Emotional Intimacy

"Harmonic Resolution" by Mimi Stuart ©

What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are, but how you deal with incompatibility.

~George Levinger

Most people and even some therapists confuse intimacy with closeness. They think relationships will improve if we communicate with more validation and acceptance. Intimacy, however, does not thrive where there is too much all–accepting, all-validating closeness with another person.

Beware of Fusion

Too much agreement and feigned empathy result in fusion, which destroys intimacy in a relationship. Fusion is the dissolution of boundaries between people, which causes anxiety to be extremely infectious. Intimacy, on the other hand, requires that people are emotionally separate, and thus aren’t reactive in face of others’ anxiety.

Squeezing validation out of your partner

The problem with many couples is that they use communication to squeeze validation out of each other, either through manipulation or complaints. “Do you love me?” “Don’t you agree with me?” “Don’t you think it’s terrible what she said to me!”

Many people have an unspoken agreement to take turns disclosing personal information while the other lavishes empathy on them in return. “You validate me, and I’ll validate you.” Such empathy may make people feel better temporarily, but it encourages fusion by promoting others to reciprocate out of a sense of obligation.

While there is nothing wrong with enjoying validation from others, there is a problem with unconsciously pressuring another person to provide it for us. It stifles growth, which is key in sustaining passion; it stifles honest self-revelation, which is key in attaining intimacy.

Giving away your sense of self

The problem with fusion is that one’s sense of self depends on another person’s feelings and acceptance. To hand over your sense of self as well as security is tantamount to saying “Here’s my sense of self-worth—take care of it, or else I won’t take care of yours.” Mutual dependence and fear then run the show, rather than autonomous choice and affection.


A person who is dependent on validation is tempted to start screening himself and to show only those aspects that will generate validation. We accommodate our partner’s limitations rather than challenging ourselves and our partners beyond those limitations.

“I’d better laugh at her joke or she’ll be hurt.”

“I’d better not disagree with his ridiculous political view, or he’ll get upset.”

“I’d better not leave her side at this party, or she’ll feel insecure.”

“I’d better not wear this stunning dress, or he’ll be upset if other men see me looking beautiful.”

“I’d better not talk about quantum mechanics, or he’ll feel inadequate.”

Selective self-disclosure is antithetical to intimacy. We hide or stop developing parts of ourselves that allow us to become more whole and multifaceted individuals, whether those parts are powerful, romantic, silly, smart, or passionate. As more and more aspects of ourselves remain unexpressed, fear of rejection increases. When we stifle ourselves, we stagnate. We shrivel up and resent our partner for lack of intimacy and vitality.

Tolerating the anxiety of intimacy

People say they want more intimacy, yet often they can’t tolerate much of it. Tolerating intimacy requires the ability to maintain a clearly defined identity while disclosing a core aspect of the self.

For instance, a woman with low intimacy tolerance will first ascertain her partner’s probable response before expressing a novel part of herself. If she thinks he won’t validate her, she might limit her expression to what’s tried and true between them. Or she might try to squeeze validation from her partner. Both alternatives start the cycle of self-screening and fusion, which forestall intimacy.

In order to develop more intimacy, then, we need to stop being reactive and limiting ourselves because of the fear of our partner’s reactions. For example, if we tolerate discomfort, we no longer need to feign agreement, laugh at a poor joke, wear the ugly dress, or dumb down our conversation, all too avoid upsetting our partner. Our relationships become based on stimulating authenticity, rather than feigned closeness.

Communication intolerance

What we call “communication difficulties” is often simply intolerance for what is communicated. We need to learn to communicate with honesty and respect, and to tolerate hearing our partner’s message. Both partners need to express themselves despite the other’s response. Respectful communication is different from acceptance and validation. Good communication does not necessarily make the other feel good, that is, if they don’t agree with the message. Yet, it is not aimed at hurting the other person either.


“Intimacy is knowing who you are and letting someone else in on the secret” (Schnarch, 2003). Intimacy requires a boundary between two people. You allow another person to truly see you without imposing an obligation to validate you or to reciprocate with disclosure. You disclose yourself of your own free will with no strings attached. This requires having a clear sense of self, the ability to self-validate, and a willingness to grow.

Moving beyond limitation

Relationship struggles are often fought to determine whose limitations we’re going to live by. Instead, we may want to attempt to go beyond both sets of limitations. Rather than saying “love me and now live within my limitations,” we could say “I love you and I’m willing to stretch.” (Schnarch)

Intimacy requires learning to live with the totality of another person without becoming reactive. It also means expressing more of our own totality despite our discomfort in doing so. When we are taken aback, we have the choice of getting upset or taking the challenge and becoming the best person we can be. Ironically, disclosing the very parts of ourselves we fear will be rejected, and doing so with a spirit of self-validation, not neediness, results in the deepening of intimacy and meaning within our relationship.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “I’m always walking on eggshells. I don’t want to upset my partner.”

Read “It hurts that my fiancé thinks I am smothering him. He wants me to let him catch his breath after he gets off work. I’m scared that I’m going to lose him because I’m needy or clingy.”

Read “Don’t you love me?”

Recommended books:

Audio: Schnarch, D. (2003). Secrets of a passionate marriage (CD). Colorado: Sounds True, available at www.passionatemarriage.com.

Schnarch, D. (1997). Passionate marriage. New York: Henry Holt & Co.

M. Kerr & M. Bowen: Family Evaluation — The role of the family as an emotional unit that governs individual behavior and development. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, (1988).

18 Responses to Emotional Intimacy

  1. Chelle says:

    This article is excellent, it allowed me to see that I also do the same in my relationship and so does my spouse. If he did not agree with me, I would push and argue my position to get him to see it through my lens. He also did the same thing. It stunted the growth of the relationship dramatically over the last 10 years.

    He also does a lot of manipulation by “do you love me” and forcing me to say and do things to keep peace within the relationship. As, I started being more independent with healthy boundaries (which I did not have before) after 1 year he is still struggling with adapting saying that it’s not healthy and it’s destroying the relationship.

    Dr. Poulsen can you elaborate on why people would need validation out of each other, either through manipulation or complaints. “Do you love me?” “Don’t you agree with me?” “Don’t you think it’s terrible what she said to me!”

    I am working on creating my own validation within myself, but still do this type of validation. Especially conditional comments, if I say I care about you, I would expect the person to say it back to me. Otherwise I will not want to express very much until they do. Maybe a good book to read about that and improving.

    Thank you.


    • Alison says:

      Many people are either overly self-critical or overly critical of others. Relationship dynamics usually involves two people. So it’s good that you see that both you and your spouse have played a part in emotionally pushing each other to agree or react a certain way.

      “Why do people need validation from others?” Great question. Almost everyone enjoys being liked, accepted, or admired. As children, depending on the parents, if we are obedient, capable, or pleasant, our parents will respond more favorably. So most people develop a desire to get positive feedback from childhood–in order to survive or thrive. Some children, however, only get attention when they have a tantrum or make a scene, and often do the same in adulthood.

      Seeking validation and liking it, therefore, isn’t abnormal or even unhealthy. However, excessive seeking of validation or an inability to withstand not getting the validation we want is unhealthy and makes for fused and eventually unhappy relationships. Ideally, we should only want un-coerced validation, and we should accept the fact that people differ and will not always agree. If they always agree, then it is likely that there is coercion and manipulation going on. Who really wants someone to fake agreement, and feel fearful and emotionally deflated?

      I think it’s normal to hope that the person you say you care for says it back, and there is always a risk he or she won’t. It’s also probably wise not to continue to be emotionally open and overflowing with someone who is more impersonal than you and is not reciprocating. Mutual desire can only exist if there’s some space between two people. If one person pushes to much or gushes too much, he or she will only push the other person away.

      Good luck.


  2. Raleigh says:

    Thank you for your reply.

    I think you are unto something that sometimes when I especially want something in the relationship that my partner wouldn’t prefer, I get already stressed about it in advance and can probably come off as accusatory when bringing the topic up – rather than focusing on appreciation for my husband and my own need for pursuing X, I can get very adamant about getting my way. That, obviously, is not helpful.

    In general I think this comes down to two separate matters. One is that my partner and I have different needs when it comes to how to spend our free time. I have craving for more outgoing and adventurous activities while he prefers more relaxing free time as his work is very stressful (mine on the other hand is pretty boring atm). This wouldn’t be a problem if we could agree on the amount of things to do separately but we often cannot. He feels abandoned and I feel trapped at home. I still somehow sense that this is more a communication issue than compatibility as other times we negotiate these things very successfully. We just can get very stuck on each other’s emotions.

    The second part is harder. I have passions that my husband find a threat to the relationship. He has earlier lived a life surrounded by performing artists and didn’t enjoy the mentality of that crowd of people. This combined to feelings of insecurity he has because of having been cheated on (by two different women) before has left him very suspicious of performing arts – or more specifically what it sometimes involves with late nights far from home in mixed groups with people you can get very close with. I have never hid from him my love for dancing, singing and musical acting but I suppose as we all choose to ignore some things in the infatuation phase of the relationship, he somehow thought I was over it.

    I take dance classes and sign at home but my partner finds it incredibly uncomfortable for me to pursue these hobbies more: performing, joining a bigger production every so often. It is not only a question of time spent away from him, he simply doesn’t accept the idea. He complains that why I must pick THESE interests of mine to hold unto so dearly as I also have many others. Which is true, I have other hobbies I could and do focus on, but I feel resentful letting go of something that has given me the biggest rewards in my life.

    He’s a great guy and in many ways I really believe I couldn’t find anyone better. We love spending time together and after five years still have fun just talking for hours. But I am slightly scared I will wake up one day and not recognize my life anymore.

    • Alison says:


      As to the first part, in the second half of John Gottman’s “The Science of Trust” he has a real example of a couple having an ineffective discussion, and then an effective discussion on the very issue you are discussing, except the male and female roles are reversed. I think it would be great if you could both listen to his cds. It is a pity to allow such a dilemma to cause continual pain and conflict in the relationship. It should be negotiated so that both your needs are met to a large degree.

      The second issue can also be negotiated. However, your husband would need to trust you, and to learn that for your relationship to flourish it is important that each individual flourishes as well. It would only cause resentment if you were to give up an activity that you loved. Love means wanting the best for the other person, not wanting to possess the other person. There must be a way for each of you to support the others’ endeavors and passions, while reassuring each other and behaving responsibly, and spending some enjoyable time together. If you both have different viewpoints as to what the foundation of great relationship is, it might be helpful to go to a couple of good workshops.

      Make sure you are not secretly feeling guilty for your pursuits. Often someone has power over you because of your own inner unease about your desires. Perhaps you grew up in a mildly sexist home where you feel guilty about pursuing what you love. Yet, you also want to make sure that you reassure him. There is no sense in attacking him or blaming him for feeling insecure about your spending time with exciting performers while he is at home.

      Good luck.

  3. Raleigh says:

    This is such a great article. Sadly, I find me and my husband have taken a few steps too many towards fusion and feigning closeness as you say – instead of accepting our differences and maintaining boundaries. I realize I get often upset over his feelings and him not agreeing with me. Even more so, he gets upset over my feelings when they contradict his.

    This was much worse in the beginning of our relationship and I have worked quite a lot on establishing and maintaining boundaries. I don’t anymore agree just to comply with his wishes or opinion. I take care of my own feelings. At the same time trying to make sure I also show appreciation and don’t just try to push him away (which I did in the beginning sometimes, also due to poor boundaries, as I didn’t know how to be myself around him). But recently it seems somehow we are at a stand-still. I want us to develop even more towards what you describe, to that relationship between two complete people, interdependent rather than fused. But he seems to have somehow reached his limit, he resists further expressions of my autonomy quite strongly.

    Is it just impossible? Should I start to think that this relationship was only meant to teach me so much, and cannot evolve further? How would you suggest a person goes forward in correcting the types of patterns you describe in the article? Especially when the other partner might on the surface refuse the need for that? (Although throughout the relationship he has also been more and more comfortable and pleased with us building better boundaries. He just doesn’t accept it as a principle.)

    • Alison says:

      Hi. I’m sorry it took me a while to respond. I have been away.

      It’s hard for me to know whether you can evolve together more. I do think that it is important to show kindness, appreciation and support while disagreeing or maintaining independence. And it is important to make an effort to do some romantic, fun, or playful things together.

      Fusion is mostly a matter of negative emotional reactivity. Of course, everyone reacts negatively occasionally. But when we do, we should own it, apologize, and move on. When you want to do something on your own and are receiving some resistance, I think it’s kind to reassure your partner of your love for him, and kindly say how much it means to you to do whatever it is you want to do. You aren’t asking for permission. But you’re making it clear that you would prefer his support and that your independence is not a threat to your relationship (and hopefully it is not.)

      I also think that John Gottman’s seminars and books and David Schnarch’s seminars are are very helpful for turning things around for couple who feel stuck. John Gottman emphasizes what it takes for a relationship to be sustainable, while Schnarch focuses on differentiation. I would recommend both. Reading books and articles can be helpful, but if you can, going to good, well-grounded workshops can have a greater impact on a couple’s relationship.

      It would help if you would give me a couple of examples of where he resists expressions of your independence.

      All the best, and give me some specific examples if you like.


  4. Miriam Pia says:

    I think that I do not have a horrific learning gap, but maybe I do. I feel like I don’t really see it the way it is described in the article.

    I was a bit intrigued about distinguishing knowing & being known with just being accepted by another but perhaps white washing real differences.

    • Alison says:

      I suppose another way of saying “knowing and being known” is “being known and accepted by another without white washing real differences.” For instance, accepting that your partner has different political opinions from you doesn’t mean that you validate or pretend to agree with those opinions, or alternatively coerce him or her to feign agreement with yours. Does that clarify the difference?

  5. Timothy says:

    Thanks for a great blog. I think communication with each other and finding balance are crucial in a relationship. For instance when you said; “I’d better not leave her side at this party, or she’ll feel insecure,” the balance for me would be found in leaving her side, but also reassuring her I want her to be by my side during the party by returning to her side. It’s kind of like having a home base (my partners side) within the mixture of a social gathering. If my partner leaves me totally alone during a party for a couple of hours and connects with someone of the opposite gender, while wearing that amazing dress, I’m going to feel very insecure, inadequate and disrespected as her partner. If she wears that sexy dress, ventures off to mingle, returns to my side, allowing for us to enjoy the social gather as individuals and as a couple that’s balance for me.

    This is my first visit here. I signed up for your email subscription and look forward to coming back. I’ve read several articles this morning and am encouraged to work on being an individual in my relationship as I find balance in respecting the relationship I am in.

    • Alison says:

      I completely agree with your comment about balance. It’s nice to check in with each other and spend some or even a lot of time at a party together. You just want to avoid catering too much to your partner’s fears. Consideration-yes, but walking on shells isn’t good for the long-term flourishing of a relationship.
      Thanks for your comment Timothy.

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