Demands become requests.
What does uncensored and honest sharing look like, and what makes this intimacy bold? Intimacy is the act of sharing what is on your mind. Sometimes what is on the mind is “I love you.” Other times it is “I’m so angry with you a part of me wants to tell you off and slam the door in your face!” The first sentiment is no more intimate than the latter. Both sentiments are just the truth of your experience. Intimacy is to share this with the intent of lowering walls, not to act out and cause harm.
Lowering psychic walls in this fashion can require boldness because many of us were raised to mute and detach from intense emotions, to filter out negative reactions, and to not directly say “I am angry with you.” It is bold because it requires honesty about feelings, including negative feelings, without the intent of acting on them (Lockwood et al., 2015). This is the difference between saying “I am so angry with you a part of me feels like saying something hurtful” and saying something hurtful.
How Do I Stop the Arguing?
The first mistake arguing couples often make is getting sucked into the content of an argument rather than simply staying centered and present with their own experiences and feelings about how the interaction is playing out. Getting into the content of an emotionally charged discussion often leads to defensiveness and prolonged arguments that are rarely fulfilling.
Intimacy is the act of sharing what is on your mind. Sometimes what is on the mind is “I love you.” Other times it is “I’m so angry with you a part of me wants to tell you off and slam the door in your face!” The first sentiment is no more intimate than the latter.
Partner A, with scolding tone: “Haven’t I asked you already to take out the trash?” Partner B: “I don’t appreciate your tone. It sounds scolding and that makes me mad.” Just a simple, non-accusatory observation about partner B’s own emotion and what is making them feel that emotion. At that point, there is no argument. If partner A continues to scold or otherwise verbally treat partner B poorly, partner B simply states: “And this makes me mad too.” If partner A continues to scold, partner B can say, “You’re doing it a third time and it’s making me very angry. I am not willing to be talked to this way, and this conversation is over. If you want to try to talk this through without being demeaning, we can try again in a couple of hours.”
This is bold emotional intimacy. An intimate communication has an open-ended quality, where it’s not so much “I am mad and here is why, end of discussion” or “Here is how I see things, end of discussion,” but instead “Here is how I feel and here is how I see things, how about you?” Lowering walls in this way anchors partner B—strong, clear, and assertive—to their own experience while leaving room for the other’s experience.
If partner A doesn’t respond in a supportive manner or continues to invalidate, yell, shame, or guilt, partner B can end the conversation with a timeline for when to try to reconvene. This is important as it avoids leaving partner A hanging in terms of when the issue might be resolved.
Supporting Each Other’s Feelings
Another important element in fostering emotional intimacy is supporting each other’s feelings. This does not mean bending over backward to try to cheer the other person up, nor does it mean supporting or tolerating being treated poorly. It simply means acknowledging that, based on how the other person sees things, their feelings make sense—even if how they deal with their feelings isn’t helping.
A supportive response simply sounds like, “I can see why you are feeling ______ and I don’t blame you.” It’s important to understand that supporting the other’s feelings does not require that you agree, and if the other deals with their feelings in ways that are hurtful, you certainly don’t have to support that. Disagreeing but remaining supportive can look like this: “I understand you’re angry with me, and I am sure you have good reasons, but dealing with your anger by lecturing me is not okay. Just tell me you’re angry, and let’s talk about it.”
Avoiding the trap of arguing by establishing bold intimacy involves tuning into our true feelings about what is taking place and communicating these feelings in a straightforward fashion. You can’t argue with how someone feels. Simply declaring your emotions and allowing space for the other to respond can stop an argument in its tracks. Taking the additional step of acknowledging that the other’s feelings are reasonable adds the element of emotional support, creating a sense of closeness. When this happens, no one feels alone. The emotional isolation created by arguing fades, replaced by the relational space that can hold and contain differences.
The aforementioned ideas and understandings are inspired adaptations of the work and principles of Dr. Habib Davanloo’s (2000) intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy (ISTDP), as well as the ideas of Marvin Skorman, MA, LMHC (2007), who has adapted ISTDP principles into a framework for conducting couples counseling.
- Davanloo, H. (2000). Intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy: Selected papers of Habib Davanloo, MD. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
- Fredrickson, J. (2017). The lies we tell ourselves: How to face the truth, accept yourself, and create a better life. Kansas City: Seven Leaves Press.
- Lockwood, C., & Ikemoto-Joseph, R. (2015). In the hot seat: Applying intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy (ISTDP) to couples counseling. The Society for the Advancement of Psychotherapy, 50(4), 26-30. Retrieved from http://www.catherinelockwoodmft.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/IN-THE-HOT-SEAT-ISTDP-with-Couples-Counseling-3.pdf
- Kafes, R. (July 2017), [seminar handout] About the Intersubjective Systems Perspective. Tucson, AZ.
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