Are Women Really Better at Intimate Relationships?

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It was with equal amounts of anticipation and dread that I read the R. Chase article “What Men Want” in an old back issue of the Voice-Tribune. I laughed out loud when I read the following exchange between the author and a male friend:

“I once had a conversation with a friend of mine about women. We were talking about a girl that, while extremely attractive, was a little vapid.

Me: ‘She’s pretty hot, but I want a girl I can talk to.’

Him (with incredulity): ‘Why?’”

That’s a lot funnier way of putting it than marriage researcher John Gottman’s description of the classic marital impasse as “a wife seeking emotional connection from a withdrawn husband.”

From both my professional and personal observations, I’d say that emotional intimacy isn’t any easier for women than it is for men. I don’t think intimacy is easy for anyone. Here’s why:

Intimacy Requires Vulnerability

How many people do you know who relish the opportunity to make themselves emotionally vulnerable with another person? Do you feel safe and enjoy yourself when you take an emotional risk by expressing your feelings to someone?

Most of the time, we’re doing everything we possibly can to not feel vulnerable — and with good reason. It’s all about making sure we survive, not just physically, but also emotionally. Although it takes us longer than any other species to mature to adulthood, we humans, even as infants, are intelligent and adaptive when comes to figuring out how to “belong,” first in our family of origin and then into the larger social setting around us.

Whether it’s by becoming smart or tough, selfish or self-sacrificing, straightforward or manipulative — whatever it takes — as children we adjust to make a place for ourselves and keep things safe enough that we make it to adulthood. In the process, we grow the necessary “skin” to protect our profound emotional openness and sensitivity.

Somewhere along the way, we encounter one of life’s biggest conundrums — it’s impossible for us to have intimate relationships without our vulnerability being part of the equation. In other words, we have to put ourselves at some emotional risk to reap the incomparable reward of emotional intimacy with another person.

Over-Empathy Looks Like Intimacy … but It’s Not

Emotional intimacy isn’t a luxury, add-on, or optional item for a happy life, according to Robert Cummins, a pioneer researcher of subjective wellbeing (aka “happiness”). Cummins’ study identified intimate social relationships as the strongest predictor of life satisfaction — more than material well-being, health, or leisure satisfaction. Trying to ignore our need for emotional connection or fill it up with poor (oftentimes addictive) substitutes tends to have a short shelf-life.

Hospice worker Bronnie Ware agrees. In her book Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Ware noted that one of the common regrets that surfaced again and again was, “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”

When men acknowledge that they’re not good at intimate relationships, at least they’re upfront and honest about it. What concerns me about women is that we tend to do our “non-intimacy” in a way that looks like we’re loving and intimate. Even more problematic, we genuinely think we’re being intimate. Let me explain.

Intimacy isn’t just about being interested in, attuned to, and emotionally “present” with someone else. Intimacy also requires an ability to confide your needs and air your dissatisfactions without fear of losing your partner’s affection.

According to Robin Stern, PhD, associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, “Many women are brought up to believe that empathy, in and of itself, is always appropriate, and it becomes the default mode of responding to others. The high regard in which empathic people are held obscures the fact that they may be neglecting their own feelings.”

Over-empathy, codependency, caregiver syndrome, helicopter parenting, all tend to look loving, kind and intimate… but there’re really not.

The Antidote to Over-Empathy

I find that plenty of women “get” it about over-empathy — and the need to dial it back — on an intellectual level, but it doesn’t help them much. Something more than awareness is needed to translate being able to talk about it into being able to do it. The fastest and most effective “something more” I’ve discovered is creating an in-session experience for clients so they get an in-the-moment sense of what it looks like, sounds like, and, most importantly, what it feels like — both physically and emotionally — to try on behavior that may at first seem unfamiliar, awkward, or even unthinkable.

The other essential ingredient to lasting behavior change is taking on what I call “homeopathic doses” of the “no-no” behavior, until it starts to feel easy and natural and can be channeled in just the right amount to be effective without being counterproductive. Some examples of what the attitudinal transition looks like are in Chart 1 on page 26.

The Pay-Off

The most unanticipated, paradoxical, and flat-out exhilarating effect of dialing back over-empathy and integrating some of these traditionally taboo behaviors for women? When you develop some personal boundaries in the form of basic self-respect and self-esteem, you are actually are able to make a better emotional connection with others. Who would have thought?

HOSPICE WORKER BRONNIE WARE AGREES. IN HER BOOK TOP FIVE REGRETS OF THE DYING, WARE NOTED THAT ONE OF THE COMMON REGRETS THAT SURFACED AGAIN AND AGAIN WAS, “I WISH I’D HAD THE COURAGE TO EXPRESS MY FEELINGS.”

INTIMACY ISN’T JUST ABOUT BEING INTERESTED IN, ATTUNED TO, AND EMOTIONALLY “PRESENT” WITH SOMEONE ELSE. INTIMACY ALSO REQUIRES AN ABILITY TO CONFIDE YOUR NEEDS AND AIR YOUR DISSATISFACTIONS WITHOUT FEAR OF LOSING YOUR PARTNER’S AFFECTION.