What rates highest in a long-term relationship? Passion is important, certainly, but intimacy rates highest. That’s what psychologist Robert J. Sternberg found in a survey of marital satisfaction among 101 adults who’d been together for as little as a year and as long as 42 years.
Intimacy is the sense of another person fully knowing you, and loving you because of who you are—as well as in spite of it. This requires taking a leap into rare honesty and allowing yourself to be vulnerable. The deeper the intimacy, the more you’ll have the experience of total absorption with your partner, in and out of bed. For some, intimacy is that sense of being “home” in the presence of your mate. Or it may be an increased sense of relaxed pleasure when you see your loved one’s face after an absence.
“If I’m out and coming back home and my guy is here,” said one woman I interviewed for Loving in Flow: How the Happiest Couples Get and Stay That Way. "It’s as though this is my haven. When I see him in a crowd or walking through the front door, I want to go up and hug him. One of the best parts of the day is getting in bed at night and hugging. Just being in each other’s arms is reassuring, lovely, comforting."
1. Disclose more to feel closer.
“Intimacy is a process of discovery with another,” writes Joel B. Bennett in Time and Intimacy: A New Science of Personal Relationships. Over time, though, without continued attentiveness, it is easy to lose that urge to keep discovering all there is to know about one another. Individuals that psychologists have dubbed openers have intimate conversations with others because something about them encourages disclosure. Those who don’t open up or make it easy for others to do so, known as high self-monitors, have a more difficult time with close relationships.
2. Make time for deeply emotional conversations.
These are among the times people feel closest. “When we share our thoughts at the end of the day,” one woman said, “when we’re lucky enough to be able to do that, it feels very intimate.”
3. Do something new or big together.
One woman shared instances where she and her partner feel closest, including when they have a productive talk about something upon which they disagree. But also important, she told me, "is when we produce something together. ‘Raising’ of the cats, doing something really nice for friends or family. Like when we’re in sync about ‘let’s do such-and-such for so-and-so.’"
4. Relish the routine.
When we’re new to one another, whatever we learn is unexpected, resulting in intense emotion. Gradually over time, we become more predictable to one another. But there's a positive side to this predictability, Sternberg found: It leads to intimacy, in which “the partners are so connected with each other that the one doesn’t recognize the other is there, just as the air we breathe can be taken for granted, despite its necessity to life.”
5. Shake up the routine.
According to Sternberg, our interactions in close relationships tend to go along in well-worn grooves, called scripts. Most emotion is the result of some interruption of the script. Keep doing the same old thing, and you experience no emotion. But stop what you’ve always done, and, suddenly, someone feels. Sternberg says you can find out if a relationship is “live” by generating something unexpected, such as one of you going away on their own, or going on a vacation to a new place together. But sometimes it takes extreme action to realize how much intimacy there is, or was. Why not plan for occasional minor interruptions—so you don’t need a major one to wake you up?
6. Make it harder to walk away.
When the marriage of Susan Tyler Hitchcock and her husband was stagnating, they made a family project of a year-long sailing trip in the Caribbean. As soon as they made the commitment and began planning the extensive journey, they felt “pulled together,” Susan said. Their pattern of her expressing anger or disappointment, and him withdrawing, was broken. Also, her habit had been to become terrified of a confrontation, figure she’d been pushing too hard, and drop the conversation altogether. In the confines of a sailboat, neither of them could just walk away, and they learned to talk at a deeper and more honest level.
7. Ensure that it's safe to be open.
What if you are part of a mismatched couple, where you crave a deeper level of communicative openness than your partner ever will? Comfort levels with verbal sharing typically do increase with practice in an emotionally safe context, so continue to work at becoming a non-judgmental listener.
8. Consider whether you're a better match than you think.
People vary as to how much intimacy they require to avoid loneliness, and how much they can tolerate before feeling saturated. Those with stronger needs will work harder to ensure intimate contact with their partners, by listening more closely and encouraging their partners to be more expressive. If the need is weaker, then there will be a weaker correlation between intimacy and relationship satisfaction. In other words, if you don’t crave the level of total closeness I’m talking about here, you probably won’t mind if your partner isn’t that keen on sharing his or her own inner life, either.
9. Give credit where it's due.
The free-and-easy talker can learn to recognize and give credit to a partner’s preferred modes of expression. Some individuals equate communication with intimacy—in one study, more than two-thirds of divorced couples said they didn’t get the level of conversation that they’d expected in their marriages. The women, especially, complained they wanted to talk about negatives as well as positives, and they especially wanted to talk about work. But the “give and take,” the emotional exchange they sought, was missing.
10. Intimacy is more than words or sex.
Only a third of the divorced men in the sample above said that they didn’t find the emotional intimacy they wanted. What some of them missed, though, was their wives being there for them "in much fuller ways.” They wanted concrete demonstrations of intimacy, such as being kissed or asked how they are at the end of the day, and being greeted with open arms at the door. As long as the less articulate demonstrate their love in their own ways, they deserve credit for their thoughtful behavior, as well as extra patience and understanding on the part of the talk-deprived.
This post has been adapted from Loving in Flow.
Copyright (c) 2016 by Susan K. Perry