How to Sustain Intimacy in LTRs – a Neuroscience Perspective

This article about intimacy is based on information from a Webinar delivered by Mona Fishbane, PhD, as part of Sound True’s Neuroscience Training Summit. She offers a realistic, and ultimately hopeful account of how to develop, repair and nurture intimacy in long term relationships (‘LTRs’). More detail on what she teaches is available in her book, Loving with the Brain in Mind: Neurobiology and Couple Therapy.

early love, and how love evolves


Early love (lust) is characterized by a brain high on dopamine (it gives us the ‘I want you, I need you’ feeling). The critical judgmental parts of brain are turned off when we’re madly in love. This ‘in love’, dopamine-fueled state can last between 18 months to 3 years.

Afterwards, love evolves into a saner state described as ‘companionate love’. This is when couples see each other ‘warts and all’.

Time has a corrosive effect on love, including companionate love. This is made worse by stressful events, such as having children. When it fades, some people missing the dopamine high, seek it elsewhere.

what real intimacy is


Although we delude ourselves that it is, love by nature is not secure, and one cannot have lasting guaranteed security. Intimacy over time involves an awareness of the fragility of love, and the need to nurture it intentionally.

Intimacy over time involves an awareness of the fragility of love, and the need to nurture it intentionally Click To Tweet

Intimacy also involves tolerating differences; it involves respecting the otherness of the other.

Sustaining intimacy involves monitoring what facilitates intimacy and what blocks it. Some of the sustainers of intimacy are:

  • Eye contact. Our phones and other devices take us away from making more eye contact with eachother, which is problematic from an intimacy perspective.
  • Seeing eachother ‘with fresh eyes’. Seeing our partners as they are, not through the lens of transference, expectations, disappointments, and reactivity.
  • Vulnerability.

the neuro-biological conflict at heart of intimacy


Intimacy is challenging to build and keep, because of an inherent conflict that exists within us: the need for self preservation and the need for closeness.

The brain’s fight or flight response, triggered in the amygdala part of the brain (the emotional brain, responsible for fast and habitual reactions) undermines intimacy. This amygdala is triggered by old emotional memories. We can become stuck in our intimate relationships in exactly the way we got stuck as kids. And LTRs become unhappy dances of eachother’s old wounds.

If we're not careful, LTRs can become unhappy dances of eachother's old wounds Click To Tweet

Mutual hurt and reactivity erode intimacy. Each person’s attempt at self protection wounds the other.

However, these times can be used to deepen intimacy. Happy couples turn towards eachother following a fight, repair readily and well. This is another key way intimacy is built; through repairing moments of hurt or disconnection.

It is perhaps reassuring to contemplate that love isn’t a steady state of connection. There is connection, disconnection and repair. Repair can increase intimacy. And apology is very useful and important for this purpose.

how our brains hijack intimacy in LTRs


Our amygdalas (emotional brains) are ‘online’ from birth. They are ‘fear HQ’ for the brain.

The amygdala doesn’t dabble in niceties. As soon as it is triggered, this activates the sympathetic nervous system and mobilizes the whole body. It acts in a ‘quick and dirty manner’ – dirty because it is often inaccurate and quicker, because it is faster than the part of the brain responsible for reasoning.

Sustaining intimacy is learning to regulate the amygdala with our ‘higher brain’, the prefrontal cortex (so called because it is the seat of our reasoning and analytical capabilities).

There are more connections from the amygdala to prefrontal, than the other way. This explains why it is much easier to see red than stay calm and hold onto our best selves.

how we can get around the process of being hijacked


‘Loving with the brain in mind’ means strengthening the prefrontal cortex’s ability to calm the amygdala.

For some of us, there is more work to do. Individuals with depression have a compromised functioning in the prefrontal cortex. Trauma can also result in hyperactive amygdala and low development in cortex, which allows us to narrate our experience.

how intimacy impasses happen in LTRs

Intimacy impasses happen when we unconsciously attribute old hurts to our partners.

Our partners become a source of danger and alarm, even if there is no physical violence.

how to break the cycle – automaticity versus choice

We are driven by our lower brain most of time. That is because the prefrontal cortext uses a lot of glucose. So having the lower brain run most of lives is helpful – but also gets us in trouble.

Couple therapy facilitates choice, which happens when we learn to pause when our partners trigger an emotional response. This is what Dan Siegal calls ‘the pause that refreshes’. We learn to challenge our self justifications and habitual patterns. And we chose behaviour more thoughtfully.

In this way, moments of impasse can become rich paths to greater intimacy and can be productive.

active versus passive view of loving


‘Falling out of love’ is very passive language.

An active approach involves approaching our relationships with self responsibility and co-responsibility. And nurturing the ‘we’.

We have to water the seeds of love and compassion in LTRs Click To Tweet

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said that we all have seeds of anger and resentment, as well as love and compassion. Nurturing the we means choosing to water the seeds of love and compassion for our partners.

building and repairing intimacy – strategies

In couples therapy, the first thing that therapists do is identify the couple’s ‘stance’. For example, it could be ‘criticize and withdraw’. Then, they are led to look behind the scenes with curiosity, and identify the factors fueling the amygdala’s dance. And then give them tools to manage reactivity and make better choices.

It is a process of transition to prefrontal thoughtfulness from emotional reactivity.

techniques for emotional self-regulation


‘Most powerful is the person who has himself in his own power’. To sustain intimacy with our partners, we all need to manage our own reactivity. Some ways we do this:

  • Self soothing – parenting ourselves from the inside out. Placing our hands on our hearts when we are experiencing strong emotions; deep belly breathing; identifying our own emotions (‘name it to tame it’) all help deactivate the fight or flight emotional response.
  • Interoception‘. Read your body; notice the physical cues of a strong emotion.
  • Mindfulness meditation. Strengthens prefrontal cortex, increases cognitive flexibility and relationship satisfaction.

developing empathy

Being able to empathise with our partners is of course essential for sustaining intimacy. It starts with learning to read our own emotions. And that can be challenging as they happen quickly and beneath awareness.

habits and change

‘Neurons that fire together, wire together’. You are what you do. Your habits matter, in relationships and life.

But we are also creatures of change. Neuroplasticity continues through life, but needs to be fostered. Primarily, we do that through exercise, practising awareness and learning new things.



Sustaining intimacy in LTRs really involves each person cultivating a strong and beautiful brain.

Specifically, we need the ability to catch ourselves in the act of our own emotional reactivity. If each person in a couple can do that, and both ‘nurture the we’ by choosing to feed the seeds of compassion and love, not anger and resentment, then intimacy can deepen rather than weaken, over time.

As someone once said, time can be a friend or an enemy. And that is as true for intimacy as for other life areas.