The Impact of Intimacy
I recall a couple who came to see me for marital counseling. The wife appeared more committed to the relationship than the husband. The husband was dissatisfied with the relationship due to his wife's physical appearance and had been pressuring her to have cosmetic surgery, including a face peel and liposuction. He felt the cosmetic changes would affect the couple's love life and fill the void of what was missing.
I was quite perplexed because the wife was exceptionally attractive and pleasant, while her husband was not physically impressive and emotionally cold and detached. I viewed the husband's controlling behavior toward his wife as a desperate attempt at trying to fix the relationship without considering their struggles with intimacy. By his own admission, the husband was devoid of emotionally expressiveness. He had been raised in an environment in which his parent's relationship was sterile, non-affectionate, and lacking in passion. This gentleman's wife lived with frustration due to his lack of emotional availability, and she was resentful and reticent to follow through on his need to have her change her image by means of cosmetic surgery.
I raised the red flag regarding the husband's need for intimacy, but unfortunately it was less painful for him to ignore the obvious signs of his emotional unavailability. He continued to pursue through personal projection his irrational desire to repair his wife's physical appearance maintaining the illusion of repairing the relationship. His wife was vulnerable to his desires and was afraid of losing the relationship. Sadly, she decided to comply with her husband's wishes, ignoring the various warnings that I had made to the couple.
I did not see this couple until two months later. At that time, the wife called me to set up an emergency appointment. She came to my office sobbing as she explained the resentment and humiliation that she felt for her foolishness in consenting to cosmetic surgery. Her face was all red and irritated from the face peel and I remember her dejectedly saying, "My husband has not considered one of the recommendations that you gave him during our last session regarding creating intimacy." I was not surprised.
The impact of intimacy lies at the core of every significant relationship. Cultivating intimacy takes a lot of work. Intimacy is a complex set of feelings and behaviors that develop out of a relationship based upon integrity, commitment, passion and respect. Many people, particularly men, get sexuality confused with intimacy. Sexuality should be viewed as a manifestation of the quality of one's level of intimate behavior.
Sexual expression will not sustain a relationship that is devoid of intimacy. Intimacy, however, will sustain a relationship that may lack significant sexual involvement. I have worked with many couples who have had erotic sex whose relationships have dissolved. I have never worked with a couple whose relationship was built on intimate behavior that has faltered. If intimacy is the cornerstone of a healthy relationship, understanding its nature is important:
- A partner must take the risk of disclosing emotions with significant others.
- A partner must be willing to be honest and upfront in communicating, even at the risk of hurting others.
- An individual must listen and be non-judgmental in communication.
- A mate must value and cherish those he loves.
- The issue of intimacy is comprehensive to all significant relationships.
- The impact of intimacy is much broader in scope than sexuality.
- It's the little things that count — remembering birthdays, anniversaries, surprising a partner with gifts, and validating your partner.
- Demonstrating non-sexual affection, such as holding hands, hugging, messaging, and kissing constitute intimacy.
- Cultivating intimacy is important when couples are having difficulty with their sexual experience.
- Conflict resolution is an important aspect of intimacy.
- Being spiritually and psychologically committed to one's mate constitutes intimacy.
- Trust and respect are cornerstones of intimacy.
- Accepting one's mate with all of his flaws is a quality of intimacy.
- Navigating difficult life events in a relationship is a characteristic of intimacy.
- Establishing a romantic environment and making one's sexual encounters mutually meaningful constitutes intimacy.
For intimacy to flourish, it must be reciprocated. I recall a young woman who saw me for counseling. She was dealing with a serious traumatic life experience and courageously explored the emotional impact with me. Although she felt vulnerable, I told her that she was demonstrating more positive energy. In spite of her changes, she was uncomfortable in disclosing painful memories with her partner. She was confused about her reluctance to share her emotional life with her friend. She indicated that her mate would be empathetic if she shared her painful experience with him. I responded by asking her, "Does he caretake for you as a mean of avoiding his own emotional issues?" This interpretation resonated with her and she admitted that she knew very little about his emotional life.
We only fully know someone by the nature of their emotional experience. Developing intimacy calls for feeling one's feelings, not talking about them. Many partners experience frustration and resentment when they are unable to read their mates feelings and end up making assumptions that may or may not be accurate.
Finding meaning and purpose in life is about feeling connected to those closest to us. Those who demonstrate intimacy are not afraid to be vulnerable when it is in their best interest. I believe that our legacy will be determined by the quality of our relationships. The quality of our connections will be based upon the level of intimacy that we create with our most cherished relationships.
James P. Krehbiel, Ed.S., LPC, is an author, freelance writer and cognitive-behavioral therapist practicing in Scottsdale, Arizona. He can be reached at krehbielcounseling.com.