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Little Questions That Improve Emotional Intimacy In A Big Way

"Emotional connection is how we build intimacy."

Love & Relationships

If you're the least bit wise, one of the first things you've learned about life is this: not all things that glitter are gold. And, because that phrase is applicable to virtually anything, let me be specific. In this case, I mean, you're sitting (stuck even) in the house with your significant other in the midst of a pandemic and boom, you realize you don't know them as well as you might have thought sans lockdown. This could be for many reasons but in my expert opinion and observation, it comes to the over-pouring into one type of intimacy while not necessarily honing in on others (which absolutely matter).

While some couples ignore sexual compatibility, others are missing financial intimacy or the type of intimacy that is built on non-sexual communication. There are several types of intimacy and it's very rare that couples are well-versed in all of them—we're human, after all. Perhaps you're placing too much weight on sexual intimacy, which can definitely build intimacy but it's similar to when we're locking our thumbprint into our iPhone — it can only span over so much before you have to lift and replace your thumb on another area to ensure you've covered all your grounds.

But, what I'm here to tell you is that by improving your emotional connection and learning to build emotional intimacy in your relationship as a whole, there will be a trickle effect that occurs in the other areas of your relationship. (Might even unlock next-level sex). So I spoke with one of my faves, Shadeen Francis, licensed sex and relationship therapist, for her thoughts on improving emotional connection in our romantic partnerships.

She wasted no time expounding on the need for emotional connections in our partnership emphasizing the magnitude of knowing someone deeply. She shared, "Emotional connection is how we build intimacy. Intimacy is the deep knowing of one another, not just things about them, like that they don't like onions, but their actual experience in the world, such as it makes them anxious to travel alone. Rather than the belief that we are supposed to be able to predict or interpret one another's feelings, we learn about each other over time."

"Emotional connection is how we build intimacy. Rather than the belief that we are supposed to be able to predict or interpret one another's feelings, we learn about each other over time."

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Many of us are under the impression that millennials have a disconnect when it comes dating, one that makes us insensitive to the opposite sex. Whether that's true or not, I won't confirm...at least not today but what I will say is that fixing the disconnect will require an entire generation to come together for community building that further explores the current dynamics of Black love. It seems that the more independent we grown — as we reform gender roles — we have lost our ability or incentive to be vulnerable, in my opinion. But according to Francis, vulnerability is a necessary climb but a difficult one for most of us. "Emotional connection requires emotional vulnerability, the regular sharing of emotions. That can feel really hard when we are feeling hurt or afraid. To tell someone 'I am feeling sad' or 'I am feeling scared' is to essentially give them a clear roadmap into your heart. We might not have had the permission, guidance, or the safety to do that in our families, friendships, or past relationships, but it is a necessary practice in relationships."

She continued, "A sign that [this] might be missing [is] if you notice yourself being unwilling to confide in one another, defensiveness, conflict avoidance, or consistently feeling misunderstood." Though, so much of the work does and will occur in your relationships directly. I must add that getting to the healthier version of what our grandparents had (that seems to always be the comparison) — a love that endures all but without so much of the hurt that they suffered due to unspoken trauma (generational and otherwise) — will require vulnerability on a larger scale in addition to doing the work in our individual relationships.

"To tell someone 'I am feeling sad' or 'I am feeling scared' is to essentially give them a clear roadmap into your heart. We might not have had the permission, guidance, or the safety to do that in our families, friendships, or past relationships, but it is a necessary practice in relationships."

Maybe you read this and know immediately that, when it comes to emotional intimacy, you and your boo are lacking. Or maybe you don't feel like that area doesn't need work at all. Either way I'd say there's always room for improvement. We're always evolving individually and in our relationships, thus there's always more intimacy to unpack — things to learn and unlearn — and when you think about it, that's the fun part about partnership. The ebbs and flows.

That said, Francis recommends asking these questions to improve the emotional connection and intimacy:

  1. How are you feeling? (Invite them to use an emotion word, like angry, surprised, sad - "aight", "good", "fine", and "some type of way" are not feelings!)
  2. What do you wish I knew about you?
  3. When you are feeling _____________, what can I do to help you feel better?
  4. What's a favorite memory we've shared so far? How can we create some of that feeling again?

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She further suggests that you make it a game if it feels a bit odd or "challenging to initiate emotional conversation," adding that "there are a number of card decks and conversation cards that are designed to promote intimate conversation. Pick one that feels like a good fit and set aside some time, maybe over dinner or on a date night, to go through them. Or pull one card each day. Let your partner know it's not a test, you just want to get to know them better."

Additionally, you can check out Pinterest for more activities to help build emotional intimacy. Lastly, because I know society has a habit of asking Black men and women to stay "strong" all the same and yet differently, I inquired about how this intimacy homework and the questions provided might change based on gender...just to be on the safe side. But truly, Francis' response was the perfect f*ck you to the white supremacy that has especially left Black men feeling less than for participating in the human experience that is emotion.

"Society socializes men to disengage from their emotions, but having feelings isn't 'feminine.' Emotions have no gender. Everyone has emotions, they are necessary parts of our survival as they make it clear what we are experiencing."

Love seems sparkly and it definitely has its moments, but much like self-love, the real stuff lies in the ongoing buffering and polishing to ensure that it's not just good lighting reflecting off that jawn. Taking the time to reflect, both actively and retroactively, then initiating change through efforts such as this — well, that's how you truly get to live life in love and … golden (the sparkly stuff too).

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You may not know her by Elisabeth Ovesen – writer and host of the love, sex and relationships advice podcast Asking for a Friend. But you definitely know her other alter ego, Karrine Steffans, the New York Times best-selling author who lit up the literary and entertainment world when she released what she called a “tell some” memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen.

Her 2005 barn-burning book gave an inside look at the seemingly glamorous world of being a video vixen in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and exposed the industry’s culture of abuse, intimidation, and misogyny years before the Me Too Movement hit the mainstream. Her follow-up books, The Vixen Diaries (2007) and The Vixen Manual: How To Find, Seduce And Keep The Man You Want (2009) all topped the New York Times best-seller list. After a long social media break, she's back. xoNecole caught up with Ovesen about the impact of her groundbreaking book, what life is like for her now, and why she was never “before her time”– everyone else was just late to the revolution.

xoNecole: Tell me about your new podcast Asking for a Friend with Elisabeth Ovesen and how that came about.

Elisabeth Ovesen: I have a friend who is over [at Blavity] and he just asked me if I wanted to do something with him. And that's just kinda how it happened. It wasn't like some big master plan. Somebody over there was like, “Hey, we need content. We want to do this podcast. Can you do it?” And I was like, “Sure.” And that's that. That was around the holidays and so we started working on it.

xoNecole: Your life and work seem incredibly different from when you first broke out on the scene. Can you talk a bit about the change in your career and how your life is now?

EO: Not that different. I mean my life is very different, of course, but my work isn't really that different. My life is different, of course, because I'm 43. My career started when I was in my 20s, so we're looking at almost 20 years since the beginning of my career. So, naturally life has changed a lot since then.

I don’t think my career has changed a whole lot – not as far as my writing is concerned, and my stream of consciousness with my writing, and my concerns and the subject matter hasn’t changed much. I've always written about interpersonal relationships, sexual shame, male ego fragility, respectability politics – things like that. I always put myself in the center of that to make those points, which I think were greatly missed when I first started writing. I think that society has changed quite a bit. People are more aware. People tell me a lot that I have always been “before my time.” I was writing about things before other people were talking about that; I was concerned about things before my generation seemed to be concerned about things. I wasn't “before my time.” I think it just seems that way to people who are late to the revolution, you know what I mean?

I retired from publishing in 2015, which was always the plan to do 10 years and retire. I was retired from my pen name and just from the business in general in 2015, I could focus on my business, my education and other things, my family. I came back to writing in 2020 over at Medium. The same friend that got me into the podcast, actually as the vice president of content over at Medium and was like, “Hey, we need some content.” I guess I’m his go-to content creator.

xoNecole: Can you expound on why you went back to your birth name versus your stage name?

EO: No, it was nothing to expound upon. I mean, writers have pen names. That’s like asking Diddy, why did he go by Sean? I didn't go back. I've always used that. Nobody was paying attention. I've never not been myself. Karrine Steffans wrote a certain kind of book for a certain kind of audience. She was invented for the urban audience, particularly. She was never meant to live more than 10 years. I have other pen names as well. I write under several names. So, the other ones are just nobody's business right now. Different pen names write different things. And Elisabeth isn’t my real name either. So you'll never know who I really am and you’ll never know what my real name is, because part of being a writer is, for me at least, keeping some sort of anonymity. Anything I do in entertainment is going to amass quite a bit because who I am as a person in my private life isn't the same a lot of times as who I am publicly.

xoNecole: I want to go back to when you published Confessions of a Video Vixen. We are now in this time where people are reevaluating how the media mistreated women in the spotlight in the 2000s, namely women like Britney Spears. So I’d be interested to hear how you feel about that period of your life and how you were treated by the media?

EO: What I said earlier. I think that much of society has evolved quite a bit. When you look back at that time, it was actually shocking how old-fashioned the thinking still was. How women were still treated and how they're still treated now. I mean, it hasn't changed completely. I think that especially for the audience, I think it was shocking for them to see a woman – a woman of color – not be sexually ashamed.

I hate being like other people. I don't want to do what anyone else is doing. I can't conform. I will not conform. I think in 2005 when Confessions was published, that attitude, especially about sex, was very upsetting. Number one, it was upsetting to the men, especially within urban and hip-hop culture, which is built on misogyny and thrives off of it to this day. And the women who protect these men, I think, you know, addressing a demographic that is rooted in trauma that is rooted in sexual shame, trauma, slavery of all kinds, including slavery of the mind – I think it triggered a lot of people to see a Black woman be free in this way.

I think it said a lot about the people who were upset by it. And then there were some in “crossover media,” a lot of white folks were upset too, not gonna lie. But to see it from Black women – Tyra Banks was really upset [when she interviewed me about Confessions in 2005]. Oprah wasn't mad [when she interviewed me]. As long as Oprah wasn’t mad, I was good. I didn't care what anybody else had to say. Oprah was amazing. So, watching Black women defend men, and Black women who had a platform, defend the sexual blackmailing of men: “If you don't do this with me, you won't get this job”; “If you don't do this in my trailer, you're going to have to leave the set”– these are things that I dealt with.

I just happened to be the kind of woman who, because I was a single mother raising my child all by myself and never got any help at all – which I still don't. Like, I'm 24 in college – not a cheap college either – one of the best colleges in the country, and I'm still taking care of him all by myself as a 21-year-old, 20-year-old, young, single mother with no family and no support – I wasn’t about to say no to something that could help me feed my son for a month or two or three.

xoNecole: We are in this post-Me Too climate where women in Hollywood have come forward to talk about the powerful men who have abused them. In the music industry in particular, it seems nearly impossible for any substantive change or movement to take place within music. It's only now after three decades of allegations that R. Kelly has finally been convicted and other men like Russell Simmons continue to roam free despite the multiple allegations against him. Why do you think it's hard for the music industry to face its reckoning?

EO: That's not the music industry, that's urban music. That’s just Black folks who make music and nobody cares about that. That's the thing; nobody cares...Nobody cares. It's not the music industry. It's just an "urban" thing. And when I say "urban," I say that in quotations. Literally, it’s a Black thing, where nobody gives a shit what Black people do to Black people. And Russell didn't go on unchecked, he just had enough money to keep it quiet. But you know, anytime you're dealing with Black women being disrespected, especially by Black men, nobody gives a shit.

And Black people don't police themselves so it doesn't matter. Why should anybody care? And Black women don't care. They'll buy an R. Kelly album right now. They’ll stream that shit right now. They don’t care. So, nobody cares. Nobody cares. And if you're not going to police yourself, then nobody's ever going to care.

xoNecole: Do you have any regrets about anything you wrote or perhaps something you may have omitted?

EO: Absolutely not. No. There's nothing that I wish I would've gone back and said to myself, no. I don’t think at 20-something years old, I'm supposed to understand every little thing. I don't think the 20-something-year-old woman is supposed to understand the world and know exactly what she's doing. I think that one of my biggest regrets, which isn't my regret, but a regret, is that I didn't have better parents. Because a 20-something only knows what she knows based on what she’s seen and what she’s been taught and what she’s told. I had shitty parents and a horrible family. Just terrible. These people had no business having children. None of them. And a lot of our families are like that. And we may pass down those familial curses.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

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