It’s 8:30 p.m., and the kitchen is clean. The kids have been quiet for at least 15 minutes, so it’s probable that they’re asleep. I sit down with my husband and we grab our current library books to read together. We try to spend an hour in the evenings–-just the two of us—either watching TV or reading.
It usually starts out well enough, but maybe 10 minutes in, I interrupt whatever we are doing with a proposition, “Could we just talk instead? My husband generously puts his book down or pauses the show and says, “Sure, what do you want to talk about?” And I respond with, “I don’t know, let’s just talk.” This request drives him crazy.
He wonders why I would want to talk if I don’t have anything specific to talk about! For him, being in the same room together doing the same activity is very bonding, and fulfills his need for feeling close to me. For me, if we are just watching the same movie, but aren’t talking to each other, I don’t feel particularly bonded or close to him.
It has taken time, but we are finally getting better at figuring out how to stay close emotionally during the ups and downs of our marriage. And we’ve discovered the first step is recognizing that the ways we feel connected to each other are different.
1. Recognize and articulate the different things that make you feel close to each other.
Adam Lane Smith, a marriage therapist and author, points out that men and women want different things to help them feel close emotionally, and he gives practical advice for how to approach your spouse to make him or her feel loved.
He explains that men experience more emotional closeness while solving a problem. So, he suggests that doing an activity like working on a puzzle or doing a household project together would help a husband feel closer to his wife.
On the other hand, women experience more emotional closeness when they are able to help someone they love work through a difficult situation. So, a husband might share a struggle he is having with his wife and ask her for feedback, and that would help her feel close to him.
This rings true in my own marriage. I feel close to my husband when we share about the struggles in our day, and how to overcome them. But, I have to be willing to say that’s what I want to talk about. This book has helped give me a way to open those lines of communication. On the other hand, he feels close to me when we play a game together, or when we make plans for a future project together.
2. Use your manners.
One day I noticed (painfully) just how rude my normal interactions with my husband had become. I was just a grouch to him so much of the time! Needless to say, neither of us was feeling particularly close to each other on those days.
Dr. Ray Guarendi, a marriage therapist and author, writes about how we sometimes treat our spouse as we would a stranger or an enemy. We take him or her for granted, and forget common courtesy. Instead, we must remember basic respect like saying please and thank you. It’s helpful to notice the tone of voice you use regularly with each other. Greet your spouse with joy, and give them the benefit of the doubt often—don’t just assume he or she is actively trying to hurt you with her actions or way of doing things.
3. Don’t forget the love languages!
My husband feels so appreciated when I get him a surprise snack from the store, or when I pick up a little something for him while running errands. I feel very loved when he compliments me on something that happens in the day–whether it is how I handled a situation or how dinner tastes. And when we remember those little things for each other, it helps us feel more connected no matter how wonderfully or terribly the rest of life is going.
The beauty of building emotional intimacy is that it doesn’t require two people to change how they interact overnight. Change will happen slowly over time, but it only takes one person to commit to altering his behavior at first.
If you treat your spouse with courtesy and respect, and start showing him/her love in a way that resonates, you’ve just laid the foundation for a strong emotional connection. Then when you learn to recognize and ask for what you need to feel close, you have a partner who feels loved by you, and in a normal relationship, is then able to give back to you in return.