The best thing and the worst thing about nonmonogamy is that sometimes you can have a full schedule of relationships. Unfortunately, this can sometimes lead to longer term relationships having little to no sexual connection, or becoming “really good roommates”. Usually when people talk about feeling like roommates, they are talking about no longer having sex with their nesting partner. What they may be missing is the other forms of intimacy that can happen in a relationship that also help it feel like more than a “just roommates” situation.
In a nutshell, everyone should consider the importance that emotional intimacy plays in cultivating a stronger relationship AND a stronger sex life. If you aren’t feeling like you want to have sex with your partner, but you still care about them and don’t completely feel asexual, you may want to consider that you need more emotional intimacy than you are getting. Emotional intimacy is one of several components required for a vibrant sex life in a long term relationship.
We previously spoke about how to identify emotional intimacy and differentiate it from other forms of intimacy. What I want to give you here are several ideas for how to rekindle and grow emotional intimacy when it feels like your relationship is slowly drifting apart.
Express Your Gratitude
We sometimes get to a point in the relationship where we only ever tell our partners what they are doing wrong, and occasionally saying a quick thank you for all the things they do that we see. For every one negative interaction in a relationship, you need five positive interactions to make up for it. Our brains are primed to focus on the negative and forget the positive. Expressing gratitude deeply and consistently is a great way to move the emotional bank account of your relationship into the positive.
This particular practice can be especially helpful if one partner is developing NRE with someone else. If the established partner is struggling to adjust, they can sometimes lose sight of their value. Try to do this practice at the beginning of a date night to set the mood.
- Sit across from each other, facing each other. Sit as close to each other as you can, knees touching. If this is not comfortable, put yourself as close as feels comfortable, and then move yourself one scootch forward (like an inch or two). Try to move just a bit closer every time you try this practice.
- Look into the other person’s eyes if possible*. I know looking into someone’s eyes isn’t always easy, so give it a try for a few seconds at a time. If you really struggle to look into someone’s eyes, consider why that is. If it’s emotionally jarring for you, consider talking to a therapist about the emotions that come up. Many children, especially those with Autism and ADHD, are traumatized into being forced to look into an authorities’ eyes as a sign of acknowledgement or dominance. You don’t want to associate the person you love with that experience. *If you try holding eye contact and it is not something you can build comfort with, that is ok. Some people can build that comfort, and for some it isn’t accessible.
- Hold hands if possible. If you really struggle to touch someone, this is another thing you can do in increments. Maybe start by putting one finger on their knee, or letting them put one finger on you. Or only hold hands for a minute before talking.
- Pick one person to go first as the speaker. That person should tell a story about a thing you appreciated about the other person this week or since your last time sitting down together. Be specific, and pick a different thing each time. “I appreciated the way you were flexible in making plans when I had that emergency come up. It helped me feel secure in the relationship because you worked with me to solve a problem and made an adjustment for me.”
- The listener should attempt to ask a question or request for expansion on some piece: “Tell me more about why making an adjustment for you helps you out.” “What was it that I did that looked like flexibility to you?” After that person goes into a bit more detail, try asking them to expand again on a different piece, perhaps part of what they expanded on.
- The listener should attempt to paraphrase the speaker after one or two questions to make sure they got it right. “When you had that emergency come up, you were grateful because I worked with you to solve the problem, which you aren’t used to because your parents always insisted everything should be done their way when you were a child.” The speaker can verify or correct what the listener paraphrased.
At first this is likely to be awkward and uncomfortable, because you aren’t used to engaging this way with anyone, even yourself. But the more you practice it, the more it becomes accessible, and the more you can lean into this kind of gratitude with yourself and others in your life.
Practice Active Listening With Each Other
This is a skill that is very useful to have in life, and practicing it with your partner can help take you to the next level and reduce conflict. The couples that struggle the most in the therapy room are couples who struggle with active listening skills. Active listening goes beyond just hearing the words another person is saying. It’s about being fully present in a conversation, asking questions to deepen understanding of the other person’s position, and withholding judgment or advice.
The setup is similar to the expressing gratitude practice, but is more generalized. You might talk about your entire day or an event that happened that week that was notable. The best way to start practicing this one is to focus on something that doesn’t involve your partner. As you get better at active listening, using this skill during conflict will help you navigate conflict much better.
Each person in this practice has a little more detail added to their duties, especially as they get into more difficult conversations and emotions. The speaker should make sure they are using emotion words, not just stating the facts: “My boss was being an asshole” could be replaced with “My boss asked me to do a task I hate when he already knows my plate is full of other things I need to get done. I felt anxious and overwhelmed because I didn’t think I was going to get this other important task done that I’ve been working on for a while.” Once the speaker moves to talking about more difficult things with their partner, they should focus on behaviors and “I” statements. “When you walked away from me at that party and started talking to that other person, I felt alone because I didn’t know anyone there and I wasn’t sure what to do.”
The role of the listener is the hard part, and the most important part. Your job is NOT to fix. Your job is to listen, understand, ask more questions, and show you understand through paraphrasing. So often when we are listening, we are trying to think about what we are going to say next, or how we can be useful. I know it’s surprising to think that simply understanding what someone else is saying and being curious about what is going on is the most useful thing you can do, and it fixes more than you realize!
Understanding How Your Partner Has Changed
Our blog post, Questions To Build Emotional Intimacy In Nonmonogamous Relationships, is a great place to start some of these conversations. Although the questions are built for growing love in newer relationships, they are also great for getting to know your partner all over again. Every time we go through a round of NRE, we learn new things and we rewire our brain a little bit.
Relationship guru Stan Tatkin talks about how we process our partners in the frontal lobe when we are first getting to know them, but when we get settled into a relationship, we move our mental model of our partner to our limbic system. That means we start reacting to them automatically instead of trying to consider how we should react and respond to them. This also means that updating our mental map of our partner is much harder to do once we’ve been in a relationship with them for a long time. If you’ve opened up to nonmonogamy and gone through a few rounds of NRE, there’s a good chance you have a vastly different outlook on things than when your relationship started. If you’ve gone through therapy, there’s also a good chance you’ve changed, sometimes drastically. People have to make an intentional effort to understand how their partner has changed once they are occupying limbic system space in their head.
What are you doing to update your mental map of your partner? What are the ways that you have changed and feel that they don’t understand? How are you communicating these changes to help them understand you better? What kind of time do you spend intentionally working to understand them better and in new ways? The more time, energy, and intention you put towards this practice, the stronger your relationship will likely become.
Asking the 36 questions is one way to update your map of your partner by re-learning things about them, or seeing how their answers are different from your mental model. You can also ask some additional questions to help you update your mental model.
- How do you think you are different from when we first met?
- What have been the moments that have affected you the most in our relationship?
- In what way do you think I’ve changed since we started dating?
- If you could change one thing about our relationship, what would it be?
- What is your favorite thing about our relationship?