Clients frequently come to therapy with questions about intimacy and marriage. When we hear the word “intimacy,” we typically think of sex, especially if we are talking about a couple. And while enjoyment of sex is an important aspect of a healthy marriage, physical intimacy depends upon emotional intimacy. This becomes especially true once marriage has settled into a routine and passion becomes the rare experience rather than the daily one. As the saying goes, falling in love is easy. Staying in love requires work.
How do we become emotionally intimate? What does that look like?
The key word is vulnerable. We allow ourselves to be vulnerable: to drop our defenses of not needing, not depending, not wanting. We are honest with our spouse about our deepest hopes and desires, our fears and anxieties. We are honest with ourselves about our intentions, motivations, and feelings.
To be honest with a spouse and let our guard down, we must first feel safe with that person. An essential purpose of marriage is to create a safe harbor from the indifferent world and the unpredictable vicissitudes of life—and, for many people—from the difficult memories of childhood. We are promising one another we will be there for them, place their interest equal to our own, see them as important as ourselves.
This is the work. The hard work.
Because if either spouse had adverse experiences in their childhood, it will be necessary for them to become conscious of their wounds and their origins, how they are triggered, what their healing requires. Each spouse being self-aware makes safety possible for both. If a person never learned as a child how to be present with their emotions, their marriage will, of necessity, require that they do. In promising to love and protect their spouse in “sickness and in health,” a couple is promising to help heal one another, to help one another realize wholeness.
Self-awareness enables safety which then makes honesty and vulnerability possible which then leads to emotional and true physical intimacy. It is an ongoing dynamic process, as we cannot ever assume it will maintain a steady state on its own. Intimacy is like a garden that requires ongoing attention. Speaking gratitude to each other for that person’s particular effort and love. Expressing love. Making gestures of kindness, whether in a hug or holding eye contact. Making the effort to share and maintain interests like reading or cooking, activities like hiking or going to farmers markets. Demonstrating desire and commitment to keep the relationship vibrant sustains the spark.