Emotional Intimacy and Eroticism


Emotional Intimacy and Eroticism

In that first year of my marriage, I went to a marriage counselor in Budapest. He taught me how to shake my hips, insisting that would arouse my partner and that we’d have children. How I carried myself, he told me, how I dressed and how I spoke to “my man” would arouse his eroticism and, from there, emotional desire. My speech should be oriented away from myself and toward him for improved connections.

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Now, I don’t know whether our eroticism grew – we divorced shortly thereafter – but there was scarce emotional intimacy.

For you to improve your emotional intimacy for great sex, I’d suggest you treat your significant partner different than that “expert” suggested my ex treat me.


As a research scientist, I go to the latest scientific studies for pointers and here’s what they prescribed.

The difference between closeness and eroticism

Most people conflate closeness with intimacy thinking sharing beds with their partner 42 hours a week shows they’re emotionally intimate.

You could share cubicles with your co-worker around that amount of time, too, but that doesn’t make you intimate. Emotional intimacy is mutual self-disclosure, affection, and validation.

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This physical and emotional connection also zig-zags through different phases as your marriage develops. And that’s only natural.

This physical and emotional connection also zig-zags through different phases as your marriage develops. And that’s only natural.

When you first find the “love” of your life, you’d do anything for them! As philosopher Martin Buber says, it’s an I-Thou relationship, where the I melts into the Thou. Typically, you’re on tippy-toe, maybe insecure about the relationship, ready to sacrifice yourself for the other. Then comes the interminable days of “us”, when you’re fused as a pair. Your relationship is more stable now but far less intense. In fact, its routine may make you sometimes long for independence. Your age and the length of relationship could influence your emotional intimacy and sexual desire too.

It’s your age, darling

According to professors Regan and Berscheid (1999), emotional eroticism, or lust, really depends on two factors: Internal and external.

Internal factors are the motivational aspects that whip you into this blazing surge of desire. External factors refer to outside variables, such as your age, mood, stimuli (drugs) and so forth.

There are days when nothing else exists but your “honey,” and other days when your “honey” is as sour as month-old milk. 

According to Levine (2001), both sexual desire and emotional intimacy, ultimately, boil down to your neuroendocrine, cognitive, and motivational processes. In other words, it’s how much you’re physically aroused, how attractive you think your spouse is and how loopy you are for that sex that inclines you toward and away from sexual behavior. Passion also depends on your contextual, social, and cultural processes, where your environment (are you in a courtroom or a bedroom?), your society/country (can you kiss in the street?) and your religion define where, when and how you can frolic in physical intimacy and sex.

Even when your emotional connection and/or sex life is at its lowest, there are still certain things you can do to resuscitate that dying ember of passion.

Scientific Suggestions

Maintain your independence

Disney movies tell us “happy ever after” stories of 1(man)+1(woman) = 1. No siree. Not in math and not in life. And certainly not in emotionally-strong relationships.

You need to treat yourselves as individuals to have your needs met. I’ve seen men who expect their wife to address all their needs thereby voiding her individuality for them.  “I’m sad to say,” Murray and her clinical colleagues (2008) write, “the vulnerability of these men and their rejection risk of getting hurt by these partners or wives are high.”

Other males, on the other hand, let their wives dominate them completely. “Regulate your feelings,” Murray and her friends say, “so you don’t fall prey to passion or regret.” Neither attitude improves your emotional connections.

For noted Belgian psychotherapist and author Esther Perel, self-differentiation, or otherness, is the most important factor for emotional intimacy.

 “You need to,” she told me, “see the other as someone close and intimate but different from yourself. Couples with low levels of differentiation might often experience low sexual desire and sexual boredom that could injure intimacy. In contrast, highly differentiated couples who have the self-esteem to trust the other and also find enjoyment apart are more likely to have heightened sexual desire.”

Thoughtful words and gifts of appreciation

At the same time, you can’t be too self-focused. Hook and colleagues (2003) found that one of the definite aspects of emotional intimacy is small but regular tokens of thoughtful affection. The best gifts are those that make your “suger-babe” feel special. No costly $1,000 teddy bear will do. For most women, it could be something as simple as a mug with a customized message that she’s the best in the world.

Regularly praise your partner. And be truthful. Women are bullshit radars. They have an innate sense for when you’re bullshitting them.

Disrupt your life

For Dr. Perel (2008), there’s a clear disjunct between intimacy and passionate sex. After 43 years of practicing sex therapy, she wondered : “Why does emotional intimacy not always lead to eroticism or fulfilling sex?” and “Why do couples who claim to love each other state problems with desire?”

Too many couples, Perel found, have unreal expectations that come from the secularization of Western society, the rise of individualism, and the Western “mandate” for happiness:

 “We want our chosen one to offer stability, safety, predictability, and dependability – all the anchoring experiences. And we want that very same person to supply awe, mystery, adventure, and risk.”

Hollywood’s romance is mythical not life. You and I live in the hurly-burly domestic sphere. Take a vacation. Make a crack in that routine. You’ve got the love. Now get the passion.

Create shared, positive and unexpected experiences

According to Narciso and Ribeiro (2009), the route to a better emotional and erotic connection is through shared positive and intense experiences. So you have this mega-million real estate globetrotting job? Surprise your wife with a trip to a cabin with the rain pattering on the roof and 24-hour sex (if she wants it), with musicians strumming out the window, hikes through the mountains, campfire singsongs in the snow and rides on polar bears. Get the gist?

The more unpredictable and routine-shattering your project, the more successful it may be in arousing passion. (Needless to say, your “surprise” should suit your partner too).

Practice self-disclosure

Self-disclosure is risky – and largely responsible for the happy state of affairs of that 40 percent of interviewed couples who reported intense connection within their relationships.

Although O’Leary and colleagues (2012) say people who engage in self-disclosure tend to be extroverted, I’ve seen plenty of introverted people who self-disclose too. Such people tend to have healthy self-esteem and are, therefore, less controlling and more accepting of their spouse’s behavior and needs.  They tend to be more independent, unafraid of rejection, unafraid, too, of emotional (or physical) self-revelation.

“It’s normal,” David Schnarch, in his book Intimacy & Desire: Awaken the Passion in Your Relationship, writes “to want to feel validated by your partner for whom you really are – but then I’ve found most clients who come to me for counseling are afraid. What if my partner makes fun of me after I’ve exposed my deepest insecurities.”

Regular and sensitive self-disclosures typically elicits reciprocal self-disclosure, and, from there, a more sustained emotionally and erotically stronger relationship.

In short: For the happy ever after…

There’s strong evidence for the high association between emotional intimacy and emotion.

Marriage, or any partnership, goes through its natural phases of highs and lows. You can revive inertia through thoughtful and honest tokens, dramatic and routine-breaking surprises, and self-disclosure.

Ultimately, your ability to achieve a healthy emotional connection comes down to a healthy sense of your identity. That’s where you move between two states where you let yourself be invaded by the other’s emotional neediness, on the one hand, while emotionally carving your own space, on the other. This autonomy helps you know each other’s deepest thoughts and emotions to improve your physical, sexual and emotional intimacy.

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