What is emotional intimacy?

When couples begin therapy, I get asked a lot of great questions~

“What is emotional intimacy? Why would I want to learn this skill? 

and eventually, “How can I strengthen this skill?” 

First, why would I want to learn this skill?

By courageously sharing your inner world with your partner – (still in a thoughtful way knowing your partner’s vulnerabilities)– and vice versa, in addition to being a safe “place” for one another (open, accepting, excellent listener, compassionate, aware of how to attune and respond) ~

You and your partner will feel more connected, closer and able to form a deeper bond.

It’s also a huge GIFT to be authentically known and accepted by your partner.

On an equally important level, I often hear from one partner (in a couples session) that they want more sexual intimacy, but their partner continually rejects them saying:

I can’t be physically or sexually intimate because I don’t feel emotionally close to you.

I am hoping that the information in this blog (+ professional support if needed) will help you strengthen your skills in emotional (& other forms of) intimacy in order to have a deeply fulfilling romantic relationship.

Second, what is emotional intimacy?

Let’s start with keeping it simple~


To really understand emotional intimacy, I recommend you watch Heidi Priebe’s videos on this topic. Priebe is an attachment theory expert who has an outstanding Youtube channel.

Priebe describes the 3 Levels of Conversation & how only at the 3rd level does intimacy begin: 

1. Informational- just sharing facts about yourself

2. Personal- how you think or feel about the facts

For a lot of people, the personal level is about as deep as we go in our relationships… throughout their entire lives.

3. Relational- opening up about our experience in the present moment and receiving with undefended, genuine curiosity what it is like to be our partner in the present moment too.

Priebe also distinguishes relational intimacy from self-intimacy.

I’ll explain both concepts in more detail below, and begin with SELF-intimacy since (knowing yourself deeply) this is the precursor to relational intimacy (sharing your hidden parts with another person and being fully present and curious when they give you a glimpse into their internal world.

Self-intimacy is about how to stay present with yourself in those places where you have historically hidden yourself from knowing yourself because from a young age there were parts of your personality that were threatening to your ability to connect with other people. 

In Priebe’s video called “Emotional Self-Intimacy: What It Is and How to Foster It,” she uses the game of Sardines to link the concepts of self-intimacy and relational intimacy. 

Have you heard of the game called “Sardines”?!

I hadn’t until recently! It’s an interesting twist on the game of “Hide and Seek”. Instead of the goal of the seeker searching for the sole hider, and when they finally find the hider, they immediately switch positions…

The objective of “Sardines” is for the seeker to JOIN THE HIDER in their hiding place and for all other friends to join them too!

Priebe explains:

It’s a beautiful metaphor … of the value of being found, and having others care about you so deeply that they’re willing to join you in your dark, painful places, listen, accept, love and comfort you as you bravely share these shameful and unlovable parts.

In EFT Couples Therapy, we know that as much as partners generally LONG TO BE “FOUND” (or “seen”), the process of coming out of your “hiding” places takes time.

Third, how can I strengthen this skill?

The first step in the process of INTIMACY is to connect with your OWN inner world.

Priebe identifies the most important skill in self-intimacy is to be experientially curious. Some of the components of this skill are: 

  • Asking yourself, “What is it like to be ME in the moment?” (My spouse and I call this “going META” for metacognition)
  • Being with yourself on a moment to moment basis & remaining open and curious.
  • Increasing your awareness of those moments when you desperately want to change your “state” to avoid unpleasant or uncomfortable emotions (or “hide”), and notice what you tend to do to try to change your “state”.

The self-intimacy skill that can turn into RELATIONAL INTIMACY is: 

Inviting others into your HIDING PLACES! (like the game Sardines) 

The second step in the process of INTIMACY is to share your inner world with your partner, and be as present as possible (open and curious) so you too can fully hear and attune to them (& adjust or repair if needed).

Relational Intimacy~

“True relational curiosity is the POWER TOOL for building intimacy, however it requires us to: 

  • be in an undefended state with another
  • being present with another in their undefended state
  • having the discernment to know when it’s relatively safe to be in such a state with another person
  • the ability to tend to our wounds if something painful happens

This skill requires HIGH level emotional maturity…because it can be recklessly used!

For example, impulsively sharing a nasty thought you have about someone is NOT an example of relational intimacy or “vulnerability”.

Relational intimacy instead is OWNING your experience

in order to SAFELY operate this “power tool”:

For example- pausing, looking INSIDE, and asking yourself~

  • “Where is that coming up in me?
  • What is my experience and why is MY brain coming up with that thought?
  • Is there a more TRUE and more VULNERABLE experience I can share in this moment- that’s ACTUALLY ABOUT ME?!!! (& how can I get in touch with that?)

Final thoughts about intimacy~

Intimacy has two main ingredients: 

  • Allowing yourself to be seen; taking the risk of sharing your INNER WORLD- vulnerable emotions like fear and hurt, private thoughts, deep longings and needs. 
  • Attuning, responding, and repairing (getting back into sync) with your partner; responding requires being A.R.E. (accessible, responsive and engaged)

Intimacy is a DANCE in which both partners take turns leading (reaching) and following ( responsiveness).

Emotional intimacy will initially feel scary if you’re new (or out of practice) at taking the risks necessary to truly let yourself be seen and to be emotionally responsive for your partner. 

Even for myself, attending a “Hold Me Tight” workshop, almost a decade ago, was EYE OPENING! I learned invaluable relationship information and experienced powerful exercises (the 7 bonding conversations) that transformed my relationship with my spouse.

Because my spouse and I allowed ourselves to fully participate in the workshop (take the necessary risks), there were RAW moments that evoked anxiety, discomfort, hurt, even anguish. 

There were also bonding moments that elicited empathy, tenderness, love, pride, hope, healing and renewal.

You and your partner will need some grace if you are taking these kinds of risks. As long as you both have the openness and willingness to learn, take risks, and seek out support if needed, it is possible to create a more intimate bond.

It’s not uncommon to worry that you might say or do the wrong thing. I hope you can be reassured to know that~

Intimacy does NOT require perfection! 

One of my favorite scenes in the movie, “Good Will Hunting” is when the therapist (played by Robin Williams) tells his client (Matt Damon) a funny and touching story about what he most remembers about his deceased wife: 

The little things are what I miss the most. The little idiosyncrasies that only I knew about. That’s what made her my wife.

And she had all the goods on me too. She knew all my little peccadillos.

People call these things imperfections, but they’re not. Oh, that’s the good stuff! And then we get to choose who we want to let into our weird little worlds. 

You’re not perfect and she’s not either. The question is- whether or not you’re perfect for each other. That’s what intimacy is all about. 

Lastly, another area of imperfection that partners worry will be deal breakers is when they or their partner fall short from perfect responding or unintentionally hurt them emotionally. 

The bad news is that~

Because we’re human and have shortcomings and blindspots, we’re going to disappoint one another. And in long-term relationships, ALL human partners emotionally HURT one another at times. 

The GOOD news is~

Mistakes don’t end relationships! Only an unwillingness to reflect on our behavior and be open to change, have hard conversations (most importantly, listen in a compassionate, curious way), and a LACK of REPAIR is what ends relationships. 

Real intimacy is born precisely out of the impact of your human imperfection with mine and how we both handle that maddening, endearing, challenging and creative collision. 

~ Couples expert, Terry Real

Would you like support in creating or rebuilding a deeper connection and more intimate relationship? 

Contact Lana Isaacson, LCSW, CAS at 720.939.2189 or schedule a free consultation if you’re a new client or a session if you’re already an established client~ Click here for my calendar.