“He never listens to me,” “She doesn’t understand me,” “I want to feel connected.” These are common statements I encounter in my work with couples. They may not know the name for it, but what these couples are seeking is intimacy. Intimacy is the feeling of being emotionally close and supported by the person we love.
Many couples therapists use the In-To-Me-See approach. This approach is based on the idea that all people have the need to be truly seen by their partner. No mask. No shield. No cover up. This can be intimidating and scary, though! For the mask to be fully removed, a relationship has to have built enough trust to allow each person to feel safe being vulnerable and fully authentic. Renowned couples therapist Esther Perel believes, “vulnerability is an invitation. You are opening yourself, welcoming validation or critique.”
Both validation and critique are normal parts of being human, but critique specifically can trigger a subconscious defense mechanism in your partner, which can, in turn, have a negative impact on the trust in your relationship. Though the intention of critique may not be malicious, the fear of leaving oneself vulnerable to being criticized can shut down the opportunity for validation in a relationship, which can be detrimental to trust. Validation, on the other hand, can help to ease fears and anxiety so that each person feels more comfortable expressing themselves. Validation is a warm hug, critique is a slap in the face. Which one would encourage you to be more vulnerable? Trusting your partner helps you to take the leap to open yourself up.
If trust is necessary to create intimacy, what can couples do to earn trust from their partners?
Simply sharing a life together and supporting one another is important, but not enough. You must create a physically safe environment for your partner to be his or her truest self. Of course, a physically safe environment is needed, but you must also provide an emotionally safe place for your partner as well. How do you do this?
The first and most important part of creating a safe space is engaging your empathy and compassion for your partner. Easier said than done, though. After all, you are dealing with your own feelings and someone else’s too. Typically, your partner knows your triggers better than anyone else, which can cause you to go into defense mode. As many can attest, the defense response only leads to a spiraling effect of poor communication and hurt feelings.
Instead, your partner may ask something like “Why didn’t you call when you said you would?” Rather than make excuses or defend yourself, try looking past the critique and empathize with the feelings behind the words. So try responding with, “I can see that me not calling really upset you. Can you help me understand how it made you feel?” This not only validates your partner’s feelings, but it also gives them an opportunity to be more specific about how they felt. This allows your partner to feel seen and heard, , and allows you to listen to understand rather than just respond.
It is equally important for each person to consider delivery and tone when trying to express concerns or complaints. When working with clients, I suggest they use the following phrase:
“When _____ happened/happens, I felt/feel _____”.
In this instance, your partner could say something like, “When you didn’t call, I felt unimportant/like you didn’t care”. This provides a glimpse into their perception and the effect it had on them, without making you feel attacked. This provides a safe, non-critical space for you to validate your partner’s feelings with greater ease.
As you and your partner choose to consistently stay the track to deploy and engage through empathy, you will notice a building of trust in one another. When you trust that your partner’s intentions are not really to attack or dismiss how you feel, you are developing an emotionally safe space for each other to be able to express and validate feelings. This does not mean you have to agree with your partner or justify his or her feelings. Rather, validation communicates that your partner is allowed to be human and have those feelings.
By validating your partner, engaging empathy and compassion, watching tone and delivery, and consistently staying the track, you and your partner can feel truly seen and heard, which allows you to connect to one another. Emotional safety and trust have a ripple effect that can make you feel supported and connected with your partner. As a result, this deepened trust leads to even greater intimacy.