Cultivating Emotional Intimacy

When someone you know is going through a hard time, it’s natural to ask that person whether he or she has adequate support. As our regular readers know, the last several months have thrown many challenges our way. We are continuing to stand firm because we’re able to support one another. Many people have asked us what our intimacy looks like, and today we’d like to address a question we’ve received: “How do you cultivate emotional intimacy in a celibate relationship?” In most ways, our response is no different from what we would expect to hear from a healthy, non-celibate couple.

Upon coming into relationship with one another, we fell almost immediately into a natural pattern of cultivating deep emotional intimacy, and we’ve seen that continuing as our relationship has grown. There’s something about our personalities that has allowed each of us to “get” the other, even though we’ve both experienced being profoundly misunderstood by many people in our lives. Sometimes, two people can just click.

Our friendship blossomed because we were willing to be vulnerable with each other. As we’ve shared before, we believe that vulnerability opens the door to intimacy. When we were just beginning getting to know each other, we shared random facts about ourselves and our lives. Lindsey learned that Sarah used to wear mismatched socks to express Sarah’s individuality in elementary school. Sarah learned that as a kid, Lindsey worked to save money so Lindsey could attend Space Camp three times. These micro-stories gave us opportunities to share an incredible number of life experiences and the various emotions associated with these experiences. We each saw bits and pieces of the other’s personality, and came to appreciate some similarities while acknowledging some real differences in our pasts. Our selections were truly random, spanning from the deeply significant to the absolutely trivial. In addition to helping us get to know one another as people, sharing these stories laid a foundation for our coming to trust one another.

Early on in our friendship, we made a commitment to being completely honest with one another. Honesty is one of the highest values for both of us, and we’ve both experienced past relationships in which we or our significant others have had difficulty with being forthright. Because of this, we’ve challenged each other to be radically open about our thoughts, feelings, and mistakes when there’s a problem. Within the first month of our friendship, we had already started to see this pattern emerging between us. Though at first Lindsey considered the topic embarrassing, Lindsey shared openly with Sarah about Lindsey’s writing anxiety and the kind of support needed in order to manage it. Since we’re both writing doctoral dissertations, that type of information has been vital to ensure that we’re accomplishing our goals without sacrificing our emotional needs. Since the time Lindsey first opened up to Sarah about writing anxiety, Sarah has been able to check in with Lindsey about it and provide comfort and encouragement when Lindsey needs it most. Equally humiliating was the first time Sarah told Lindsey about Sarah’s eating disorder history. Because many people assume that these conditions are merely attention-seeking devices for wealthy, white, teenage girls and not legitimate medical conditions that could affect someone Sarah’s age, it has been a struggle for Sarah to be authentic about the need for support. But when Sarah did open up to Lindsey about this for the first time, Lindsey was unimaginably supportive and impressed by Sarah’s commitment to living a recovery-focused lifestyle even during the hard times. Examples like these have built upon our foundation for trust in one another.

Over the first few months that we knew each other, we learned a great deal of information, including the most painful and hidden parts of one another’s lives. A crucial piece of our emotional intimacy has been accepting each other’s emotional pasts for what they are and being able to appreciate that, by virtue of our humanity, we both carry deeply-rooted wounds. Whether it’s related to an issue that occurred during one of our childhoods, ways we’ve experienced hurt within the Church, Sarah’s trauma and the resulting PTSD, negative messages Lindsey received in ex-gay ministry, or something else entirely, we know that there will be space for conversation and respect for that experience’s symbolic meaning when we’re ready to talk about it together. Cultivating empathy for each other’s brokenness–that which we share in common and that which varies individually–has helped both of us to feel safe in being completely genuine with one another, regardless of how ugly that might look sometimes.

While emotional lives are built over the entire lifespan, all people experience their emotions moment by moment. We tend to regard in-the-moment emotional experiences as slightly unpredictable because emotions can vary, especially when people are under a good deal of stress. We have made a practice of affirming one another’s right to feel in the moment, even if the other doesn’t understand exactly why that particular mix of emotion is present at a given time. Our commitment to opting in 100% as we do life together has helped us develop a strong emotional intuition. When Lindsey experiences a panic attack, Sarah can usually tell whether Lindsey would benefit most from reassurance and empathy, some clear direction to start problem-solving processes, or a mixture of approaches. This emotional intelligence goes both ways in our relationship. One day recently, Lindsey just held Sarah as Sarah started crying hysterically after a conflict with Sarah’s nutritionist. Given that Sarah had been in a car accident the day before and Sarah rarely gets upset to the point of tears, Lindsey knew something was up. Nevertheless, Lindsey sat in that space with Sarah until Sarah was ready to share the specifics of what had happened. We’re profoundly grateful God has opened up to us a space of grace to be able to discern what emotional response would best draw us into a deeper relationship with one another, even though we’re still learning.

While some aspects of emotional intimacy have come naturally, other aspects of emotional intimacy are more difficult. We’ve struggled with and will continue to determine the best pathway through the difficulties associated with being open about our spiritual lives and places where our spiritualities differ. On some levels, our spiritualities are incredibly compatible: we both value intellectual honesty, placing life in the Church in its historic contexts, cultivating a prayer life, and being shaped within our specific Christian tradition. On other levels, we’re continually surprised at just how hard it’s been to honor our natural spiritual inclinations when developing our own sense of tradition. Lindsey’s faith journey has been profoundly influenced by mainstays of the Evangelical tradition, as Lindsey’s faith began to blossom in college while Lindsey was participating in Intervarsity and playing on the worship team of a nondenominational congregation. Sarah’s personal spirituality and formation has been tied to more liturgical traditions, as Sarah has naturally grown in faith through partaking of the sacraments and engaging in robust intellectual reflection. Even though our spiritualities may look very similar at first glance, we’ve learned that we value incredibly different facets of the spiritual experiences we share. We have welcomed the opportunity to learn more about each other even though we’re still learning the best way to have these conversations. That said, we should also note that we have high expectations and hopes that we will find our way.

The emotional intimacy that we’ve been able to cultivate within our partnership has also manifested in spillovers into other relationships. We find it easier to be compassionate when others are going through hard times. We can affirm other people’s emotions and create space for whatever feeling happens to be in the room. We’ve learned that matching appropriate responses with how a specific individual experiences emotion can be hard, so we try to respond first with empathy. Cultivating emotional intimacy in all one’s relationships is a lifelong process, and we’re glad to take in whatever wisdom the journey may bring.

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6 thoughts on “Cultivating Emotional Intimacy

  1. Thank you both for being vulnerable and sharing a few intimate details of how your relationship works. I hope you know that it is helpful because I can picture how a same sex celibate relationship can be a viable option. I think intimacy is key because this is what we need in our lives in order to grow and feel supported. Having room mates for the sake of finances or having people around is just not the same. My question is: How is this different from intentional communities, for example, which is discussed al so discussed as an option for celibate Christians?

    By the way, Sarah, I wear odd socks too but it’s because I don’t sort my socks they are just a jumble in my drawer and I wear whatever two I pick out that day, so your sock story made me smile 🙂

    • Hi Kathy. Another great question. We see our way of life as having similarities to many other ways of life, including intentional communities. In some ways, you might say that we are an intentional community of two. But in other ways, our level of intimacy probably differs from that which you would probably see among members of an intentional community. Not trying to give a cop-out answer here, but I think we should spend some time pondering this question and address it fully in a future post. And about the socks…glad to know I’m not alone. 🙂 -Sarah

    • Kay, we acknowledged in the post that in some ways, our emotional intimacy is no different from that of any other couple. The most obvious point of difference in our overall intimacy is that our physical intimacy is different because out relationship does not include the sexual element that non-celibate relationships do.

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