Emotional Intimacy: What It Is and How to Create It

Emotional intimacy.  Emotional availability.  Emotionally mature.  These are descriptors that show up in marriage counseling sessions, dating app profiles, and couples’ arguments, regularly.  People lodge complaints about being emotionally disconnected from their partners, yet hardly anyone knows what it means to be emotionally connected, or why it is critical to a truly solid, satisfying relationship.

What is emotional intimacy?

It’s hard to understand emotional intimacy without defining both emotions and intimacy.  To make matters more confusing, emotions and feelings aren’t the same thing.  No wonder why couples get crossways of each other trying to connect.  So let’s break it down. 


Emotions are what we feel in our bodies in response to things that happen to us that we experience as significant or important. Emotions frequently arise in response to situations, events, or triggers before we can even think our way through what has happened. For example, a partner may say something he intends to be benign, or even positive, but his partner’s nervous system associates what was said with a past bad experience that causes them to feel immediate fear in their bodies before they even know why – all they register initially is the somatics of the emotion of fear: increased heart rate, freezing in their body, shallow breathing, tight jaw. 

Feelings are how we label the bodily emotions with our thoughts.  How we label our emotional body experiences has a lot to do with what we have been through in our lives; how we come to know what we know, and how we have learned how to describe what has happened to us and how it feels. For example, some people experience activation in their nervous systems when asked to talk about vulnerable topics with their partners.  The activation in the body creates that increased heart rate, cold hands and feet, shallow breathing and a sensation to either pick a fight or run from the room (fight or flight).  Some people may label that emotional body experience as fear.  Others may call it vulnerability.  Others may label it anger.  While some may experience it as excitement. 

When I worked in alcohol and drug treatment centers, clients in group therapy checked in at the start of each session with how they were feeling.  So many times, people would check in with “fine.” Fine isn’t a feeling!  In order to identify our feelings, we need to first check in with our bodies to find our emotions.  Then we can assess the feeling that goes with it.  People who aren’t skilled at tuning into their bodies for information can’t easily identify an emotion.  Abusing alcohol and drugs changes our experience of our emotional bodies, and often obliterates our connection with the emotional body, making emotional awareness difficult, if not impossible.

A psychologist named Paul Eckman’s research resulted in his assertion that we have six basic emotions: 

  • Happiness
  • Sadness
  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Disgust
  • Surprise

There are many other theories of emotions, including how basic emotions can combine to create more complex feelings.  For example, the emotion of love has been described as a combination of the feelings of tenderness, pleasure, devotion and passion.  Hate has been described as an overlap of anger, fear and disgust. 1 

To start, see if you can notice these six emotions and how they show up in your body.


Intimacy is defined as “close familiarity or friendship; closeness.”  However, the closeness cannot merely be proximity, or being next to someone.  It implies presence and safety – being in the moment where the interaction of closeness is experienced and experiencing the connection of that moment as safe and welcoming. 

I wrote a handout for my therapy clients called “8 Forms of Intimacy,” of which emotional intimacy is just one of the eight.  Basically, any type of intimacy is about knowing another person and having mutuality in the knowing, in the present moment , replete with awareness of what is happening in one’s body and also between them and their partner – I call this awareness of within and between.  It is the mutual seeing and being seen; understanding and being understood, experiencing and being experienced, knowing and being known.

Intimacy is a type of conversation between people, any way you slice it: the conversation can be through touch, words, actions, emotions and feelings.  It is an exchange that is rooted in presence with each other.  Implicit in this presence is an environment of safety, openness and kindness.  See my blog post on Safe and Sound Social Engagement for more on this.

Putting it together

So now you have an understanding of emotions as originating in our bodies in response to what happens in our lives and with our partners.  We then assign feelings labels to the body emotions based on our past experiences and learning.  We may have different emotions than our partners, in response to the same event, based on how our nervous system registers it in relation to our past experiences.  Furthermore, we may then label our emotions differently than our partners might, which is why people can have difficulty understanding each other or problem-solving issues that arise in their relationships.

Emotional intimacy, then, is being able to understand what is happening inside of your own experience (within you) and then share it with your partner (between you).  You really must have a partner who can do the same.  Here is an exercise to practice.

1.  Notice how emotions first arise in your body as sensations.

What sensations can you describe in your body?

2.  Which of the six emotions is showing up in the present moment as that sensation?

3.  Name the feeling/s that go with the body sensation and emotion based on your thoughts, if they differ from the primary emotion you have named:

Write what the feelings mean to you based on your personal past learning and experiences your partner may not understand or be aware of:

4.  Ask your partner when he/she is available to share this information with them.  You might even invite them to consider and bring their emotional experience (Steps 1-3) with them to the conversation.  Agree on a mutually safe and supportive (intimate) moment when you can both be present and focused on each other.

5. Once you have shared your emotions and feelings, your partner reflects/repeats back what you have shared, even if they didn’t have the same experience.  Ideally, they will strive to do this with compassion and seeking to understand how this could be your experience and perspective, even if it differs from theirs.

6.  You then listen and stay present with their sharing of their experience and reflect what they have shared (steps 1-5).

7.  You can now practice delighting in knowing each other, and yourself, more deeply as a result of having this emotionally connective conversation.

Note that you don't necessarily have to talk to each other step-by-step in a mechanical way.  I lay the steps out so you don't miss any helpful communication points. But this can also be achieved in a back-and-forth conversation, not just one speaker at a time.




840 U.S. Highway 1 Suite 435 North Palm Beach, FL 33408


By Appointment


10:00 am-3:00 pm


12:00 pm-5:00 pm


10:00 am-3:00 pm


1:00 pm-6:00 pm







Contact Me