As a psychologist, I’ve heard hundreds of people talk about how they wished they had a deeper, more meaningful relationship with their spouse or partner.
The trouble is everyone thinks communication is the secret to better relationships.
But the truth is that most people have plenty of communication…
- They talk constantly about plans and logistics—who’s talking the kids to soccer practice or what kind of car to buy—but they rarely talk about their dreams and aspirations or their deepest fears and insecurities.
- They talk about other people—venting about coworkers or complaining about politicians—but they rarely talk about their relationship itself… how it’s going, what’s working, what’s not, or what they’re grateful for.
- They express superficial annoyances and frustrations—you forgot to take the trash out… again!—but they avoid expressing their deepest wants and needs.
Most couples talk all the time. But despite near-constant communication, they don’t feel close.
Which is why…
Most relationships need more intimacy, not more communication.
But intimacy isn’t something you can just do. There’s no hidden dial you can adjust to build (or re-build) intimacy in a relationship.
The secret to creating a stronger, more satisfying relationship is committing to small habits that foster intimacy over time.
Here are three that will get you started…
“Intimacy is the art of mutual understanding. Two souls being communicated. It requires courage and vulnerability.”
It’s human nature to avoid pain—including emotional pain…
And this is just as true in our relationships as any other part of life:
- When your spouse makes a critical comment, it’s easy to shut down and give them the silent treatment in order to avoid more emotional pain.
- When you want to make a difficult request of your partner, it’s scary—and to avoid that fear, you procrastinate and avoid asking for what you really want.
- When you feel defensive in a discussion with your wife, criticizing her temporarily boosts your ego and hides the pain of acknowledging a weakness or mistake.
But as natural as this pain-avoidance response is, it’s killing your relationship.
The willingness to endure some pain is a requirement for doing the right thing—for yourself, your spouse, and the relationship.
Many difficult things in life—including in relationships—require the ability to tolerate some emotional pain or discomfort:
- You can’t learn to play piano without enduring the discomfort of practicing scales.
- You can’t run a faster race without the pain of training despite feeling tired and sore.
- And you can’t address difficulties in your relationship—feeling more connected or being a better listener—without the willingness to tolerate painful emotions.
But it’s not just tolerating discomfort that occasionally comes your way—important as that is.
To build a meaningful and satisfying relationship, you must be willing to do things despite knowing full well they will cause you emotional pain.
- If you want to feel confident and secure in your relationship, you must be willing to say no and set good boundaries—despite the anxiety that comes with it.
- If you want to feel close and emotionally connected with your spouse, you must be willing to talk about how you really feel—including the uncomfortable stuff like shame, sadness, and anger.
- If you want your relationship to feel like a true partnership of equals, you must be willing to ask for what you want and express yourself assertively—despite being afraid of how your partner will feel.
In short, to have a satisfying relationship, you must be willing to be vulnerable.
Okay, so what is vulnerability exactly?
Vulnerability is the willingness to talk about and express painful emotions.
Now, I know this is hard. Being vulnerable can be terrifying, especially if you have experiences in your past where it didn’t go so well.
To that end, there are two things to keep in mind when it comes improving your relationship by learning to be more vulnerable:
1. Not everyone deserves your vulnerability.
Now that probably sounds nice at first blush, but consider what it really means…
It’s very possible you’re in a relationship right now where the other person isn’t emotionally mature enough to handle true vulnerability—either from you or their own.
And if that’s the case, you need to be brutally honest with yourself about what’s even possible in this relationship.
Because as much as you may want the relationship to improve—to have more intimacy, more trust, more connection, etc.—it takes two to tango. And you’re not doing yourself or anyone else any favors by maintaining unrealistic expectations.
2. Vulnerability is a skill, which means it takes practice.
If you wanted to run a marathon, you wouldn’t just lace up your shoes and try to run 26.2 miles.
That’s a good way to not only get injured but lose your motivation to ever run again.
Instead, you would start small and begin your training much more modestly… a one mile run a few times a week, then 3 miles a couple times a week, etc.
Well, vulnerability works the same way. If you want to feel more connected and intimate in your relationship you need to be vulnerable, but you don’t need to be maximally vulnerable immediately.
Instead, slowly work your way up to it. Find a situation where being vulnerable is a little uncomfortable but not too scary and practice there for a week or two. Then slowly work your way up to more challenging situations while you gain skill and confidence.
“Validation doesn’t mean agreement. It means acknowledging the human beneath the message”
Human beings are natural problem-solvers: When confronted with a problem, our instinct is to think more about it, analyze it, imagine possible solutions, compare to previous problems we’ve faced, etc.
And most of the time this is a great idea…
- Thinking carefully about your finances before buying a house is probably a good idea.
- Analyzing what went wrong in your failed marketing campaign at work is probably a good way to improve the next one.
But here’s the thing…
Because problem-solving is such a useful tool, it’s easy to get careless and start using it in situations where it’s not very helpful.
- Your partner gets home from work and tells you how anxious they are because of a big mistake they made earlier in the day. Immediately listing 12 possible solutions to their problem probably isn’t going to help at that moment (actually, there’s a good chance it makes things worse…)
- Your spouse mentions that they’re feeling angry with you because you forgot to do that thing they just reminded you of this morning. Explaining why it’s irrational for them to feel angry is almost certainly a terrible idea—even if, in your opinion, it’s true.
Problem-solving is useful for many challenges—but your spouse or partner feeling upset is not one of them.
At least not right away.
Have you ever heard your spouse or partner say something like this:
- I wish you’d just listen when I’m having a hard time.
- When I’m anxious, I don’t want a bunch of advice right away.
- Stop trying to fix me.
- I don’t need answers, I just need you to be with me.
- You really need to work on being more empathetic.
While they sound different, all of these statements are getting at the same thing…
When people are struggling emotionally they want support, not solutions.
It doesn’t mean they don’t realize there is a problem. Or that eventually problem-solving and finding solutions will likely help.
It means that in the moment, it’s more important that they feel supported and connected.
Which actually makes a ton of sense… when we’re overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s easy to fall into unwise decisions:
- Feeling very angry can lead to impulsive or aggressive speech or actions we regret later on.
- Feeling very anxious can lead to unproductive avoidance or procrastination.
- Feeling very ashamed can lead to unhelpful self-criticism if it’s not addressed in a helpful way.
In other words, it’s usually a good idea to process your emotions before trying to solve problems. And having a supportive person with you for that can be very helpful.
If you want to be truly helpful in your relationship, stop trying to solve their feelings and start validating them instead.
Validation means acknowledging how the other person feels and reminding them that it’s okay to feel whatever they’re feeling.
- When your husband’s feeling anxious, instead of offering reasons why things will “be okay,” you might say that it makes sense that they’d feel that way given what just happened.
- When your girlfriend is feeling angry, instead of sharing your idea for fixing the issue, you could simply acknowledge that it seems like she feels pretty angry right now.
- When you’re partner’s feeling sad—perhaps because they’re grieving the loss of a good friend—instead of suggesting a bunch of activities to take their mind off things, you might share that it’s very normal and understandable to feel sad after a loss like that, even if it’s been a long time since the loss.
Think about it like this:
To validate someone means to remind them that it’s valid to feel whatever they’re feeling.
See, most people have learned to confuse feeling bad with being bad—that it’s not okay to feel “negative” emotions like fear, sadness, or anger.
So when we immediately problem solve their struggles, it can result in them feeling like a problem for feeling bad. Which of course only makes things worse for them (and probably you).
On the other hand…
When you validate your partner’s struggles, they are much more likely to feel supported, understood, and connected.
And that’s what we really want when we’re upset.
Not only will it help them eventually solve the problem better (we all solve problems better when we feel supported), but it will lead to more intimacy and trust in your relationship long-term.
You can learn more about emotional validation here →
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
—George Bernard Shaw
The last two ideas—vulnerability and validation—were both about difficult experiences…
- Being open to sharing difficult experiences with your spouse
- And being validating when they share theirs with you
And as important as those two are, intimacy isn’t just about the tough stuff…
Intimacy means laughter just as much as sorrow, and joy just as much pain.
In other words, to build a deeper, more intimate relationship it’s important to share the good times just as much as the hard times.
Unfortunately, this can be surprisingly difficult for many couples…
- Despite the “early years” being fun and lighthearted, many couples settle into a decidedly less joyful and more utilitarian way of being that’s focused more on logistics and just getting through life than on actually enjoying life (and each other).
- Years of raising kids, while joyful in its own way, often leads to a lack of focus and attention to each other and the relationship… Just think about your soccer practice to date night ratio!
- And for couples who go through a period of significant pain or distress—a serious health problem, for example, or infidelity—it can be hard to prioritize joy and fun over a kind of obsession with problems and what’s gone wrong.
But whatever the cause, a relationship that doesn’t have any fun or joy in it is simply not going to be that satisfying.
And one of the best ways to inject some more of the good stuff into a relationship and accelerate intimacy is play.
Of course, we typically associate play with childhood, but there’s no law of the universe or human nature that says adults can’t play. We just give up on it—much to the detriment of both our own wellbeing and the quality of our relationships.
To quickly build more intimacy, get serious about finding ways to play together.
Now, play can take all sorts of different forms, but the key is that it’s something you can both do together and that you both find genuinely enjoyable and fun…
- Maybe you commit to going on a novel date night once a month that involves something very unusual and out of the ordinary for you both—rock climbing, salsa dancing, a comedy club, wine tasting, etc.
- Maybe you find a shared hobby you both enjoy and could do together… antiquing, bird watching, Motown karaoke, hiking, a true crime book club, etc.
Keep it mind, play doesn’t have to be big formal activities—although these are powerful. Adding more play into your relationship can be small and simple…
- Spontaneously going out to the movies instead of staying in and watching Netflix
- Remembering that you both love puzzles, and spending an evening doing a bunch of old puzzles.
- Making pancakes together one morning for breakfast instead of the usual cereal (or no breakfast…)
They say marriage is hard work. But marriage isn’t only hard work.
At least it shouldn’t be. And it certainly doesn’t have to be.
But if you and your spouse have—as many of us do—forgotten how to play together, it’s very much worth some time and effort to relearn your capacity to play together.
All You Need to Know
If you want a more satisfying and fulfilling relationship, commit to building small habits that boost intimacy, especially: