What IsMarital Intimacy?
Intimacy isthe closeness of your relationship with your spouse -- emotionally,spiritually, intellectually, sexually, and in many other ways. Intimacy is notan end goal but rather a journey that lasts throughout your marriage. Marriageand family researchers Schaefer and Olson (1981) describe attaining intimacy as"a process that occurs over time and is never completed or fullyaccomplished" (p. 50). As you both grow and develop, each of you changes.If you neglect intimacy in your marriage, you will grow apart. The time to workon intimacy is now.
Benefits ofIntimacy in Marriage
Studies showthat marriage offers many benefits. According to Olson and Olson (2000),"Married people tend to be healthier, live longer, have more wealth andeconomic assets, and have more satisfying sexual relationships than single orcohabiting individuals. In addition, children generally do better emotionallyand academically when they are raised in two-parent families" (p. 3).
The physicalbenefits are widely supported by research. Several recent studies, for example,found heart benefits that are particularly dramatic for men. At Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, researchers assessing the marital intimacy of10,000 married couples asked the husbands: "Does your wife show you herlove?" The husbands who answered yes reported having significantly lesschest pain within the next five years than the men who answered no (Ornish,1998). In another study of 119 men and 40 women, Yale scientists found thathusbands who reported feeling loved and supported by their wives had lessartery-blockage than those who did not (Ornish).
Mentalhealth is also better for couples with healthy intimacy. Researchers Firestoneand Catlett (1999) say, "In our opinion, love is the one force that iscapable of easing [depression]" (p. 13).
(For adetailed discussion of marital benefits, see Making the Case for Marriage onthis website.)
Intimacy canhave different meanings for men and a women, however Stahmann, Young, andGrover (2004) note that "all human beings have the basic need to beintimate and close with another person" (p 13). Women are often portrayedas having the desire for emotional intimacy while men are portrayed as onlyhaving a desire for sexual intimacy. However, intimacy can take many forms,including the following:
- Emotionalintimacyis the closeness created through sharing feelings. Because girls are encouragedto recognize and express their emotions from an early age, women generallyunderstand emotions better than men. Unfortunately, society tends to discouragemen from feeling or showing emotion. Men who didn't learn how to be emotionallyintimate while growing up can learn as adults. If they do, their marriages willbe stronger and healthier.
Thefirst step to emotional awareness is to pay attention to your feelings,identify them, and think of possible reasons for them. Work on noticing thedifferences between strong emotions such as terror and fury and the differencesbetween more subtle emotions such as anxiety, insecurity, and irritation.
Emotionalintimacy can occur once people know what they are feeling, convey thosefeelings to each other, and express concern and understanding of their feelingsto each other.
- Mental or intellectual intimacy involves a mutual understanding about all the important issues in your marriage. Setting goals together is one way to further intellectual intimacy. For example, you might set goals to improve your intimacy, to save a certain amount of money, or to go for daily walks together.
- Spiritual intimacy involves sharing religious beliefs and observing religious practices together, such as praying and attending church. As you share spiritual experiences, you will become united in your attitudes and goals. Wheat (1980) suggests that couples become active in a church where they can learn, grow, and serve God along with others. (If you and your spouse struggle with differing religious beliefs, see the article on this website, .)
- Recreational intimacy is enjoying activities together, like running, golfing, or reading. Things as simple as popping popcorn and watching a movie or preparing a meal together can be good ways to build recreational intimacy.
- Financial or monetary intimacy comes with discussing and sharing your finances. If you have separate accounts and separate incomes, you probably lack financial intimacy in your relationship (Schaefer & Olson, 1981; Stanley, Trathen, McCain, & Bryan, 1998; Wheat, 1980).
- Sexual intimacy is one of the most important dimensions of healthy marital intimacy. Healthy sexual intimacy includes sexual frequency that both partners are satisfied with, sexual activities both partners enjoy, and an open dialogue about sex. Olson and Olson (2000) say, "A major strength for happily married couples is the quality of the sexual relationship" (p. 126). They found in their research that the most common sexual concern is differing levels of interest in sex. Happier couples tend to agree in their definition of sexual satisfaction and have fewer worries about their sex lives than unhappy couples. More than half of all married couples, they note, have trouble discussing sexual issues.
Relationshipswith healthy intimacy have several factors in common, including the following:
- Mutual trust builds a sense of security for both spouses. You can show it by having no desire to injure your spouse in any way. Though you might unintentionally cause hurt, you won't hurt one another on purpose.
- Tenderness includes gentle expressions of caring. Through touch you can express your love to your partner. This affectionate contact "is absolutely essential in building the emotion of love" (Wheat, 1980, p. 184).
- Acceptance is unconditional approval in a relationship. No one is perfect, but acceptance means not holding weaknesses against one other. If you find yourself frequently pointing out your spouse's faults, work on focusing instead on the qualities you fell in love with.
- Open communication is the ability to discuss anything with your spouse. It includes sincere expression of thoughts and feelings as well as careful listening. Signs of poor communication include feeling reluctant to tell your spouse about the events of your day or being unwilling to listen when your spouse is explaining how he or she feels.
- Caring is genuine concern for your spouse's well-being. If you do things you know hurt your spouse, you cannot have healthy intimacy. You can develop a more caring heart and mind by learning to think of your spouse's feelings before your own. Always ask yourself before acting or speaking, "If I do this or say this, will I hurt my spouse?"
- Apologies are the remedy for mistakes that spouses inevitably make. Recognizing mistakes, taking responsibility for them, expressing remorse for any hurt caused, and making a commitment to change the hurtful behavior are all essential to mending the relationship after a mistake. For spouses who have created a chasm of hurts that separate them, offering a sincere and humble apology is the first step in building a bridge over that chasm. Even if you believe that your partner made the mistake, you can begin the healing by finding something you did that calls for an apology.
- Forgiveness is the process of letting go of anger, desire for revenge, and obsessive thinking about times your spouse has hurt you. It includes giving your spouse permission to have weaknesses, make mistakes, and change. Seeing the goodness and strengths of your spouse along with the weaknesses can open up emotional space for good will to build toward your spouse. Forgiveness does not automatically create trust or reconciliation, nor does it mean you approve of bad behavior. But it is an important early step toward rebuilding a fractured relationship.
- Appropriate boundaries are the limits you place on a relationship. The limits can be created individually or as a couple. These limits include saying "no" when your spouse asks you to do something that goes against your values or is more than you can handle. Setting firm, clear boundaries for yourself and respecting the boundaries of your partner create feelings of safety and trust. If your relationship is in trouble, one or both of you might decide to write a "Bill of Rights" that clearly defines the conditions necessary for staying in the relationship. For example, one woman told her husband that she would stay in the marriage only if there was (1) mutual respect, (2) no drinking/drugs, (3) no hitting or emotional abuse, (4) no name-calling, and (5) no cheating/affairs.
Can ThereBe Too Much Togetherness?
When wethink of intimacy, we might think we can't get too much of a good thing. Butsometimes spouses forget the need for separate time and may spend too much timetogether. If a spouse feels guilty about spending any free time alone or withfriends, he or she might begin to feel constrained in the relationship. Usuallythis feeling doesn't mean love has diminished, only that a healthy sense ofself has gotten lost.
Mostintimacy needs can be met through a spouse or significant other, but no oneperson can meet all of our needs. A husband, for example, might find his wife awonderful confidante for his insecurities and dreams but not a good companionfor sports events. For a night at the hockey rink, he'll need to go with abrother or friends. A wife may need a regular night out with friends so she cando things that don't interest her husband, like shopping or scrap-booking.
Healthyintimacy includes pursuing some of your own interests independent of yourspouse and encouraging your spouse to do the same. These pursuits should notget in the way of building intimacy or involve inappropriate relationships withmembers of the opposite sex. Spending reasonable time on personal interestshelps each partner be happier and a more interesting and well-roundedcompanion.
Imagine fora moment that you and your spouse are standing with the palms of your handstogether and leaning against each other with all of your weight. Together, youlook like an upside-down "V." If one of you becomes tired and stopsleaning, the other topples over. Similarly, a spouse who depends completely onthe other person runs the risk of exhausting the partner and causing him or herto back away. Without the other spouse's support, the dependent spouse wouldcrumble to the ground. Now imagine that you and your spouse are standing upstraight and holding hands. You lean in a little, but only enough that yousupport a portion of one another's weight. If one or the other or you moves, youwon't fall. You're responsible for most of your own weight, but you're stillconnected to your spouse and lean in for extra support from time to time.
As thisanalogy shows, over-dependence in marriage can lead spouses to become tired andresentful of carrying the burden for the other's happiness. Over-dependencecreates feelings of powerlessness and weakness because your happiness is insomeone else's hands. Complete independence is also unhealthy because it causesspouses to feel unneeded and lonely. Interdependence is a balancebetween over-dependence and independence. In an interdependent marriage,spouses feel needed without being overburdened. They feel a sense of freedomand power, understanding that their happiness is in their control and not in thehands of another person.
Intimacy isan important part of a vibrant, loving marriage. Intimacy can be experienced atmany levels, including physical, emotional, spiritual, mental, financial andrecreational. Intimacy is nurtured through mutual trust, tenderness,acceptance, open communication, caring, apologies, forgiveness and respectingboundaries. Couples can work together to increase their intimacy in each areaas they build their marriage through the years.
Writtenby Derek Willis Hagey, Research Assistant, and Amber L. Brewer, GraduateResearch Assistant, edited by Rachel V. Jamieson, Graduate Research Assistant,Robert F. Stahmann and Stephen F. Duncan, professors in the School of FamilyLife, Brigham Young University.
Firestone,R. W., & Catlett, J. (1999). Fear of intimacy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Olson, D.H., & Olson, A. K. (2000). Empowering couples: Building on yourstrengths. Minneapolis: Life Innovations Inc.
Ornish, D.(1998). Love and survival: The scientific basis for the healing power ofintimacy . New York: HarperCollins.
Schaefer, M.T., & Olson, D. H. (1981). Assessing intimacy: The PAIR inventory. Journalof Marital and Family Therapy, 7, 47-60.
Stahmann, R.F., Young, W. R., & Grover, J. G. (2004). Becoming one: Intimacy inmarriage. American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications.
Stanley, S.,Trathen, D., McCain, S., & Bryan, M. (1998). A lasting promise: AChristian guide to fighting for your marriage. San Francisco: Jossey-BassPublishers.
Wheat, E.(1980). Love life: For every married couple. Grand Rapids, MI: Pyranee Books.