The Secret Art of Intimate Communication

Intimate communication is inherently risky, but that's where the greatest rewards are. Here's a quick guide to doing it right. 

Stephen Snyder, MD
6-minute read
Episode #16

I’m sitting in my office, listening to a patient of mine tell me about something that happened over the weekend.

His wife was in a bad mood, and he couldn’t figure out what to do about it. Whenever he’d say something to try to be helpful, she’d say it was the wrong thing to say. But whenever he gave her space, she’d say she felt abandoned.

I’m listening as best I can, not sure exactly how to help.

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Halfway through the hour, he interrupts the story, gives me a pained look, and says, “I’m worried you’re not really interested in all this.”

At that moment, something changes. We’re both more involved, and neither of us is sure exactly sure what’s going to happen next.

There’s an electricity in the air, that wasn’t there before. Before he turned to me and told me that he was worried I wasn’t really interested, we were having what I’d call a non-intimate communication. Once he turned to confront me directly, our dialog suddenly became intimate in a new way.

How do I know what's intimate communication, and what's not?

An intimate communication always has three elements: you, me, and a feeling. When my patient turns to me and tells me he's worried that I'm not really interested, suddenly all three elements—you, me, and a feeling—are in the room at the same time.

Intimate communication always has three elements: you, me, and a feeling.

When that happens, things change. The emotion in the room goes way up because he has no idea how I’m going to react.

That’s what happens when you start talking about “you, me, and a feeling.” You have no control over how the other person is going to react. We humans don’t usually like giving up control—it's vulnerable. It’s like walking out on thin ice. Maybe it will hold you, or maybe you’ll fall through.

How can I get better at intimate communication?

If someone's just stepped out onto thin emotional ice and taken the risk of making an intimate statement, it's important to validate them for it. There are a couple of ways to react in the moment.

Treat the statement with respect 

When someone makes an intimate statement, they’re asserting their right to be taken seriously. Don’t just react willy-nilly and say the first thing that pops into your head. Instead, give what the person said some serious consideration. Ask for time to give the statement some thought if necessary.

People aren’t stupid. If my patient is worried that I’ve lost interest, he must have picked up on something. Maybe he's experiencing the moment in a distorted way, but chances are he’s not imagining things.

Sometimes, paradoxically, negative statements can be the most intimate of all.

“Let me think about that,” I say.

Was he right, that I’d lost interest? Not exactly. But his relationship with his wife did seem so fraught, so painful—especially the events of this past weekend—that I was starting to get discouraged. Maybe that’s what he was picking up on.

Try responding with intimate communication

The second thing to do when someone gives you an intimate communication is to respond with an intimate communication of your own.

This is controversial, when it comes to therapy. There’s always a risk you’ll say too much. But there’s also a risk in saying too little.

I turn to my patient. He's waiting to hear what I'm going to say.

“I don’t think I was losing interest," I tell him. "But I do think I was starting to feel kind of discouraged.” 

“I didn’t know you were feeling discouraged,” he says.

You take a big risk when you put 'you, me, and a feeling' together in a sentence. But sometimes it opens up a whole new world of possibilities.

It occurs to me that his whole story about the weekend was about feeling discouraged. That's interesting. Have he and I secretly been tossing this feeling of discouragement back and forth like a hot potato? That sometimes happens in therapy.

Suddenly a whole new world of possibilities opens up. Which is what sometimes happens when you take a risk and put “you, me, and a feeling” together in a sentence.

Most of the time, we don’t talk to the people around us in this intimate kind of way. Which is smart, since intimate communication can get you into trouble if you don't use it with discretion and in the right situations. But when you’re trying to have an intimate relationship, it’s often the best way to keep that relationship emotionally alive. 

How can I use intimate communication in a dating situation?

I know that the “you, me, and a feeling” approach is a lot different from how we usually talk about intimacy. But over the past 30 years of counseling couples, I’ve found it incredibly useful for helping people turn stale, unrewarding interactions into useful, productive ones.

Here's a simple example. Let’s say you’re out on a date with someone and you find yourself warming up to them in a big way. You might say something like, “You’re a really great person.” That’s nice, but it’s not really intimate. It’s just an opinion. It doesn’t have you in it, and it’s not really a feeling. 

Let’s make it more intimate. What if you say, “I really like you.” Feel the difference?  It’s got you, them, and a feeling all together in a sentence. It's definitely riskier because you’re putting yourself into it. But hey—no risk, no reward. 

Why saying “I love you” doesn’t always feel intimate

The popular idea is that “I love you” is just about the most intimate thing you can say to someone. It’s got all the elements—you, me, and a feeling—in the most concentrated form you could ever imagine.

The problem when someone says “I love you” is you have no idea precisely what they mean. It certainly sounds positive. But what’s going on, exactly, in the other person’s head and heart?

The problem when someone says “I love you” is you have no idea precisely what they mean.

Whatever it is, you can be pretty sure it’s something serious. (Assuming they’re telling you the truth and not just trying to get you into bed.)

But the really intimate thing about “I love you” is that it means you’re taking a risk. As we discussed, that’s true of all really intimate communications. The first time you say it, you’re not sure how the other person is going to respond.

After you’ve said it to each other a few times, though, saying “I love you” becomes a lot less intimate. We say it more for reassurance,  which, almost by definition, is a lot less risky.

How can I use intimate communication to enhance a committed relationship?

So how do you keep your relationship emotionally intimate once you’ve gotten to the point of saying “I love you” to each other every day?

Make sure you still communicate intimately with each other once in a while. “You, me, and a feeling.”

One useful practice, whenever you can, is to share a little more about how you’re feeling than you feel absolutely comfortable sharing. 

Reassurance and intimacy aren’t the same thing. In fact, sometimes they’re opposites.

Sometimes the most intimate sounding statements aren’t really that intimate at all. For instance, let's say you tell your partner, “I love you more and more every day.” That’s like “I love you” on steroids, right? 

Maybe, but it’s only really intimate—you’re only really taking a risk—the first time you say it, when you’re not sure your partner feels the same way. Otherwise, although it can be a reassuring and wonderful thing to hear, reassurance and intimacy aren’t the same thing. In fact, sometimes they’re opposites.

Sometimes, in a relationship, negative statements can be the most intimate of all. For instance, let’s say you tell your partner “I feel like we haven’t been as close lately.” That’s very intimate. It’s got “you, me, and a feeling” together in a sentence. And it’s taking a risk, because you have no idea how they’re going to react. But if you're lucky, it can open up a whole dimension you have yet to explore.

In a committed relationship, intimate communication often means revealing something about our own feelings that you’d ordinarily not reveal. It’s about taking a chance. Stepping out onto thin ice. And trusting that the other person won’t let you fall through.

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.

About the Author

Stephen Snyder, MD

Dr. Stephen Snyder is a sex and relationship therapist in New York City and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine. He's also the author of Love Worth Making: How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex in a Long-Lasting Relationship. In 2019, he was the host of the first season of the Relationship Doctor podcast.