As a therapist working with couples, my goal is to try and give them what I did not receive (or ask for) as a young man engaged at the age of 20. Over a decade of marriage and four children later, to say that I have done the following poorly for most of the years of my marriage is a vast understatement. To be perfectly honest, for most of my years I have remained hidden behind and within work, anger or alcohol.
For me, healthy marriage comes down to one core thing, which is knowing and being known. It seems that at the core of many marital dysfunctions is the root of a lack of knowing. Simply put, there is a lack of intimacy. Often we notice a lack of knowing in the areas which most often breach the surface; such as finances, sexual expectations, family relationships, conflict resolution, leisure, and core values. In order to move towards a place of intimacy, it is essential to see those areas which are hidden and move towards a safe relationship in which they can be revealed. This safe relationship comes by way of experiencing trustworthiness when revealing and receiving from one another. The harsh reality is that it’s difficult to feel safe when kids are screaming, messes are being made, finances are stretched, work is hard, and both spouses are exhausted at the end of each and every day.
I see intimacy working out in five overlapping areas of life; physical, emotional, sexual, spiritual, and mental. When all five areas are being reciprocally known in a relationship, a couple experiences deep marital satisfaction. Typically one or several of these areas remains hidden throughout marriage with our response most often being to put more effort into the area that is working. For instance, we men typically find ourselves unable to connect emotionally to our wives (be it because of a lack of knowing how or out of a place of fear, shame, or hiding), and our typical reaction is to just have more sex; that somehow if we can just have more sex we’ll be okay. Often at the beginning of our marriage we believe we are experiencing each of these areas to the fullest, which can easily slide into marital stagnation. The beautiful reality is that intimacy can be nurtured and deepened throughout the entirety of marriage. Below is a simple diagram I use to express these areas working together towards whole intimacy.
I’ll briefly describe each area in turn:
Mental intimacy is the area we typically feel most comfortable with. Simply put, it’s talking about those things which affect our day, interest us, anger us, or help us understand. ‘How was your day’ is a great way to start this type of intimacy, but we’ve all experienced that stagnating here is greatly dissatisfying.
Physical intimacy can otherwise be referred to as non-sexual touch. This is a huge need for most men, which is why we have an endless number of contact sports. Unfortunately, we have tended to sexualize most things, which has led to many wives trying to tell their husbands that all touch does not have to lead to sex. Significant studies have shown that children are in need of around 7 positive touches a day. I believe we don’t grow out of this need.
Spiritual intimacy is tough to define and even tougher to implement. For years I’ve walked around with the shaming thought that I’m not good enough because I struggle to read spiritual books with my wife, or pray, lead family worship, or on and on. Most people struggle with this, not because we’re lousy Christians, but because we’re not comfortable with intimate relating. The safer I feel with my wife, the more vulnerable I can become, the more prayer and reading with her has become natural, though still difficult. Honestly, revealing our spiritual self is often the most vulnerable part of our lives. A safe way to understand Spiritual intimacy is to say that it is being children of God, before the face of God, together. No one has the upper hand; we’re both kids in need of a good Father.
Emotional intimacy is often neglected- a vast understatement. For years I experienced little to none of this with my wife, primarily because I didn’t know how, as I’d never seen or experienced it. To share my hopes, fears, joys, sorrows, pleasures and wounds with another person seemed impossible and terrifying. Yet, when I began to hear my wife’s heart, and she mine, we experienced deep marital satisfaction as it was meant to be. Yes, it was difficult and brought with it times of wanting to run away, but sitting and listening to her led to a more full marriage. About this kind of communication I’ll simply say this, postpone judgment. What I mean is don’t hear what your spouse says and try to answer it, fix it, theologize it, or give your input. Simply sit and hear what he/she is saying, putting off your own thoughts about the content, and then let him/her know you hear it by stating what you heard them say.
Finally, sexual intimacy, the primary form of intimacy we’ve grown accustomed to seeing and hearing on a consistent basis. True sexual intimacy can be seen as being naked and unashamed, rather than nude and ashamed. Imagine if this was (or is) the only gear which is moving, what happens to the other gears? They get torn up, broken and in need of repair, which tends to be most of us who have been married for any significant period of time (one week or more). Not only is sexual intimacy what happens in the bedroom, but it is also the affirmation of one another as feminine or masculine. To learn and grow into a man as my wife sees me has been the most freeing experience of my life. To paraphrase (and most likely take wildly out of context) C.S. Lewis, it’s not that we’ve wanted too much sex, it’s that we’ve settled for too little from it. A great resource on an expanded view of sex and sexuality is Doug Rosenau’s book ‘A Celebration of Sex’.
There’s an old saying in therapy, ‘In relationship we have been broken, In relationship we will be healed.’ As one who has been a primary part of wounding my spouse for years by being emotionally disconnected, spiritually hidden, and mentally arrogant I’d like to offer that it doesn’t have to stay that way. Several years ago my wife and I took a weekend retreat where we began to open up about deep wounds we’d received from one another over the years. This was by far the most intensely difficult few hours of conversation I had been a part of in my life to that point. Yet, it was the start of a process which has not only led to healing, but to growth and a deeply satisfying connection in my marriage beyond anything I had imagined or dreamed.
The challenge here is to know and be known; by revealing those parts of yourself you have kept hidden (maybe even from yourself) to your spouse, as well as other safe people around you. I once heard an analogy for those of us who only give and receive emotionally with their spouse, that kind of relationship is like two ticks and no dog. For all of the above you need much more than connection with only one person (of course there is need for appropriate boundaries with others as you share certain aspects of intimate relating). Spend time hearing from your spouse, seeking to understand and hear their heart without trying to ‘fix’ them. If you’re afraid these hidden parts may be too overwhelming, then seek out a good marriage therapist to walk you through it, but whatever you do, don’t stay hidden.
A good way to start is to ask yourself the following questions:
- How do I avoid or stay hidden from my spouse (particularly when conflict arises)?
- What are those areas of my life that my spouse might not know about?
- What do I want and what am I afraid of in marriage?
Ask your spouse to answer the following, then sit and receive what they have to say (before you ask these questions make sure you’re ready for the answers!):
- What is it like living with me?
- What is the deepest hurt or frustration you experience living with me?
- How do you try to protect yourself from me?
- What do you need from me that I fail to give you?
- What do you desire in our relationship?
-By Branden Henry