No matter how painful relationship failures can be, experience is still the best teacher in most cases. You can learn a lot from taking a reflective look back at how things played out in your past relationships to prevent making future mistakes. Better still is learning from the wisdom of others without having to experience the pain for your self. In this series, I explore the most hard-earned and valuable lessons from individuals who crashed and burned in loving relationships and lived to tell about it. My hope is to equip you with the right tools for choosing a life partner and to provide insight into potential problems you may be encountering if you are already in a marriage that's not satisfying. A big shout-out goes to all of my relationship survivors who are learning as they go and teaching others as they grow!
The Thrill is Gone: How Intimacy Could Have Saved Me
"The intimacy is gone. I thought I was marrying someone who would ultimately be my best friend" are the familiar words of individuals who sit on my couch while seriously contemplating ending their marriage. Where had they gone wrong? They had met someone who they believed could be their life partner and felt all the things they were told they should feel if their partner was truly "the one". Long walks, even longer talks, and deeply satisfying sexual encounters in some cases were consistent parts of their dating relationship. The quirks they noticed seemed manageable. Cute even. How did they find themselves on polar opposite ends of my couch, clinging to the armrests as if their partner had the plague? What happened to the intimacy?
The true question is whether or not couples are truly achieving intimacy before and during marriage. After all, many of us are told to strive for it in our romantic relationships but don't have a realistic and practical understanding of what it is. Some people easily confuse intimacy with sex, which can be a part of intimacy but certainly isn't the only form of it. I'd like to shed light on the very fine line between feelings and behaviors that can lead couples down the aisle under false pretenses. Here you'll discover what intimacy is…and isn't.
True intimacy is… 1. Creating a safe emotional and physical space for your partner. Creating a safe space is the cornerstone of intimate relationships because it allows partners to feel accepted for who they truly are-the good, the bad, and the ugliest parts of them. Many couples believe that they did the work to build that safe space in the beginning, only to discover that their worst moments were ahead of them. In other words, if the dating relationship was short or you haven't gone through a crisis together yet, it's really hard to know if you or your partner can handle the parts of each other that might be imperfect, sensitive when vulnerable, or need coddling when the road gets rough. Partners learn this the hard way when a crisis occurs or a shortcoming surfaces at a really vulnerable time in their relationship.
Intimacy is not… Feeling unsafe in your relationship. If you don't feel safe being vulnerable with your partner, it's a tale tell sign that true intimacy is not present. Partners can develop an unhealthy habit of omitting details or telling ‘little white lies' to save themselves from feeling judged or criticized for things that they enjoy or ways they want to live. If you feel compelled to take a detour around the truth in order to keep the peace in your relationship then you have a trust problem that needs to be resolved. Emotional injuries can occur in any relationship, but it's important to heal any wounds that would keep you from feeling safe to let your guard down with your partner in the future. Developing a mutual awareness of the trust problem is the first step. If you don't have tools to communicate your thoughts and feelings to your partner, seek help from a confidante you both trust or a professional who can guide you through the past and bring you safely into the future.
True intimacy is… 2. Establishing trust in each other. One of the benefits to establishing a friendship within your romantic relationship is learning to trust that you've got each other's back. If you are constantly suspicious or concerned that your partner won't be honest or loyal to your cause, then you're probably not genuine friends who have developed true intimacy.
Intimacy is not… Allowing distrust to be a mainstay in your relationship.
Living with thoughts and feelings of distrust is like learning to permanently rely on crutches to walk. You may be able to move forward, but it can be painful and slow to make progress. Partners with trust issues can't quite settle into the relationship without fear of betrayal or lack of support. If your partner or you are having a difficult time refraining from trust-breaking behaviors, it's possible that it's more than just an honest mistake. It could be a serious pattern that needs correcting. Taking some time to be apart to avoid creating further damage or seeking help with developing healthier relationship behaviors are two viable options for rebuilding trust and learning how to create deeper intimacy.
True Intimacy is… 3. Mutually appreciating togetherness through fun times and challenging times.
Finding shared activities to enjoy together on a consistent basis is a stepping-stone to creating intimacy. Some couples also work to become partners that take care of household responsibilities, family commitments, and even money matters together. Working through hard conversations to reach agreements together versus getting into the habit of doing things separately to avoid tense moments fosters deeper levels of understanding as well as intimacy.
Intimacy is not… Limiting your connection to handling the business affairs of the relationship.
A relationship can run like a business when couples have joint interests, investments, or children to co-parent. However, if you find that you don't really spend time connecting with your partner outside of handling daily affairs, it's likely that you haven't created true intimacy in the partnership. If you don't like being around your partner outside of managing tasks then it's time to explore what keeps you from enjoying togetherness in other settings. Confronting what led to an emotional cutoff can be challenging, but denying that your relationship is compartmentalized can be downright damaging long term.
True intimacy is… 4. Having a level of intimacy with your partner that differs from other relationships.
Romantic partnerships should stand out from other close relationships because of the unique level of acceptance, sharing, support, or physical connection partners share. It's not uncommon to have different forms of intimate connections with other people in your life. However, if you feel more connected with others than you do with your partner then it's possible that you lack a level of intimacy that makes your relationship stand out from the rest.
Intimacy is not… Allowing a deeper level of intimacy from relationships with people who aren't your significant other.
Allowing others to share the same level of intimacy or more than you share with your partner can create serious conflict in your romantic relationship. Partners who let their connection with their parents, best friends, coworkers, or outsiders "in" in ways that their romantic partner can't gain access weaken the bond that should be established in their relationship as well as the trust. Seeking your romantic partner's advice, reserving certain experiences for the relationship only, confiding in them, and valuing your partner's opinion are ways that you can set your relationship with them apart from others. If you realize that you don't value their opinion or feel safe confiding in them then it's time to address the issue. Be prepared to hear their thoughts and feelings about your other intimate relationships as well, since it's probable that an unhealthy cycle has been created. Seeking a professional to help you sort through the feelings and set things in a healthier order can be helpful.
Isn't Intimacy and Sex the Same?
If you're not married yet and you'd like to know if you're truly in love and capable of building an intimate relationship with someone, then you need to know the truth about intimacy. Many people falsely believe that intimacy and sex are one in the same, however, that's not telling the full story. Sex is a form of intimacy and can even help to foster a deeper level of closeness. Yet togetherness, friendship, affection, trust, and confidence are also critical components of a truly intimate relationship. Take a close look at these additional behaviors that specifically focus on the fine line between sexual attraction and true love to help you determine if you have been confusing the two:
1. Outside of sex, you shy away from intimacy with your partner. If intimacy is relegated to the bedroom and you find yourself disinterested in swapping details about other parts of your life then you're probably not working on the other forms of intimacy. Also, if you cringe at your partner's attempts to discuss taking the relationship to the next level this is a good sign that establishing a greater sense of togetherness is not on the agenda for you with this person. If you are on the receiving end of this behavior, beware. It's easy to confuse deep sexual attraction and satisfaction with true love.
2. If you become annoyed with your partner after sex. Many people can mistake the build-up they feel while waiting to connect physically with a person for actual feelings of love or longing when in actuality it's simply sexual tension. If you find that you can only tolerate your partner before and during the act, then quickly lose interest or become annoyed after hooking up then you're attraction only runs skin deep.
3. If you are turned off when your partner is not at their best. If you find it hard to support your partner when they are sick or down on their luck-times when love has to carry a relationship through, then it's a sign that you aren't in love. If you only want to be around your partner when they are looking and feeling their best then perhaps it's sexual attraction that is holding your interest. One caveat is that some individuals are genuinely in love with their partner but are self-centered in ways that make it difficult to put their needs to the side when their partner needs them to extend their support. If you've received feedback from your partner about being selfish or have found yourself with a person who struggles to make you a priority, think critically about seeking help in this area before moving forward.
Taking a deep dive into the concept of intimacy can be a life-saver for individuals who want to learn about what factors really impact the quality of relationships over time. If you realize your intimacy IQ needs a boost, don't hesitate to reach out to a relationship therapist near you.
Photo by William Stitt