- Take the first step yourself, don't wait for your partner to do it.
- Tell your partner something specific about your relationship.
- Learn something new and intimate about your partner's feelings.
- Be gentle, but persistent. We're all ambivalent about speaking intimately.
You and your partner seem to be at a crossroads. The two of you haven’t really connected in a while. Most nights, you just lie on the couch together watching TV. You wonder if your partner even notices there’s anything wrong.
What should you do?
Most often, when people feel that they’re not really connecting, it’s because they’ve stopped having intimate conversations.
Reconnecting starts with an intimate conversation
An intimate conversation contains three things: you, me, and a feeling. Those three things together are like rocket-fuel for emotional closeness in a relationship. Like any other kind of fuel, though, you have to handle it carefully, so it doesn’t explode in your face.
Most of us are having intimate conversations in our own minds all the time, especially about how we feel toward the people around us. But we’re ambivalent about saying these things out loud. Will it help to share our feelings, or will it be a disaster?
Most of us are having intimate conversations in our own minds all the time, but we’re ambivalent about saying these things out loud.
So, for the most part, we keep most of our most intimate thoughts to ourselves.
How to start the conversation
Don’t just expect your partner to be the one to get things started. Instead, assume they’re as ambivalent about it as you are.
You have one big advantage, though. As a frequent listener to this podcast, you know how to put together an intimate statement, so it has the necessary three elements we just talked about: You, me, and a feeling.
It can be helpful to practice the conversation you might have in your head. You can check whether what you plan to say meets the intimacy requirements.
Let’s say you’re planning what to say to your partner, and the first thing that pops into your head is:
Lately, I feel like all we do is watch TV.
That sounds like it’s about a feeling, right? But actually, this is more a statement of fact than an expression of feelings.
Assume your partner is as ambivalent about having an intimate conversation as you are.
I’m also suspicious of statements that use the word “we.” That might sound odd coming from a sex and relationship therapist. But paradoxically, “we” statements are often the least intimate. I have a strong preference for “you and I.”
How about this one?
I feel like you and I haven’t been as close lately.
That sounds a little better. But it’s still really just a statement of fact, even though the word “feel” is right there in the sentence.
What if we add a feeling at the end? You say:
I feel like you and I haven’t been as close lately. I miss feeling close to you.
Yeah, I think that one’s a keeper.
Your most important goal in any intimate conversation
Let’s keep in mind what we’re actually trying to accomplish. Obviously, your ultimate goal is to feel closer to your partner. But there’s one goal that’s more immediate, and most people don’t consider it.
Your most immediate goal in any intimate conversation is to actually learn something intimate, about your partner, that you didn’t know before.
But wait. Do you really want to hear your partner’s more intimate thoughts—about you, and about your relationship? Be honest now. Let’s admit it—the idea is exciting, but also a little scary. No wonder people are so ambivalent about this process!
Your goal in any intimate conversation is to learn something intimate about your partner that you didn’t know before.
Don’t give up on intimacy too soon
But let’s say you throw caution to the winds. The next time you’re together, you open up to your partner. “I feel like you and I haven’t been as close lately,” you say. “I miss feeling close to you.”
Your partner gives you a nice, big smile. “That’s sweet,” they say. “I miss feeling close to you, too.” And they give you a big hug and a kiss.
Nice, right? But have we accomplished anything significant? Are we there yet?
I don’t think so. You haven’t learned anything really intimate about them that you didn’t know before. Sure, they said they missed feeling close to you, too. And maybe that’s true. But from an intimacy perspective, that was a totally safe move. It doesn’t risk anything. It’s like saying, “I love you, too.” They’re just mirroring what you said to them.
They’ve also just given you a nice hug and a big, romantic kiss. That’s what people do when they want to feel close, right? Isn’t that progress?
Unfortunately, it’s also what people do when they want to make sure an intimate conversation doesn’t get any more intimate.
Be as specific about your feelings as possible
At this point, you might try getting really specific. Is there some way the two of you used to feel close that hasn’t been happening lately?
Hey, the two of you used to enjoy cooking together. But lately that doesn’t happen anymore. You wonder why. Here’s what you might do:
Once your partner stops hugging you, put your forehead against theirs so they know you really mean business. Now you say:
I really liked it when you and I used to cook together.
Then wait and see what happens.
“Yeah,” they say. “Too bad we’re both too tired these days from working so hard.”
I wish I had a dollar for every time someone in my office has attributed a couple’s problem to overwork. I mean, sure, we’re all working harder these days. But lots of people work extra hard because it’s more gratifying and less frustrating than what’s going on at home.
The Greek philosopher’s secret technique for intimate communication
At this point, we therapists tend to rely on a technique invented by the Greek philosopher Socrates … who famously said the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing.
You turn to your partner again and admit that you don’t get it.
You and I both worked pretty hard back then, too. I’m thinking there must be something else.
I wish I had a dollar for every time someone attributed a couple’s problem to overwork. Lots of people work extra hard because it’s more gratifying than what’s going on at home.
At this point, let’s say your partner realizes what you’re up to. You’re interested in hearing their more intimate thoughts about why they’ve stopped wanting to cook with you in the kitchen.
Which is a little scary, of course. But hey—no risk, no reward.
“You really want to know?” they ask.
Yikes, you think. Am I up for this? You nod your head slowly. They say:
I feel like you’re always criticizing me. You want me in the kitchen with you, but you always want everything to be done your way. I felt like you didn’t want a partner in the kitchen; you just wanted a sous-chef.
Whoa. Who knew?
But you learned something, didn’t you? Not only about your partner, but about yourself. That’s intimacy at work.
The one word that ruins more intimate conversations than any other
There are actually an unlimited number of things you might respond with. I’m willing to guess that the ones that spring to your mind begin with the word “but.”
But I never knew you felt that way.
But it seemed like you were having a good time.
But your mother corrects you in the kitchen, and you cook with her.
That three-letter word, “but,” is the sneakiest word in the English language. It tends to invalidate what the other person just said. Which is, of course, the last thing you want to do when someone has just shared some of their inner thoughts with you.
That three-letter word, ‘but,’ ruins more intimate conversations than any other word I know.
“But” ruins more intimate conversations than any other word I know. Whenever you hear yourself saying the word “but,” that’s a sure sign you should hit rewind.
Instead of “but,” say “thank you”
What you just did together, as a couple, took courage on both your parts. In the process, you learned something really useful about your partner’s inner world that you didn’t know before.
“I’m glad you told me that,” you say. “It hurts a little bit, but I’m glad you told me.”
That’s an intimate communication too, of course. Now you’re really getting the hang of it.
“Can I ask for another chance for us to cook together?” you say. It takes courage for you to say that. Maybe they’ll say no. Or maybe being in the kitchen together still isn’t going to work out. But hey—no risk, no reward.
And the next time the two of you find yourself feeling disconnected, you’ll know a good, practical way to re-connect.
Thanks for listening to Relationship Doctor
I want to thank you for tuning in to Relationship Doctor for these 22 episodes. This is our last episode together for now.
I hope you’ve gained a few useful insights about intimate relationships and had some fun in the process. I know I’ve really enjoyed our time together.
Keep an eye out for new articles from me on Quick and Dirty Tips from time to time. Feel free to scroll through all the topics on the Relationship Doctor archive page. And if you ever need to find me, just go to my website: sexualityresource.com.
I want to thank the amazing team here at Quick and Dirty Tips for helping me bring this show to you these past several months. And most of all, I want to thank you all for listening. It’s been a privilege to be your host and I hope we meet again soon.
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.