Changing needs regarding intimacy during the life of a relationship are a direct result of normal life changes, such as the demands of a career, raising children, or physical deterioration. I would almost guarantee you that, if you were to ask a new mom to choose between her husband doing the dishes or her partner giving her a memorable night of sex, most often she’s going to choose the dishes. Why? Because being true partners and carrying one another through the rough times of a relationship is the foundation of true intimacy.
The importance of emotional partnership
Yes, the physical engagement that can only be achieved through sexual intercourse is also a special part of intimacy, but without the emotional partnership, it really is just sexual intercourse rather than an act of love.
Many couples come to me with complaints about lack of intimacy in their relationships. On the surface, one might immediately assume that they are referring to their sexual activity. However, when I ask them to tell me their ideal expectation of intimacy, almost always they tell me the same thing:
“I wish my partner would talk to me more.”
In the beginning, relationships are all about butterflies and fireworks, with the excitement and buildup of every encounter with your partner resembling the makings of your own modern day romance novel. Over time, the definition of “intimacy” changes for most couples. Couples often believe that frequency of sex determines the level of intimacy they have with their partner. They will compare their current intimacy status to that of peers and so called national averages and often question whether they truly have enough intimacy with their partner, regardless of whether other problems are occurring within the relationship that might be a signal of dysfunction.
How emotional affairs are developed
For example, couples sometimes encounter situations where one partner may be having what is commonly called an “emotional affair” with someone outside of the marriage. No sex is involved, only the sharing of emotions and day to day experiences. However, the partner who experiences this type of infidelity in their relationship can feel just as devastated as if their partner had been sexually active with another person.
The American Psychological Association reports that communication is a key piece of any healthy relationship. In regards to intimacy, not only is it important to discuss physical needs and desires, but it is also important to communicate openly about what isn’t working in the marriage, or what a partner would like to see more of in their relationship.
As couples age, this becomes more important. For example, a male partner may begin to experience normal aging that causes him to not be able to function sexually in a way he once was able, but if he does not share this with his partner, the partner is left to think that it might be something about them that causes their partner to be disinterested in them, or even perhaps that their partner is being intimate with someone else.
Consider again that “new mom” mentioned before. Perhaps she needs her partner to be more active in the care of the home while she is learning how to juggle her new responsibilities, but instead of communicating this, she holds in her anger and frustration, assuming that her partner should know what she needs and be more attentive to sharing the responsibilities of the home and family. Partners often assume that the other will automatically know how to please them, and easily become upset when those expectations are not met.
What leads to stonewalling
John Gottman, professor emeritus from the University of Washington, has been studying intimate relationships for over forty years. He asserts that most marriages suffer from negative types of communication that eventually lead to the breakdown of the relationship. For example, the new mother who may desire to have her partner help more with the house may develop contempt for her partner due to these unmet needs. Eventually, this turns to outward criticism toward the partner for not having met her assumed needs, when then results in defensiveness from the partner left wondering how they were supposed to have known what was expected when it was never communicated to them. Over time, this develops into what Gottman calls “stonewalling”, where both partners cease to communicate at all because of the anger built up between the two because of unmet, yet unspoken needs.
Using positive communication
When working with couples, I like to teach them how to use positive communication, which clearly states their desired outcome, rather than criticizes their experiences of unmet needs. In this type of communication, one partner clearly states what they like of what their partner already does, along with their hopes for improvement in other areas where they could see improvement in their partner’s performance.
It is also important for the partner receiving this communication to repeat back, in their own words, the message they got from their partner, so as to immediately squash any unintentional misunderstandings that might further damage the relationship. For example, the new mother may say to her partner that she likes it when her partner helps her clear the kitchen after meals. The partner may initially hear this as a jab at his lack of doing this in the past, and take it as a criticism rather than a true compliment. In communicating honestly that he heard this, the new mother can restate her appreciation for the help she receives from her partner, and the happiness she experiences when this is done.
So in a nutshell, while sexual intimacy is an important part of any relationship, it is also important to maintain good communication.
In doing so you can develop various levels of intimacy that ultimately build the foundation of a health relationship, where partners learn and grow together through the good and the bad.