What Is Marital Intimacy?
Intimacy is the closeness of your relationship with your spouse -- emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, sexually, and in many other ways. Intimacy is not an end goal but rather a journey that lasts throughout your marriage. Marriage and family researchers Schaefer and Olson4 describe attaining intimacy as "a process that occurs over time and is never completed or fully accomplished" (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 work on intimacy is now.
Benefits of Intimacy in Marriage
Studies show that marriage offers many benefits. According to Olson and Olson2, "Married people tend to be healthier, live longer, have more wealth and economic assets, and have more satisfying sexual relationships than single or cohabiting individuals. In addition, children generally do better emotionally and academically when they are raised in two-parent families" (p. 3).
The physical benefits 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 of 10,000 married couples asked the husbands: "Does your wife show you her love?" The husbands who answered yes reported having significantly less chest pain within the next five years than the men who answered no3. In another study of 119 men and 40 women, Yale scientists found that husbands who reported feeling loved and supported by their wives had less artery-blockage than those who did not3.
Mental health is also better for couples with healthy intimacy. Researchers Firestone and Catlett1 say, "In our opinion, love is the one force that is capable of easing [depression]" (p. 13).
(For detailed discussion of marital benefits, see Making the Case for Marriage on this website.)
Forms of Intimacy
Intimacy can have different meanings for men and a women, however Stahmann, Young, and Grover5 note that "all human beings have the basic need to be intimate and close with another person" (p. 13). Women are often portrayed as having the desire for emotional intimacy while men are portrayed as only having a desire for sexual intimacy. However, intimacy can take many forms, including the following:
- Emotional intimacy is the closeness created through sharing feelings. Because girls are encouraged to recognize and express their emotions from an early age, women generally understand emotions better than men. Unfortunately, society tends to discourage men from feeling or showing emotion. Men who didn't learn how to be emotionally intimate while growing up can learn as adults. If they do, their marriages will be stronger and healthier.
The first step to emotional awareness is to pay attention to your feelings, identify them, and think of possible reasons for them. Work on noticing the differences between strong emotions such as terror and fury and the differences between more subtle emotions such as anxiety, insecurity, and irritation.
Emotional intimacy can occur once people know what they are feeling, convey those feelings to each other, and express concern and understanding of their feelings to 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. Wheat7 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 relationship4, 6, 7.
- 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 Olson2 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.
Characteristics of Intimacy
Relationships with 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"7 (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 There Be Too Much Togetherness?
When we think of intimacy, we might think we can't get too much of a good thing. But sometimes spouses forget the need for separate time and may spend too much time together. If a spouse feels guilty about spending any free time alone or with friends, he or she might begin to feel constrained in the relationship. Usually this feeling doesn't mean love has diminished, only that a healthy sense of self has gotten lost.
Most intimacy needs can be met through a spouse or significant other, but no one person can meet all of our needs. A husband, for example, might find his wife wonderful confidante for his insecurities and dreams but not a good companion for sports events. For a night at the hockey rink, he'll need to go with a brother or friends. A wife may need a regular night out with friends so she can do things that don't interest her husband, like shopping or scrap-booking.
Healthy intimacy includes pursuing some of your own interests independent of your spouse and encouraging your spouse to do the same. These pursuits should not get in the way of building intimacy or involve inappropriate relationships with members of the opposite sex. Spending reasonable time on personal interests helps each partner be happier and a more interesting and well-rounded companion.
Imagine for a moment that you and your spouse are standing with the palms of your hands together and leaning against each other with all of your weight. Together, you look like an upside-down "V." If one of you becomes tired and stops leaning, the other topples over. Similarly, a spouse who depends completely on the other person runs the risk of exhausting the partner and causing him or her to back away. Without the other spouse's support, the dependent spouse would crumble to the ground. Now imagine that you and your spouse are standing up straight and holding hands. You lean in a little, but only enough that you support a portion of one another's weight. If one or the other or you moves, you won't fall. You're responsible for most of your own weight, but you're still connected to your spouse and lean in for extra support from time to time.
As this analogy shows, over-dependence in marriage can lead spouses to become tired and resentful of carrying the burden for the other's happiness. Over-dependence creates feelings of powerlessness and weakness because your happiness is in someone else's hands. Complete independence is also unhealthy because it causes spouses to feel unneeded and lonely.Interdependence is a balance between over-dependence and independence. In an interdependent marriage, spouses feel needed without being overburdened. They feel a sense of freedom and power, understanding that their happiness is in their control and not in the hands of another person.
Intimacy is an important part of a vibrant, loving marriage. Intimacy can be experienced at many levels, including physical, emotional, spiritual, mental, financial and recreational. Intimacy is nurtured through mutual trust, tenderness, acceptance, open communication, caring, apologies, forgiveness and respecting boundaries. Couples can work together to increase their intimacy in each area as they build their marriage through the years.
Written by Derek Willis Hagey, Research Assistant, and Amber L. Brewer, Graduate Research Assistant, edited by Rachel V. Jamieson, Graduate Research Assistant, Robert F. Stahmann and Stephen F. Duncan, professors in the School of Family Life, 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 your strengths. Minneapolis: Life Innovations Inc.
- Ornish, D. (1998). Love and survival: The scientific basis for the healing power of intimacy. New York: HarperCollins.
- Schaefer, M. T., & Olson, D. H. (1981). Assessing intimacy: The PAIR inventory. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 7, 47-60.
- Stahmann, R. F., Young, W. R., & Grover, J. G. (2004). Becoming one: Intimacy in marriage.American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications.
- Stanley, S., Trathen, D., McCain, S., & Bryan, M. (1998). A lasting promise: A Christian guide to fighting for your marriage. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
- Wheat, E. (1980). Love life: For every married couple. Grand Rapids, MI: Pyranee Books.