Intimacy is one of the deepest needs of the human heart. We all crave it and we all enjoy it when we experience it in our marriages. Today, you need to pause and consider how you’re doing on the intimacy in your marriage.
We experience and express intimacy in different ways, so think of this as an intimacy checkup. You go to your family doctor for your annual physical, well, today is your annual relational!
We put together a self-assessment which is a perfect tool to go along with this article. Download and work through the self-evaluation of how intimacy is working in your mind, your heart, your soul, and your body, and you’ll have a picture of where your strengths lie and also where your growth areas are.
Intimacy is a full person experience: it’s your mind, heart, soul and body all in one. In the world of marriage research, we talk about cognition, emotion, physical intimacy, and spiritual intimacy. Rather than get all “woo woo” talking about intimacy, we want to keep it very real. Intimacy is nothing more than an exchange or a mutual interaction.[i] It’s a sharing between two people.
You can share your thoughts, your emotions, your spirituality, and your body. When you share all of those things in a deep way then you have deep intimacy. We’re going to go into each of these areas one by one so you can consider how you’re doing and if it is an area where you need to open up more.
But first a caveat: If you’re in an abusive marriage, more intimacy is not going to help. You need safety in order to share more intimately. If you give intimacy to someone who is not safe, you’re really giving them knowledge. And knowledge is power, and if that power is abused it is going to lead to even more hurt.
On the other hand, if you’re both healthy people – even if your marriage is unhappy and distressed and you both get your ugly on – becoming more intimate and showing your softer, deeper emotions and thoughts will give your spouse something easier to embrace. If this is reciprocated, you start to create healing and something new and much healthier in your marriage.
Cognitive Intimacy: Sharing Your Thoughts
Ever used the expression, “A penny for your thoughts!”?
Think about that request: we say that when we want to know someone more intimately. When we say “a penny for your thoughts” we’re asking to be invited into the world of their mind.
Here’s a good quote from a study in 1993: “The amount of personal information individuals disclose is positively related to how intimate they consider their relationship and positively related to marital satisfaction.”[ii]
Remember, we defined intimacy as an exchange. In cognitive intimacy, or in the context of our minds, this is just an exchange of information. When we disclose our thoughts to one another, this is cognitive intimacy.
Caleb gave me a man’s perspective on this. He said often he has WAY more stuff going through his head than what he verbalizes. (I tend to think out loud, so this is a foreign concept to me…) He has to put sincere effort into disclosing his thoughts. He’s not holding back intentionally, he’s just in his head.
But here’s the deal: self-disclosure significantly predicted ratings of intimacy by husbands and wives on a day to day basis, meaning that you feel more intimate if you’re sharing what’s going on in your head. There are a few parts that go with this and you need all of the following parts in order to do this type of intimacy well:[iii]
- Obvious, but you have to share your thoughts. This is called initial disclosure and is the starting point. Your spouse needs to do the same.
- The next critical point is called partner responsiveness which just means that the listener has to audibly and visibly react to the disclosure in a way that is relevant to the content that has been shared. Respond in a way that is relevant and that communicates that you understand, you care, and you confirm your spouse’s perspective.
- This part is the hardest – the sharing person has to perceive the response is understanding, confirming and caring. The perception needs to match reality. In addition, wives’ increases in intimacy are more strongly dependant on this perception of feeling understood, validated, accepted and cared for by her husband. This is still important for men, but especially so for women.[iv]
That is cognitive intimacy.
Emotional Intimacy: The Exchange of Emotions
While we put this into another category, really the exchange of emotions doesn’t occur without an exchange of thoughts. It’s as we communicate that our emotions are expressed both verbally and non-verbally. These emotions include things like love, a deep sense of caring, a sense of attraction or likeability and so on.
Couples that have higher levels of marital satisfaction tend to discuss positive feelings more than negative feelings. There’s really a cycle that happens here:[v]
- Spouses who feel more emotional intimacy talked more (more intimacy = more volume of exchange)
- The more emotionally close, the more positive their expression of emotion
- The more emotionally close, the more stable their expression of emotion. Less intimate couples moved through a wider range of feelings relatively quickly whereas more emotionally intimate couples tended to stabilize their feelings at the positive end of the continuum.
You can see how this builds up to create more and more emotional intimacy.
So, how can this help a distressed marriage?
First of all, try to have as many conversations about positive things as you can. I know when I’m distressed, I get more and more focused on the negative – and maybe you’re there today too. Well, sometimes we just need to bump ourselves out of the negativity groove and start creating and emphasizing some positivity.
Physical Intimacy is Just One Part of Intimacy
By now, you understand that ‘intimacy’ is about a lot more than sex. In fact, if the other parts are really not there, you can do physical intimacy but it won’t be very intimate.
Just like intimacy is about more than just sex, even physical intimacy is about more than just sex. It can include just being physically closer, how you extend and hold each other’s gaze, and all other kids of touch like hand-holding, non-sexual caressing and so on. All of these are aspects of physical intimacy and couples who are more intimate show more of these types of behaviours.
To some degree, based on your culture and your family of origin values, this may not be as evident in public. People have different comfort levels with public displays of affection, but may still display affection in the privacy of their home.
There are strong connections from emotional intimacy to physical intimacy as most know, and the research supports. You often hear that men want sex to feel close and women want closeness before having sex. Well here’s a quote from the research that supports just that: “Men felt more positive affect during their conversation if they felt more sexually intimate, whereas women seemed to require emotional intimacy to experience more positive affect. These findings confirm clinicians’ anecdotal reports that men and women experience emotional closeness differently. Men are apt to use sexual interaction to increase emotional intimacy, whereas women tend to require emotional intimacy in order to be sexual.”[vi]
At the same time, a study from 2015 showed that men’s attempts at physical intimacy were particularly associated with positive relational outcomes.[vii] In other words, men also need to feel good about the relationship, but both genders are more likely to initiate if they are more satisfied with the relationship, have better communication and less conflict.
This is why, when folks come to Caleb for counselling and one of them presents with their primary concern is not getting enough sex, he respectfully moves that to the bottom of the list. If you take care of all the other dimensions of intimacy, the physical will take care of itself (assuming there’s no specific issues requiring sex therapy).
Spiritual Intimacy: Positivity in the Soul
Spiritual intimacy is what happens when things are shared that are spiritual, and that relate to our faith. This is where the Bible’s teaching about an unequal yoke is important because if you’re able to share in this way, it adds a whole other layer of intimacy to marriage. Where your faith is different, there is a limitation there.
A study in 2014 reported that spiritual intimacy was seen to be characterized by these behaviours in marriage:
- Feeling safe about being completely open and honest with one another about faith
- Not keeping spiritual separate or private from the marriage
- Remaining supportive when spiritual questions or struggles are disclosed
- Listening to one another when talking about spiritual needs, thoughts and feelings.[viii]
When the researchers looked at couples and how spiritual intimacy tied into intimacy overall, they found a few things:
- First, if the marriage had less negativity and more positivity the couple reported higher spiritual intimacy.
- Secondly, if you looked at wives specifically, they feel more spiritual intimacy if their husband was less negative and more positive – even if you take out other contributing factors. This reminds me of Peter’s exhortation to husbands to love their wives in an understanding way: this leads to a greater sense of spiritual intimacy.
- They found that greater spiritual intimacy gives couples a resource to motivate them to remain kind to each other and to resist the urge to go negative when they discuss their core conflicts.
Remember, you are a whole person – mind, body, soul, spirit. All of these pieces work together to help you create more of what you want and need: intimacy!
[i] Barry F. Moss and Andrew I. Schwebel, “Defining Intimacy in Romantic Relationships,” Family Relations 42, no. 1 (January 1993): 31.
[iii] Jean-Philippe Laurenceau, Lisa Feldman Barrett, and Paula R. Pietromonaco, “Intimacy as an Interpersonal Process: The Importance of Self-Disclosure, Partner Disclosure, and Perceived Partner Responsiveness in Interpersonal Exchanges,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74, no. 5 (1998): 1238–51, doi:10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.118.
[v] Lynda Dykes Talmadge and James M. Dabbs, “Intimacy, Conversational Patterns, and Concomitant Cognitive/Emotional Processes in Couples,” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 9, no. 4 (December 1990): 473–88, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1521/jscp.1918.104.22.1683.
[vii] Chelom Eastwood Leavitt and Brian J. Willoughby, “Associations between Attempts at Physical Intimacy and Relational Outcomes among Cohabiting and Married Couples,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, April 4, 2014, 0265407514529067, doi:10.1177/0265407514529067.
[viii] Katherine G. Kusner et al., “Sanctification of Marriage and Spiritual Intimacy Predicting Observed Marital Interactions across the Transition to Parenthood,” Journal of Family Psychology: JFP: Journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43) 28, no. 5 (October 2014): 604–14, doi:10.1037/a0036989.