This post was originally posted on the Kull Initiative for Psychotherapy blog
In college, I had friend who was a self-identified “level jumper.” She was always the person at the party who, within the first 10 minutes of talking to you, knew how your parents first met, your feelings about religion versus spirituality, and all the things you want most in the world.
You left the conversation knowing a great deal about her life, too. But you didn’t walk away with just the knowledge that she grew up in a “naked house”—you felt a genuine connection to her, like you shared something special. Intimacy came easy to this level jumper, and it was something that she fostered in both her friendships and romantic relationships. I envied this friend, because I knew that for the rest of us intimacy takes work.
In the triangular theory of love, intimacy is described as an essential component of romantic relationships. The idea is that the strength of the connection in the relationship (along with healthy doses of passion and commitment) is a main contributor to how much love we experience. Closeness and connection are also components of our deepest, most meaningful friendships. It’s the thing that takes you from former classmates who sometimes meet up for brunch to BFFs who could spend all Sunday in sweats discussing your life goals.
Despite the rewards of intimacy, making ourselves vulnerable and letting even our nearest and dearest in doesn’t come easily. Being open can bring up feelings of fear, shame, and being exposed. It’s a risk revealing our authentic selves, but it’s a risk worth taking. So, here are four things you can do cultivate intimacy in your relationships.
In our productivity-motivated society, we are constantly rewarded for being able to multitask. We eat lunch while we check email and catch up on the news while we go for a run. Multi-taskers are seen as effective and efficient. When it comes to intimacy, though, being able to focus on the person you’re with is the most important task at hand.
For a deeper connection with your friends and lovers, you’ve got to show up physically and mentally. But how do we slow down and commit to being present? Mindfulness is all about bringing non-judgemental awareness to what’s happening right now, a way of being that can be lost when we’re trying to do everything at once. Taking the time to slow down and really sit with our closest people is a way to show them that they are valued and wanted in our lives.
A good place to start is with yourself. Everyone could benefit from cultivating calm and self-compassion through simple breathing exercises or meditation. Then, bring that awareness of the present into your next conversation with someone in your life. Put your phone on airplane mode and have the best conversation you’ve had all week. Listen to what they’re going through, and not just to have something to say.
This may be both the most obvious and challenging tip. Simply telling a partner or friend more about yourself can lead to feelings of closeness. The difficult part is actually feeling comfortable with the vulnerability involved with self-disclosure.
Being open doesn’t mean you have to spill your guts all the time to have a strong, connected relationship. Healthy self-disclosure should be gradual and reciprocal. You don’t have to begin with sharing all of your insecurities and fears. You can take a queue from my first tip and start with talking about what you’re feeling in the moment.
Part of opening up is also creating space for your partner or friend to share as well. By being compassionate, attentive listeners, we can validate emotional honesty and the invitation into our companions’ inner lives. The less judged and dismissed someone feels when self-disclosing, the more encouraged they are to continue to do it.
A few years ago, a work friend and I took a trip to Europe. Before the trip, we had our share of happy hours and attending each other’s birthday parties, but it was this trip that solidified our relationship. This was because there’s very little that brings you closer than experiencing something new together. We had to navigate unfamiliar cities, negotiate where we’d visit, and ended up spending hours at corner cafes just talking. The trip provided us not only with a shared experience, but created an opportunity for us to unintentionally reveal things about ourselves.
You can gain the benefits of a novel, shared experience without using up all of your airline miles. A recent study found that long term couples who report being intensively in love regularly engage in fresh and challenging activities together. That could include participating in an activity neither of you have done or learning something new together.
practice, practice, practice
This may sound self-serving coming from a blog post written by a therapist, but hear me out. Exploring being vulnerable through therapy can be a great way to increase intimacy in your relationships.
Psychodynamic therapy can help you develop insight into how the characteristic ways you relate to people through exploring your past and current relationships. The therapy room then becomes a safe space for you open up, make mistakes, and discover new things about yourself. Then you can use those toned intimacy muscles to dig in with your loved ones. So if you’ve been putting off starting therapy (or going back) and want to have deeper, richer friendships and romantic relations, now is the time to get on the couch.