One of the rules couples often have when they first open up is that they aren’t going to develop an emotional connection to others. Unfortunately, due to the way New Relationship Energy works, we don’t always have control over who we feel connected to. The flip side of this is that New Relationship Energy only feels like intense emotional connection. In reality, it isn’t.
So if those giddy feelings of deep emotional connection aren’t actually emotional intimacy, then what is? You can’t be emotionally intimate with another person if you aren’t emotionally intimate with yourself. The more emotionally intimate you are with yourself, the more you will be able to be emotionally intimate with another, and the more you will recognize it in others.
Ask yourself a few questions to fully understand your own emotional intimacy with yourself:
Did my parents allow me to feel my own emotions? Much of western society is built on the idea that emotions are bad and rationality is good. For those socialized to be perceived as male, it was likely you learned that crying, sadness, weakness, and vulnerability were especially “bad” emotions to display. For those socialized to be perceived as female, anger and assertiveness were likely shamed out of you. When you are not allowed to express an emotion like fear or sadness, it often ends up coming out in an expression that is allowed, like anger.
Did my parents make me responsible for their emotions to the point that I can’t tell my emotions from the emotions of others? When we grow up having to constantly attend to the emotions of others, we may get to a place where we can no longer identify our own internal states. All of our emotions become reactions to the emotions of others. It may seem counterintuitive that uncoupling your emotional reaction from someone else’s actually builds emotional intimacy, but what’s going on here is actually enmeshment.
Was my childhood emotionally devoid, but it’s hard to recognize? Your parents may have given everything you need to live and thrive, but maybe they were going through difficult times and weren’t around that much. You knew they loved you, but you mostly had to take care of yourself because they had to work to keep a roof over your head. Or maybe your family life was a bit chaotic and your parents just didn’t have time to attend to you with everyone else around. When we grow up with no one to attend to our needs beyond the basics, sometimes we reduce our emotional needs down to nothing to cope. We become disconnected from our emotional selves because there’s no point. This can be the most difficult type of emotional disconnection to recognize. You often don’t have words for your emotions, and/or you aren’t able to connect emotions to events, behaviors, beliefs.
When I’m feeling emotions that make me uncomfortable:
Do I sit with them and examine them, or do I try to make them go away as soon as possible? If your pattern is to drink, smoke pot, focus on others problems, or otherwise distract yourself away from difficult emotions, you will never figure out how to work through them and actually solve problems. Less obvious distractions such as overwork and playing video games can sometimes also be a sign that you aren’t actually paying attention to what’s going on inside you. One clue you may be leaning on distractions is if you get irritable or angry if a partner is complaining that you overwork, play too many video games, or spend too much time on your phone. A common distraction in nonmonogamy is going on lots of dates, scrolling dating apps, or frequent hook-ups.
Do I get defensive and try to find ways to get out of taking on the blame? When others come to you about problems in your relationship or difficult behaviors, do you immediately start thinking about all the ways you can negate what they just told you? Sometimes defensiveness is obvious, especially if it’s coming out in the form of anger. Sometimes defensiveness is more subtle, and might look like rationalization or loss of memory. If you hear yourself saying things like “But my intentions were….” or “I don’t remember saying that,” then you are still avoiding responsibility and negative emotions and the impact of your behavior. One clear way this shows up in nonmonogamy is the line “my other partner doesn’t want me doing that thing.” If the hinge in a relationship is constantly blaming their other partner for their decisions, then that is a form of avoiding responsibility and the emotions tied to them.
Obviously there’s a fine line to walk here. We are not responsible for the emotions of others, but we are responsible for the impact of our behaviors, which can include negative emotions in others. I know that line seems contradictory. The point here is to recognize where you end and the other person begins and to understand that there are consequences for your behaviors and consequences for your emotions.
You can say you are emotionally intimate with yourself when:
You can sit with your difficult emotions and understand where they are coming from and recognize how they may be influencing your behavior.
You can communicate your emotions to others without making them responsible for your emotions. This looks like changing your phrasing from “you make me so angry when you ignore me” to “when I see you spend a lot of time with your other partner, I feel a lot of anger because I would like to be spending that time with you.”. This may seem like a pedantic difference, but taking ownership and responsibility for your emotions is a sign of emotional maturity. The more emotional maturity you have, the more emotionally intimate you can be.
You can hear about the emotions of others without taking responsibility for them. This is also a sign of emotional maturity. When you learn to take responsibility for your own emotions, you also learn that others need to take responsibility for theirs. When you first start trying to navigate this pattern, this can feel very abstract and difficult to untangle.
You can set boundaries around what behaviors from others you will and won’t tolerate, and hold those boundaries even when it doesn’t feel great to do so. This might look like letting a partner know you won’t be available to talk when you are on a date with someone else. It can also look like making sure you don’t overbook your social calendar to the point of neglecting yourself, your partners, your friends, kids, pets, or obligations you have agreed to.
You can accept that difficult emotions are part of life, unavoidable, and sometimes a consequence of the only way to get through a situation. Often people get stuck in not taking action because the only choices they have before them are all bad choices with negative outcomes. What they often don’t realize is that doing nothing is also a choice with negative outcomes that is more damaging than picking the active choice.
These are not easy or simple habits and patterns to change or shift. They take time, they take repetition, and you will “screw up”, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t worth it. The more time, energy, and attention you pay to these, the more you will get back in authenticity of self and ability to feel more intimately connected to both yourself and others around you.