When I ask people about sex and intimacy the answer often reflects a belief that they are one and the same. We believe both to mean the act of sexual intercourse. It’s true that they go hand in hand within a healthy relationship, but they don’t need each other to exist.
If you are in a relationship that has no intimacy it feels like you can’t be yourself with the other person. Sex, although pleasurable, lacks emotional connection. Being intimate with your partner feels like you share a bond that belongs to just the two of you. You allow yourself to be open and vulnerable. Share your desires, feelings and dreams and are accepted for who you are.
In the practice of couples counseling I often see couples who have a somewhat regular sexual life, but appear to have little intimacy. They go about their daily lives focusing on their own needs and don’t engage with each other. What that can look like is coming home to someone that barely greets you from another room while you start engaging in a completely separate and unrelated activity from them. One or both of you could be avoiding intimacy because it’s too painful and scary to be emotionally vulnerable to another person.
This emotional avoidance can be a result of poor attachment to caregivers in childhood, trauma or emotional disconnection with your partner. We are social creatures, but we need to be taught how to socialize and be vulnerable without being a prey. Intimacy has to be learned and cultivated. It doesn’t just happen. The good news is that you can develop intimacy even after years of emotional distance from your partner.
How to increase intimacy and have better connection:
Talk about it: This is one of those “elephant in the room” subjects. You don’t want to discuss your emotional needs for fear of being seen as “needy” or “aloof”. Nonetheless it is impossible to have a clear understanding without open communication. Talk about how affection was demonstrated to you growing up. Share your level of comfort and need for closeness and space. Tell your partner what she or he does that shows love and how you try to show yours. If the differences are too great discuss how to tighten the gap by making compromises.
Remember sex is not equal to love: As humans we are conditioned to believe that “if you don’t want to have sex with me you don’t like me”. Many women will rush into sexual intercourse to show affection. Many men will resent their partner for being sexually withdrawn. As much as sex is fun, healthy and appropriate in committed relationships is not the only way to create a connection or show appreciation. When you establish an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect sex will be just another way to be together.
Engage in activities together: There is an infinite list of things you and your spouse can do to increase closeness. From a romantic trip to Paris to teaming up to change a dirty diaper. Do anything you want that has a common goal. Start with everyday activities, such as walk around the block holding hands. Progress to more sophisticated fun like cooking together naked dancing to your “first kiss song”. The goal is to find pleasure in each other’s presence with or without sex being involved.
Be present with each other: Even if life allows you only a few minutes here and there to be connected use it with all your heart. Hold hands, look into each other’s eyes, and reflect back what they said to show you’re listening. Every little gesture counts to build a bond. The quality of the interactions have a greater impact on intimacy than spending hours together.
About the Author Patricia Cochran is a marriage counselor with The Marriage and Family Clinic. She is passionate about helping couples and families to feel connected again. In her spare time, she is busy with her toddler and enjoying friends and family time