While it’s an oversimplification that, women require emotional intimacy to want sex and men seek sex in order to feel emotionally connected, many relate to the observation. Is this a fact that just has to be accepted or is it possible to bridge the apparent divide?

How do we go about having satisfactory and satisfying intimate relationships?

When we speak of intimacy it is easy to assume there is a shared understanding. Generally this might be so but when it comes to the details of what actually constitutes an intimate relationship there can a wide variety of accompanying ideas, beliefs and assumptions. There are also varying levels of ease and comfort with intimacy.

When we talk of ‘being intimate’ there is often an immediate association with physical/sexual intimacy. In fact there is a close intertwining between physical and emotional intimacy in interpersonal relationships. To be intimate with another human being implies a level of trust and safety, which may be momentary, as in a brief sexual encounter or over a life span in a long-term monogamous relationship. Intimacy requires a level of exclusivity where there is a boundary around what can be done, what is known and what is shared. In the early stages of forming an intimate relationship in the first flush of love and desire there is often a lowering of those protective walls we maintain in order to manage in other parts of our life.

With our human wish for intimacy comes the longing to be known and accepted, to be able to be yourself. Entrusting yourself to another physically and/or emotionally brings vulnerability with it. It is for this reason that breaches of trust, the breaking of boundaries that are associated with intimate relationships, cause so much pain and distress.

For couples in an intimate relationship there will be differences in the amount of closeness and distance each is comfortable with. As a relationship develops there is a level of negotiation that takes place either spoken or unspoken that determines a mutually acceptable level of comfort. What can be done, what is shared and what can be known all require ‘negotiation’. What feels right for each partner will be affected by his or her individual make up which is a unique product of temperament and personal history. The family, community and culture we come from all have their influence.

An intimate relationship requires regular nurture. What is nurturing is particular to each relationship but the capacity to listen to one another, to be empathetic, to be kind, to share pleasure and enjoyment, tolerance – are some of the obvious ingredients that enhance intimacy.

Intimacy can be enhanced when partners find the courage to be emotionally honest with one another, sharing thoughts and feelings that require trust and openness. Awkward and even painful feelings may seem unlikely contributors to greater intimacy but where there is respect and mutuality this can be the source of enrichment and maturity in a relationship.

*Ken and Sally, a couple in their middle 30’s agreed to seek help from a relationship counsellor when they found themselves bickering, feeling disconnected and shut down and at times having ‘blow ups’ over small things. Their sex life had reached an all time low. They had thought that having their first baby would make this one of the happiest times of their life.

When they first met their relationship developed easily and bought a lot of enjoyment. They talked for hours, did lots together, travelled and had fun. They admired, loved and respected one another.

It became evident that Sally and Ken were experiencing lots of pressures – family support was a long way away, having a baby was not as they imagined and their business was going through an uncertain time.

In counselling Ken and Sally talked like they hadn’t been able to at home, started listening and realized things were going on for the other they hadn’t known about. They shared hidden fears about the business not providing enough to support the family, feeling unattractive and rejected. They disclosed painful feelings of inadequacy and the distress that the loss of interest in sex meant they did not love one another anymore and their marriage would end.

Counselling sessions brought increased understanding and with this, closeness. Through a neighbour they found a trusted baby sitter and took turns to organise a night out. As they felt warmer and more secure with one another their sexual relationship also recovered. Furthermore Ken and Sally felt they had gained something that would make a difference when they faced other demanding times in the future.

* Names and situations are entirely fictitious. Any likeness is purely coincidental.

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