Relationships are about intimacy. Any relationship is about increasing intimacy. Even your relationship with your auto mechanic, the person who bags your groceries, or a casual friend, is one of greater intimacy than with a total stranger. These people know your face, and probably your name, and you engage in everyday conversation with them about the weather, sports teams, politics, whatever. They know a little more about you than a stranger does, because you’ve let them into your life a little bit.
Continue this process of letting someone in and you eventually cross a line into new territory – this person becomes a boyfriend or girlfriend. You tell them things that you wouldn’t share with many other people. There’s also more physical intimacy, as you undress in front of them, kiss them, have sex with them. They get to see you naked, both physically and emotionally.
Intimacy continues to increase as your relationship deepens, heading towards marriage or a long-term commitment. But sometimes, somewhere along the way, the intimacy train, which has been rolling along smoothly, goes off the rails. Why does this happen?
People get busy with their lives, and they stop thinking of their relationship as something they need to work on and actively contribute to. By “contribute” I don’t mean doing chores or paying your share, either, although both of those things are important. I mean contributing to a deeper intimacy. Intimacy doesn’t just happen; it isn’t a by-product of a relationship. You have to work on it. You have to build it up. How do you do that?
Let’s start by clarifying what intimacy is, and what it isn’t.
Intimacy is a deep emotional connection with your partner. Intimacy is knowing your partner’s mind and heart, what they are happy about and what they are unhappy about, what they’re angry about and what scares them. Intimacy is showing your true self to your partner, and vice-versa.
Intimacy is not sex. Let me repeat that. Intimacy is not sex. Sex is not intimacy, and, in fact, sex can sometime be a barrier to intimacy. Too many modern couples get lazy and think, “We’re still having sex, so everything must be OK.” While regular sex does help keep a strong connection between partners and helps keep a relationship healthy, it isn’t enough by itself, especially if sex becomes a mechanical process with no real communication between partners.
To build true intimacy, start with communication. When long-time partners get busy with their lives, they often skimp on communication with their spouse or partner. They worry, perhaps, that what’s going on at their job isn’t interesting to their partner, so they stop telling them about the drama in the office. Often, one partner doesn’t want to be a “downer,” so they simply suppress any negative feelings they have or downplay any negative experiences they’ve had. Over time, their partner loses a sense of what’s going on in their lives.
For true, healthy intimacy, partners have to tell each other the bad stuff as well as the good stuff. Worried about money? Tell your partner. Afraid you’re getting fat, or losing your hair? Talk about it rather than denying it or hiding it. Do you feel less attractive, or, conversely, are you worried that you might be less attracted to your partner? Both of those are important things to talk about.
You need to talk, too, about your dreams, big and small. Whatever you dream of – owning a home someday, getting a college degree, travelling to Tahiti, learning a new language, losing twenty pounds – make sure your partner knows about it. And make sure you know what they dream about. It’s important for couples to talk about their dreams, even the ones that may never come true. Talk about them, and there’s at least a chance they might come true. But if you never dream at all, there’s a 100 percent chance they won’t come true. So dream together.
Because modern life is hectic and busy, you need to be organized and efficient about communicating with your partner. Don’t just come home and complain about work for two hours straight and then check the box marked “Communicated with my partner.” They will have probably gone to sleep after the first five minutes of your talk.
A good idea is to take turns checking in with each other every day, or once a week at least. Think of this as more of a monologue than a dialogue, at least at first. Get a timer, either a sandglass or an app on your phone, and take turns talking for several minutes while the other person listens and says nothing. Let me repeat that – while the other person listens and says nothing. At the end of three or four minutes, switch roles.
When it’s your turn to talk, just talk about whatever is on your mind and whatever comes into your head. The idea is to give your partner an intimate glimpse into your thoughts and into your life. If work is on your mind, by all means, talk about work. But feel free to talk about any subject you think of. Avoid talking directly to your partner – don’t say “you.” Talk in a more abstract way about what you’re thinking.
When it’s your turn to listen – listen! Don’t interrupt your partner or think of what you want to say back to them. This isn’t a dialogue, remember – it’s listening practice. You may be surprised by what you learn just listening to your partner.
This turn-taking talk exercise can be done in the car, or when you’re settling down for bed at night. Find a way to work it into your routine and stick to it. This sort of communication is the best way to maintain an intimate connection with your partner.