How do you define intimacy in a relationship, what is it, how do you know when you have intimacy? The big question is how do we get there? Here is where we can learn from the “Masters of Relationships”, the research group Dr. John Gottman defines as people with long-term stable relationships who want to be with their partners, have a good friendship, and are happy in their relationship. Their secret: They notice small moments of opportunity to respond to their partner’s attempts to start a conversation, or to initiate some connection, even if that connection is for very brief moments.
It isn’t the deep heart-felt interactions that ultimately create intimacy – those can be nice – but rather, it is how we respond to our partner every day, in between those heart-felt conversations that makes those heart-felt conversations even possible .
Think of it this way: Every time your partner starts a conversation or makes a comment, or attempts to get your attention, turn toward that effort by acknowledging and responding positively in some way. These are the small moments of opportunity to strengthen the relationship, deepen friendship, and develop emotional connections. Gottman calls this “Putting money in the emotional bank account”. When we ignore those attempts, or worse yet, attack our partner, it is like a withdrawal from the emotional bank account. Too many withdrawals leads to the emotional equivalent of our current economic status – bankrupt and in the red.
These responses may be very brief and they don’t necessarily require much from us. For example, Patty comes into the room where Tom is reading the paper and asks what the weather forecast is for tomorrow. Here are some possible responses that miss the opportunity for connection:
- “I’m reading the paper, can’t I have a moment by myself?”
- Tom takes a deep breath, rolls his eyes and seems impatient when answering the question
- Tom says nothing, engrossed in the article, or he says “Rain”, and returns to the article ignoring Patty
- Tom says “I don’t know”, then goes back to the paper.
Responses 1 & 2 are attacking and take big withdrawals from the emotional bank account. Responses 3 & 4 aren’t so bad on the surface, but nevertheless, withdrawals occur. After time those small withdrawals add up and will eventually lead to emotional disconnection.
These following responses are turning toward the partner with increasing amounts in deposits :
- “I’ll check when I’m done with this article”.
- “You know, I was wondering the same thing, we have had a lot of rain lately”.
- “I’ll check, do you need to know because you are going someplace?”
- Tom answers the question, and then starts a conversation about the weather, or Patty’s day for tomorrow, or something else.
As you can see, the above responses don’t really require a lot from us, but the consequences over time between the deposits and the withdrawals are huge. The Masters respond to their partners 86% of the time the partner initiates an interaction, while the couples who end up unhappy or not together respond positively only 33% of the time. The difference between the two groups of responses doesn’t necessarily seem huge at first glance, but over time people stop making bids if they are not responded to.