by Zach Brittle
As a couples therapist, I see a ton of different kinds of relationship issues. This week, a couple came into my office asking for help because they’d just had a baby. They related that the baby was like a grenade. In this case it was was a “he”. And “he” exploded onto the family scene and disrupted everything.
I asked a few more questions and dug a little deeper. Ultimately, they confessed they were having trouble with intimacy.
When couples bring up the issue of intimacy, that’s code for sex. But codes don’t hold up. Sex is sex. Intimacy is something else. I visit PEPS groups a lot. I always say the same thing.
Intimacy and Intercourse are not the same thing.
Invariably, new moms breathe an audible sigh of relief. Dads give me a blank stare…waiting for some kind of relief. The relief is that “intimacy” is complex, complicated, multi-faceted. Sex is part of it, for sure. But so is conversation, and conflict, and exercise, and prayer, and dreaming, and eating and…lots of things.
Therapist and best-selling author Terrence Real suggests there are five primary expressions of intimacy. Think of them like the fingers on your hand. You need all of them to swing a hammer, or grasp a pen, or give a high five.
Maybe they’re also like the spokes of a wagon wheel. If one breaks, the wheel isn’t stable. At the very least, the other spokes will need to bear the weight (read: responsibility) of the whole structure.
So, what are these five areas? By Real’s definition, intimacy is: INTELLECTUAL, EMOTIONAL, PHYSICAL, SEXUAL, and SPIRITUAL.
A couple quick notes:
- PHYSICAL and SEXUAL are not the same.
- SPIRITUAL is not religious…it simply seeks the highest good of the relationship.
- More important than knowing what the five fingers/spokes of intimacy are… you need to know how to build them.
So let’s imagine how to build them…
How to build INTELLECTUAL intimacy.
Talk to each other. I know that sounds simple, but is it? When was the last time you and your partner just exchanged ideas? About politics, art, religion, sports, economics? Some people shy away from “intellect” because they think it means “intelligence”. But it doesn’t. It means an ability to give and take. To exchange perspectives with curiosity and compassion. Also, intellect is a moving target. My wife and I acknowledge that she’s street smart. I’m book smart. We have LOTS to talk about.
A few INTELLECTUAL intimacy starter questions:
- What can we learn together?
- What can we read together?
- What can we decide together?
How to build EMOTIONAL intimacy.
Commit to awareness. This is absolutely the first step in achieving emotional intimacy. Pay attention to one another and to yourselves. Specifically, commit to an awareness of your emotional state. Without an intentional commitment, this is easy to miss. I promise, you can’t even wrap your head around the emotional realities of going all-in with another person for the rest of your life. Add a baby… it gets really complicated really quickly. Emotional intimacy comes from learning about and leaning into all of those complexities.
A few EMOTIONAL intimacy starter questions:
- What are you feeling right now?
- How can I know if you’re happy, sad, angry, confused, horny, etc….?
- How can I be better at learning about and leaning into your emotions?
(BTW: You can and should ask all these questions of yourself.)
How to build PHYSICAL intimacy.
Be near each other…on purpose. Physical intimacy is about proximity. It’s about closeness, with your bodies, in non-sexual ways. This includes wrestling with each other, cooking together, giving foot rubs, even going to the bathroom with the door open. Physical intimacy is about exercising the privilege of being in an intimate relationship. In many ways, roommates are physically intimate, but spouses deepen this intimacy on purpose.
A few PHYSICAL intimacy starter questions:
- How can we be more physically playful together?
- What kind of physical, non-sexual touch can we try?
- How can we be near each other, on purpose, in meaningful ways?
How to build SEXUAL intimacy.
This is a tough one especially for young families. Couples who are sexually intimate, at the very least, they make sex a priority. They say “I love you” a lot. They talk about sex. What they like and what they don’t. They agree about how to initiate and reject sex. They practice. Sex is an incredibly loaded topic for a lot people. If there’s any single “how to” when it comes to sex, continue dating one another. (And here’s a PRO TIP for new dads: When mom’s body is ready for intimacy (i.e., sexual intercourse) after the baby, it will help a lot if you’ve invested time and energy and maybe even money in the other spokes of the intimacy wheel. I promise.)
A few SEXUAL intimacy starter questions:
- When do you most like to have sex?
- How do you like to be asked for sex?
- How can we stay connected even when you’re not interested in sex?
How to build SPIRITUAL intimacy.
Dream. Big. Spiritual intimacy is about pursuing some higher good for the relationship. It’s about believing that your relationship is about something bigger than yourselves. Some couples base that higher good in “God,” some in “the universe,” some in “destiny,” some in their children. Whatever it is, it should help you aspire to some greater value for the relationship. It doesn’t mean that you need to pray, or meditate, or read your runes. It just means that you need something that will help you anchor and act when the relationship seems to be on shaky ground….as if a grenade has disrupted it.
A few SPIRITUAL intimacy starter questions:
- What three value words describe our ideal relationship (generosity, hospitality, adventure, wealth, humor…)?
- Which one of those words feels most important for us to dream about right now?
- What practical step can we take together today to making that dream a reality?
True intimacy is hard work. And it’s even harder when you introduce a baby into the equation. In a perfect world, you are building these skills, and having these conversations, before the baby arrives. Building a solid foundation for holistic intimacy is good for you, and good for the baby and your family, in the long run.
About the Author
Zach Brittle is a licensed mental health counselor and Certified Gottman Therapist based in Seattle, Wa. He is the founder of forBetter, which offers online courses for couples, and the best-selling author of The Relationship Alphabet. His writings and insights have also been featured in Verily Magazine, Psych Central, Happify, Men’s Health Magazine and the Washington Post. He has been happily married to Rebecca for 18 of 19 years – year #8 was pretty rough. Together, they have two daughters (9 & 13), a minivan, and most of the silverware we got as wedding presents.