The experience of intimacy is complicated and easily misunderstood, for new lovers as well as those in committed relationships. Most relationship partners have had the experience of misinterpreting the motives and desires of their lovers at times. Every person defines intimacy differently, and incorrect assumptions between partners are common.
Those discrepancies can seriously affect expectations and outcomes. Because they tend to happen more often than people realize, many partners innocently assume these misinterpretations on a regular basis without meaning any harm.
These assumptions of intimacy-readiness can result in a mismatch in the timing of desired connection. For example, at any moment, one partner may feel pressured, or even overwhelmed, by the other’s needs, while the other only meant to express loving affection. Or, one partner may take some personal time away without sharing that decision ahead of time. The other partner can feel disappointed when a connection doesn’t happen as expected.
What if one partner is seeking intimate connection, while the other is focused on more personal issues? That desire for connection might have been perfectly appropriate at another time, but now is perceived as intrusive. The partner who was seeking closeness can feel pushed away because he or she doesn’t understand.
If intimate partners continue to miss each other’s cues, either may begin to mistrust the other’s commitment to the relationship. Confused by what the other wants, they can fall into the trap of waiting too long for the other to return or disconnecting too soon to avoid the embarrassment of rejection.
Those missteps can lead partners to see the request for intimacy as something to be avoided, and closeness may begin to feel like entrapment. Or the need for independence is experienced as a lack of interest. Feeling unsure of where each stands, the partners may lose trust in each other’s availability or motives. Both can end up confused and untrusting of the pull-in-push-out maneuvers that could have been easily avoided:
“He shows me in every way that he needs and wants me, and I love that feeling of being treasured. Then, as if I have done something wrong, he says mean things or just disconnects. I never know whether he really means it now, and I feel immobilized, fearful to move in any direction. Then he tells me that I’m not accepting his love, and he feels rejected. I’m so confused.”
“She acts like I’m the greatest guy in the world, and she wants to spend every minute with me. Yet, after the weekend ends, I don’t hear from her for days. She responds to texts in one-word answers, and always has some excuse that’s she’s overloaded at work or something. Thursday comes, and she’s all over me. The next week, it’ll be the same thing. I can tell you, it’s getting old.”
I have often observed one or both partners in a relationship expressing these double messages to each other, often at the same time. First one reaches out and the other hesitates, not trusting that opening for closeness. Then the other pulls back, fearing he or she has acted inappropriately. The first partner, ready now to reach out, meets a pull-back in the other, and then similarly retreats. Both seem confused and sad as the missed opportunities for closeness evolve into a mutually frustrating dance.
Fortunately, those repetitive and destructive misunderstandings can be healed. It just takes the right kind of communication and some effective skills. The first step is for a couple that is experiencing these misunderstands to recognize and agree that they genuinely want more closeness, but are losing those opportunities because of a lack of effective communication.
Next, the couple must learn what is causing those misunderstandings and how they can experience each other more accurately. Lastly, after the couple has mastered a better understanding of each other’s needs, rhythms, and availabilities, they must work at staying open and encouraging as they practice their new awareness. Rituals and habits, even destructive ones, don’t go away easily. It is essential that both partners continue their commitment to keep working on new ways of understanding each other’s thoughts and experiences.
Sharing Definitions of Intimacy
A couple that wants to regain an authentic intimate connection must understand the ways each perceives intimacy differently — physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Not only are those often sensed and acted on differently in most people, they are also experienced in different proportion and with different emphasis.
Some people must begin their intimate connections with touch, whether it is simple affection, deeper nurturing, or sexual interaction. Others are more comfortable sharing their emotions first. They need to know how the other feels about them before they can connect. Others thrive on talking about ideas and dreams before they can comfortably connect in another way. They need to feel secure and comfortable revealing their internal thoughts. For some, feeling the same humbleness under a greater power connects them in ways no other interaction can.
All four needs are present in every person, though in different proportions and at different times. For partners to have genuine healing and hope, both must learn how and when the other experiences them.
1. Physical Intimacy
People who prefer to initially connect physically feel wanted when their partners give and receive touch that awakens their senses. Touching that is compatible in rhythm, frequency, and style can bring both partners instantly close if both want the same thing in the same way.
Because intimacy is so often correlated with physical touch, this area should be the easiest to talk about first, yet I often find that both new and established partners are not able to honestly share what they want in this domain, especially sexually. Because of the fear of offending or making the other partner feel uncomfortable, many couples develop less than optimum physical connections.
Partners who are comfortable sharing their most intimate and vulnerable physical touch desires often best heal in this area, especially when their relationship may be wavering in other areas:
“He knows exactly how and when to touch me. When I’m sad, he cradles me. When I’m in the mood for sex, he knows how to get me there. When I’m scared, he reassures me with tender caressing. It’s never too much and never too little. I’m so blessed.”
2. Emotional Intimacy
The open sharing of emotional states is for many the most important basis for trust and comfort, and must precede any other intimate connection. It is terribly painful to feel more vulnerable than one’s partner, especially in times of need. Knowing that a partner tracks, intuits, understands, and supports the emotional experience of another allows couples to form the foundation from which all other intimate interactions are safe.
If one or both partners need to be known deeply, understood, and accepted before they can be intimate any other way, it is crucial that the other partner(s) works to make that happen:
“She just gets me. I hardly have to change my expression or sound worried. I don’t know how she understands, but I end up sharing feelings that I sometimes didn’t even know I had. I can’t remember a time when she said anything that made me stop talking.”
3. Mental Intimacy
When partners can share their most intimate thoughts, feelings, and motivations, they can create the melding of minds that makes people feel like they live in each other’s minds. When they feel their ideas and opinions truly matter to the other, they automatically share more openly and more vulnerably:
“He is one complicated guy intellectually and incredibly interesting to me. I look forward to how he thinks and where he gets those fascinating ideas. He cares what I think, too, and takes me seriously when I see things differently. We almost always end up melding our thoughts into new ways of looking at things.”
4. Spiritual Intimacy
Spirituality for most is feeling part of something greater than self that both humbles and enriches the spirit. Partners who feel as if they are doing that together feel a solidarity and closeness they cannot achieve any other way. They can do it in a place of worship or under a waterfall in a beautiful forest. What is important is to capture a common sense of wonder, while feeling simultaneously protected and inspired. Some partners have shared with me that they pray or meditate in each other’s presence before seeking intimacy in other ways:
“When she is quiet, I know she’s asking herself deep questions about her life and its purpose. I know she is connecting with a higher being who reminds her of what ethics and values she must live by to give her meaning. I fully respect that relationship. I have my own similar place I go, and we share those insights and inspirations with each other. When we do that, it reminds us of how lucky we are to have each other.”
Deeply ingrained habits and rituals are hard to challenge. As people approach an interaction they want to change, they must stay conscious and clear in their intent to do it differently than before. Couples can be lost in confusion when they send each other double messages about when to move closer or offer distance.
Fortunately, a couple that has taken the time to truly understand each other’s ways of expressing intimacy can better understand those behaviors. They can better interpret and more accurately respond to what their partners want and create clearer communications. That does not mean that they are automatically obligated to do exactly what is asked, but it does give them guidelines. Even if it is not possible for them to give everything their partners may want, they can improvise and negotiate new possibilities with that knowledge.
As a beginning, partners can ask each other to share the answers to the following questions. The more extensive and complete their answers, the more they can make decisions about their availability to comply. It is crucial that the partner listening does not invalidate or question the answers; they may be deeply personal and vulnerable and must be respected.
1. Physical: How and when do you like to be touched by me?
2. Mental: What can we talk about that is interesting and fulfilling to you?
3. Emotional: How can I make you feel safe to talk openly about your feelings?
4. Spiritual: What gives you meaning in life that you would like to share with me?
When both partners understand each other's thoughts and feelings, and how they are communicated in intimate interactions, they will be more likely to respond accurately to each other’s needs and requests. The old patterns of misunderstanding and frustration will give way to a new kind of closeness.
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