It’s Spring — and the wedding season is upon us! Happily engaged couples have found their true love, and are eager to enjoy a lifetime of intimacy. Yet, once the honeymoon stage is over, many couples find that intimacy eludes them.
While intimacy is essential to a happy marriage, many of us find it difficult to define and conceptualize. Intimacy means different things to different people, and it’s not a term we use very often.
What is intimacy?
Intimacy is defined as: a close, familiar, affectionate and loving personal relationship; detailed knowledge or deep understanding of something; the quality of being comfortable, warm, or familiar with someone.
Marital intimacy encompasses being known on all levels: physical, emotional, mental, social, spiritual and sexual. Intimacy both creates and requires mutual trust and acceptance. It is the avenue to achieving a sense of “oneness” in your marriage.
Doesn’t this sound like what every couple hopes for at the beginning of their journey together? Truly, one of the joys of marriage is the opportunity to develop and nurture healthy intimacy.
Why, then, do so many of us struggle to find the quality of intimacy we long for?
What is healthy intimacy?
I have observed four primary detriments to establishing healthy intimacy in relationships. Once identified, couples can confront and overcome them.
Here are some factors that can prevent you from enjoying complete intimacy with your spouse.
“Intimacy” is often mistakenly used synonymously with the word “sex,” and doing so results in spouses ignoring the non-sexual, yet equally important, aspects of intimacy.
Healthy intimacy is established through a balance of physical, emotional, spiritual and mental closeness.
Ignorance and misinformation about intimacy are further exacerbated by the unhealthy sexualized portrayals of intimacy in the media.
At the opposite end of the lust-fueled media are feelings of taboo that surround sex. Most of us did not have parents who knew how to talk to us about sex, much less intimacy. Or, we simply may have lacked proper role modeling of healthy marital intimacy from our parents.
2. Abuse or early exposure to sex
On average, 1 in 7 boys are sexually abused as children. For girls, the rate almost doubles to 1 in 4. Children whose first sexual experience is imposed, coerced or forced often have distorted expectations and concepts of safe, healthy intimacy.
Children who have experienced emotional abuse will also struggle to establish loving, trusting intimacy in their relationships.
The same consequence can occur for children who were introduced to sex at a developmentally inappropriate time, through exposure to pornography, R-rated movies, and profane and suggestive lyrics.
Healing from these experiences is needed to clear the way for a healthy intimate relationship as an adult.
3. Sexual Addiction
Healthy intimacy is compromised by sexual addiction, a progressive disorder characterized by compulsive sexual thoughts and acts that cause distress for the individual and their loved ones.
Symptoms of sexual addiction can cover a range of sex-related behaviors: pornography, masturbation, phone or computer sex, sexual encounters, fantasy sex, exhibitionism and voyeurism. These patterns of sexual behaviors outside of marriage severely harm the relationship. Healthy intimacy can be re-learned and replace the addictive behaviors, if the addict seeks and receives professional treatment.
4. Intimacy Anorexia
Withholding love, affection, praise, sex, feelings and spiritual connection are behaviors that signal a person has intimacy anorexia. Intimacy anorexia is type of relationship addiction (a condition in which a person has a need for love yet repeatedly enters into or creates dysfunctional relationships), and often is associated with sexual addictions. Its goal is self-protection and counters the vulnerability needed to create intimacy.
With sexual addiction, a person “acts out” unhealthy sexual behaviors. With intimacy anorexia, a person “acts in” by withholding connection from their partner in a variety of ways. The active withholding of intimacy causes great pain to the partner and emotional stunting to the addict. It prevents the relationship from flourishing and, eventually, the marriage dies.
Usually, when a marriage dissolves due to intimacy anorexia, outsiders and even the children may be taken by surprise. Intimacy anorexia is often a condition that couples keep well hidden.
Dealing with the issue
Couples with unhealthy intimacy are not alone in their struggles. Many couples endure similar heartache. The spectrum of unhealthy intimacy is wide, but whether your pain is extreme or mild, you are experiencing heartache nonetheless. The root of the pain must be addressed before your relationship can move forward to a healthier, happier, more intimate place.
Addressing the four primary detriments to healthy intimacy has been proven to facilitate healing for any couple on the spectrum of unhealthy intimacy – if the couple has the desire to improve. At the foundation of overcoming unhealthy intimacy is the couple’s desire to preserve the marriage and family. If one or both partners feel hopeless, then recovery is difficult. However, couples with even the smallest spark of desire to recover can begin the healing process. I have seen couples begin treatment with very little hope, yet engage in the process, and ultimately repair their marriage. It can happen for you, too.
The first step toward recovery is to confront harmful ways of thinking and behaving, and replace them with healthier methods. Seek appropriate, proven psycho-educational resources such as books, videos, and couples’ workshops.
Developing and establishing healthy intimacy is a transformative journey for every couple. While difficult and painful for many, it is well-worth the effort as you seek a brighter, more loving future and leave behind distortions, abuse and misinformation.