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Relationship Intimacy

Roger and Marcia have been married 18 years and they have relatively low conflict. They make most decisions together and parent their three children effectively. They both feel, though, that they are two roommates who get along well but have little emotional connection. Eduardo and Rosalie both work full time and have 2 children who have very busy extra-curricular lives. Eduardo works long hours and Rosalie feels the challenge of working while trying to be a good, supportive mom. They spend time together as a family, but Eduardo and Rosalie have little to no time for just the two of them. They continually interact with irritation and frustration that simmers underneath their relationship. Chiyo and Kwan are recently married and have busy ministry lives. When they were dating, they engaged in many fun, adventuresome activities. Currently, they spend all their spare time meeting with individuals and couples that need their help. They connect on intellectual and spiritual levels but the rare times that they spend time together are full of talking about people they are helping. Their intimate physical relationship is minimal.

There may be parts of these stories that seem familiar to you. The reality is that sexual intimacy goes best when there is a foundation of strong friendship. For many couples, though, the friendship in their relationship is or has become weak. John Gottman, in 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work, talks about the importance of truly knowing your spouse, having a map of the territory of their lives. This might include things such as knowing what their day is like for them, what relationships are hard for them, what their hopes and dreams are, and why a particular time of day or particular holiday is important to them. Really knowing your spouse's world is integral to genuine intimacy. The truth is that many married couples, after dating, engagement, or early marriage are over, put little time or effort into nurturing their friendship. Harley, in His Needs Her Needs, explains how this impacts relationships using the idea of a love bank. When a literal financial bank account is full, car problems that cause a withdrawal from that account usually create minor anxiety. But if that bank account is low, a car breaking down and needing new, crucial parts can create havoc and stress. In a relationship, when the emotional love bank account is full, a disagreement or hurtful comment will cause a withdrawal from the relationship account, but since there is so much capital in the account, so much cushion, the pain of that withdrawal is usually not difficult to overcome. If you are regularly contributing to the bank account of your relationship by spending time together, talking through life and through conflicts in a way that builds closeness, doing small acts of kindness for each other, and engaging in affectionate and intimate touch, the relationship has a foundation, a cushion that provides a buffer from the pains and hurts that even close companions inflict on each other. If, however, you do not often talk openly, share your hopes, dreams, and fears, laugh and play together, prioritize time together, or work through conflict constructively, the emotional bank account in your relationship may be low and withdrawals, like hurtful words or disagreements, may be causing havoc in your relationship.

There is no question that a healthy, vibrant marriage takes work. It can be fun, rewarding work, but it is work. Mature love, in comparison to the infatuation early in a relationship, needs nurturing. There are several things I recommend evaluating in your emotional intimacy. Are you going on dates and how are you at getting time away? How much do you engage in casual talk and more vulnerable discussions? How is your balance of togetherness and separateness? This includes understanding how comfortable or uncomfortable each of you are with independent activities (the separateness) and how you negotiate individual interests, time alone, or time with friends. This also includes how you both feel about your amount of time together (the togetherness), if you get anxious when you are apart, if you ever feel smothered, or how you respond when you feel like you do not have enough time together. A simple way you can evaluate this is to read this paragraph and ask each other these questions.

There are some simple ways to improve your friendship, such as talking more, going out together, and doing small acts of kindness and intimacy. I regularly give couples homework to go on dates. I have them play communication games like the Ungame (which is not really a game). To promote genuine, vulnerable sharing, I have also given couples the monologue exercises from Dave Carders Torn Asunder workbook. Some couples need help in finding mutually enjoyable activities to do together. Harley has a section in His Needs Her Needs on recreational companionship that makes a great addition to my work with couples. His workbook 5 Steps to Romantic Love has a simple, detailed worksheet to help couples explore how they like to recreate and guides them in choosing new activities to engage in together. I also assign a Cup Exercise where both the husband and wife write requests and put them into a cup and do those things for their spouse that following week. These might be simple things like a 5 minute foot rub, sitting on the porch at night looking at the stars together, or making a special lunch for work. As you look at these different ways to strengthen your friendship in your marriage, you may want to choose one of them and put it consistently into practice. That small, consistent change can have a huge ripple effect.

So how did the couples mentioned above overcome their difficulties? Each of them came in for sex therapy. However, their overall relationship intimacy needed attention in order to improve their sexual relationship. Roger and Marcia learned how to work through the fears and risks that come with genuine vulnerability and began to be intentional about their time together both in and out of the home. This made a huge difference in their sexual enjoyment. Eduardo and Rosalie had to do some hard work on how they attacked or withdrew during conflict. Then they put regular, fun dates back into their schedule in order to intentionally prioritize time just for the two of them. When they began working on their sexual relationship, this foundation of vulnerable communication and playful fun made a significant difference to their enjoyment of each other sexually. Finally, Chiyo and Kwan got back to laughing and genuine sharing that went a long way toward working on the difficulties they had been having in their sexual relationship.