Guide on Building Healthy Intimacy for Couples
In This Article
Expressing intimacy can be quite intimidating for couples in a relationship because being intimate entails being vulnerable and courageous, while dealing with the risk of being rejected.
Without honest and open communication, there can’t be healthy intimacy between the partners.
What is intimacy?
Healthy Intimacy in relationships comprise of:
- Revealing your true self to your partner
- Communicating openly and honestly
- Having a genuine curiosity to explore more about each other
- Treating your partner as a separate individual and not as your property
- Agreeing to disagreeing with your partner when there is difference of opinion
- Not allowing any past hurt or disappointment to sour the relationship
- Taking ownership for your thoughts, feelings, actions and behaviours
What can block healthy intimacy?
- Lack of trust in early relationships, makes people wary of trusting others, and experiencing stages of intimacy, including developing physical intimacy.
- An irrepressible urge to control and manipulate people emotionally or physically as a way to get our needs met.
- Low self-esteem about who you are and what you believe, hinders your ability to tolerate that someone else can have a different reality to you.
A scarred past or childhood emotional neglect can deeply impact how we look at life now, and our level of comfort with building healthy intimacy in relationships.
If you identify with any of the three common problems listed above, then we suggest talking to a counsellor about this as they can help you identify ways you communicate, how you see the world and what defences you have put up to help you feel safe in the world.
Some of those defences are useful and others can stop us building healthy intimate relationships.
Healthy intimacy tips for couples
Building intimacy can only be achieved by action. Here are a few techniques on how to develop healthy intimacy between the two of you.
Rank the love needs below from highest to lowest and then share with your partner.
Affection – enjoying non-sexual physical touch, both receiving and giving.
Affirmation – being complimented and positively praised verbally, or with gifts, for who you are and what you do.
Appreciation – receiving thanks, whether through words or a gift, and being noticed for the contributions you make to the relationship and to the home and family.
Attention – spending time together with the full attention of the other, whether that’s sharing how your day has been or your inner thoughts and feelings.
Comfort – being able to talk about difficult things and both giving and receiving physical tenderness and words of comfort.
Encouragement – hearing positive words of encouragement when you’re struggling with something or being offered a helping hand.
Security – receiving any words, gifts or actions that demonstrate commitment to the relationship.
Support – hearing words of support or getting practical help.
Improving your physical intimacy by getting into a daily habit of touching one another. This increases a couple biochemical bonding. When we touch someone, a chemical called oxytocin is released.
Oxytocin inspires us to touch more and increase the bonding in our closest relationships. When couples literally lose touch with each other, their chemical bond weakens and they’re more likely to drift apart.
The goal is for the couple to touch at least 5 times a day – but the touch needs to be non-sexual e.g. a kiss when you wake up, hold hands while watching TV, hug while washing up etc.
- Caring behaviors exercise
Three questions to answer and share with your partner. Answers need to be non-sexual. Be honest and kind, to help each of you identify what actions show that you care.
- The things you do now that touch my care button and help me feel loved are..
- The things you used to do that touched my care button and helped me feel loved were….
- The things I’ve always wanted you to do that would touch my care button are….
4 Phases of love
A state of mind which results from a romantic attraction to another person and typically includes obsessive thoughts and fantasies and a desire to form or maintain a relationship with the object of love and have one’s feelings reciprocated.
Limerence produces oxytocin which is known as the love hormone. Oxytocin influences social behavior, emotion, and sociability and can lead to bad judgment.
Are you there for me? Trust is a manner of having your partner’s needs at heart, rather than expectations of serving your needs.
- Be reliable: Do what you say you will do, when you say you’re going to do it.
- Be open to feedback: A willingness to give and receive feedback and share information including feelings, concerns, beliefs and needs.
- Radical acceptance and non-Judgment: Accept them even when we don’t agree with their behavior.
- Be congruent: Walk your walk, talk your talk, and practice what you preach!
Commitment and loyalty
Exploring the purpose of your life together and sacrificing for the relationship. Negative comparisons begin to cascade the relationship downward and impact the healthy intimacy.
Safety and connectedness
Your partner is your haven when things frighten you, upset you or threaten you. You have the feeling you are in tune with the other person, have common ground to feel comfortable, yet enough differences to keep things interesting.
Four Horses of the Apocalypse (by Dr. John Gottman)
The predictors of divorce
- Criticism: Versus gentle startup as in using “I” statements.
- Defensiveness: Versus responding with empathy and no sarcasm.
- Contempt: Calling your partner names like a “jerk” or “idiot.” Giving over an air of superiority. Contempt weakens the immune system of the recipient, leading to physical and emotional ailments.
- Stonewalling: Caused by overwhelming emotions, one partner cannot process everything they are feeling and short-circuit the conversation to calm down and regain control.
If a man says something in the forest and no woman is there, is he still wrong? – Jenny Weber
What works in building healthy intimacy?
- Manage conflict. It’s not about resolution, it’s about choices.
- Change it
- Fix it
- Accept it
- Stay miserable
- Stop focusing just on conflict, focus on friendship
- Create shared meaning & purpose for your coupleship
- Give each other the benefit of the doubt instead of jumping to emotional conclusions
- Discover empathy
- Commit to true commitment
- Turn toward instead of away
- Share fondness and adulation
- Build love maps of favorites, beliefs and feelings.
FANOS couples sharing exercise
FANOS is a simple 5-step check-in exercise to build long lasting healthy intimacy between couples. It is meant to be completed daily and briefly, 5 – 10 minutes or less per check-in with no feedback or comments given from the listener.
If further discussion is desired, it can take place after both parties have presented their check-in. This exercise involves both parties sharing. The couple should decide in advance on a regular time for this exercise.
The outline for the check-in is as follows:
- F – Feelings – What are you feeling emotionally right now (focus on primary feelings instead of secondary feelings.
- A – Affirmation – Share something specific you appreciate that your partner did since the last check-in.
- N – Need – What are your current needs.
- O – Ownership – Admit something that you did since the last check-in that was not helpful in your relationship.
- S – Sobriety – State if you have or not maintained sobriety since the last check-in. The definition of sobriety should be discussed in advance and based on the Inner Circle of the Three Circle Exercise.
- S – Spirituality – Share something you are working on since last check-in that is related to furthering your spirituality.
This model came from a presentation by Mark Laaser, in September 2011 at the SASH conference. He did not take credit for it nor give credit for the model.
According to Dr. Linda Miles in her book, Friendship on Fire: Passionate and Intimate Connections for Life, she says, “The ability to let go and accept life unfolds over time. As you become open and less judgmental of yourself and others, new challenges will become less daunting, and you will operate more from love and less from fear.”
Acceptance of what happened in your past or acceptance of another person, the way they are, does not mean you like what happened to you, or you like those traits.
It simply means you accept your life now for what it is, you remember the past, but don’t live there anymore and focus on the present, while not worrying about your future either.
Questions to ask yourself
- Do you accept your partner’s flaws?
- Does your partner accept your flaws?
- Are you each willing to protect the vulnerability of your partner?
As a couple, discuss how you can create a safe, loving environment and healthy intimacy despite each of you having faults, without being critical of each other. Refrain from name-calling and finding fault. Instead, give your partner the benefit of the doubt.
About sex addiction
The chemicals involved in chemical addiction, such as dopamine and serotonin are also involved in sex addiction.
Take for example, let’s say you and a girl are walking on the beach. You see a pretty girl in a bikini. If you’re attracted to her you are having a mood-altering event.
These good feelings are the result of the release of pleasurable brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters. You are in some degree of sexual stimulation. This is nothing new or pathological.
Addiction on a psychological level begins when we become attached to the feeling associated with our sexual practices, and creates a primary relationship with them.
The sex becomes more important than the person we have sex with.
The addiction develops when our feelings associated with the activity become our main source of comfort. The feeling from sexual behaviors are mediated by neurotransmitters, as are all feelings.
The addict begins to confuse these feelings with love and life, and loses other ways of relieving loneliness and boredom, or feeling good. If someone becomes too attracted to these feelings and sensations, they begin to confuse excitement with intimacy.
They begin to believe that sexual excitement which brings on these feelings are the source of love and joy, which they can not live without.
The brain gets used to functioning on these higher levels of neurotransmitters, constantly requiring more stimulation, novelty, danger or excitement.
The body, however, cannot sustain such intensity and it begins to shut down parts of the brain that receive these chemicals. Tolerance develops and the sex addict begins to need more and more sexual excitement to get back the feelings of joy and happiness.
When do we start having sex again?
This is not an easy question to answer! Depending where you are in your recovery as a couple and individually, sex could be the furthest thing from your mind, or you might be very keen to reclaim your sex life as a couple.
The way that you each feel about sex will depend on how your sex life was before the discovery of sex addiction or porn addiction in the relationship. If sex had always been a positive experience, then it will be easier to reclaim it.
But if sex has been experienced negatively then it may be a longer journey to rebuild sexual confidence and intimacy. Before deciding when to start having sex again, the first stage is to talk to one another about sex.
Talking about sex
Let’s be honest, many couples can find it difficult talking about sex at the best of times, let alone if you are a couple recovering from the discovery of sex addiction or porn addiction in your relationship. There is a lot of fear going on for the couple.
Common fears are:
- Feeling inadequate: partners can worry about living up to porn stars or people the addicted partner was acting out with. The addicted partner may feel inadequate to prove that’s not the case.
- Both of you are distracted: the addicted partner can have intrusive thoughts and images of past acting out behaviour and the partner is worrying what their addicted partner may be thinking about. Couples have to work together to develop verbal and non-verbal ways of letting each other know they are fully present in the moment.
- Fearing sex will hinder addiction recovery: partners often worry that having sex will ignite the sex addict’s libido and they will be more likely to act out. Conversely some worry that ‘not’ having sex could also trigger acting out and hence initiate sex when they don’t really want to.
For some addicted partners having sex, or not having sex, can indeed increase cravings, and as well as developing strategies to manage this, they also need to reassure their partner that they are using those strategies.
The first step in overcoming these fears is to be honest with yourselves, and with each other, so you can work together to overcome them. It is helpful to put time aside to agree what you want from a sexual relationship and agree a goal that you both want to aim for.
This can take time, so be patient. Knowing you are both working together with a common goal can provide the necessary motivation and momentum needed.
It is also common for couples recovering from the discovery of sex addiction to experience sexual problems such as difficult reaching orgasm, maintaining an erection, premature ejaculation or having mismatched sexual desire.
This can be very distressing for couples and we suggest seeking help with an accredited sex therapist who is also trained in sex addiction to talk through the fears as well as any physical problems.
Developing sexual intimacy
Sexually healthy intimacy results from developing and deepening other areas of intimacy first.
When you have sex, it’s important to know that you’re ready. Ready emotionally, relationally and physically. Having sex is going to feel risky at first and to minimize those risks it makes sense to ensure your core conditions are right. Your core conditions are likely to include:
- Your emotional needs: choosing a time when you are feeling in a good enough emotional space
- Your relationship needs: if there are unresolved problems bubbling under the surface, you are not going to be in the right frame of mind for sex. Talk through these problems and commit equally to fixing them. You both also need to feel comfortable with your physical appearance and that you won’t be judged for how you look or perform sexually.
Your physical needs – there is a common myth that sex should always be spontaneous, but planning can build erotic anticipation, allow time for any fears to be talked about, as well as organizing you won’t be disturbed or overhead. You also need to be feel safe that at any time while having sex, you can say no.
Your partner may feel disappointed, but they can be understanding and gracious about it. Having a conversation beforehand can help avoid awkwardness, guilt and resentments.
There are many hurdles for couples recovering sexual intimacy with each other, but if you both remain committed to your individual recovery and continue to deepen other areas of intimacy, then sexual fulfillment and healthy intimacy can be found again. Indeed, it can be better than ever.
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