Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Intimacy? Sex? Same thing? Different?

The Simple Marriage Project posed an interesting question regarding intimacy and sex. Here is what I posted in answer:

My concept of intimacy is a closeness, an emotional bond, a true knowing of one another, a deep friendship that involves openness and vulnerability. This need not at all be sexual. In fact, the people that I am most intimate with are in my extended family.

Unfortunately, many people — and I’ve found that men tend to do this more than women — equate intimacy with sex. I’m reminded of something a friend told me about her marriage. She has felt, for all her marriage, that she is married to a stranger. He is uninterested in sharing any of his deeper thoughts or feelings with her, and he is even less interested in listening to anything she says beyond what is absolutely necessary and said as factually and succinctly as possible. In other words, it’s OK for her to inform him that their child is in some sort of awful crisis, but he doesn’t want to hear that she was up all night crying or that she is tormented with guilt and anguish.

My friend once, in a fit of despair, cried that she wished their marriage was more intimate. Her husband looked at her in complete bewilderment and asked, “You really want to have sex more often? Once a day isn’t enough for you? That’s enough intimacy for me.”

Well, yes, they are an extreme case. But I’ve found that most of my women friends have had to abandon the use of the word “intimacy” with their husbands, since for most men it is simply a code word for intercourse.

Unfortunately, sex — even in a loving, committed marriage — can be a barrier to intimacy. Many men seem to believe that intercourse should act as some sort of magic substitute for any attempt at true intimacy. Why talk, why be vulnerable with one another, why share life’s ups and downs, why bear one another’s burdens when one can simply pretend intercourse is an easy shortcut for all of that?

But! many husbands claim, sex makes me feel more intimate with my wife! Sex leads to intimacy! Hogwash, said another friend of mine. She pointed out to her husband all the ways in which his pre-intercourse and post-intercourse behavior made it clear that the only “intimacy” going on was entirely physical. He had to admit, with chagrin, that he really wasn’t interested in the same level of true intimacy that she was. Physical closeness was enough for him.

Some couples manage to avoid the trap of using intercourse as a bandaid for real problems in the marriage. Others work hard to achieve true intimacy. Yet others find their needs for emotional intimacy with friends and family members, realizing that intimacy is not possible or even wanted in every marriage.

But to equate intimacy with sex? They are very different…even though they can co-exist and overlap in a good marriage…very nicely, in fact. Ideally, sex should be a symbolic act of an intimacy that already exists. But life is usually not always ideal…

Some afterthoughts.....

I have a few friends that question whether or not true and deep intimacy is possible between members of the opposite sex, even husbands and wives. Oh, sure, husbands and wives can share closeness, friendship, a strong emotional bond --- but can they be as intimate as two women friends? As vulnerable with one another? As understanding? As capable of sharing thoughts and feelings? As emotionally close? As willing to share the bad, as well as the good?

When I was a new mother, I craved friendship with other mothers, and I enjoyed a level of intimacy with women that I'd never experienced before. It was a deep fellowship, a sharing of this overwhelming new adventure that had completely captured us. It was to my friends that I was able to admit a few "dark nights of the soul". At one point, I felt that maybe it was wrong for my fairly new friends to know me, the real me, so much better than my husband did, so I attempted to let him know how profound the experience of motherhood was for me.

Unfortunately, we both ended up frustrated. He simply couldn't handle the fact that I was not only and always happy about every aspect of motherhood. He didn't want to hear about sleep deprivation, about the numbing mindlessness of many days, about changing two dozen diapers in just 24 hours. He also didn't want to hear that I sometimes went in just to see my sleeping baby (during those rare moments when he slept) and wept with joy at his beauty. He strongly suggested I needed more time with my women friends. He also wondered if my reaction to motherhood was normal. To him, it was all wacky and disturbing. Couldn't life just return to normal?

At the next park day, the more experienced moms in our group laughed at my tale. They had been there. They had learned to share mostly the sanitized version of motherhood with their husbands, and to come up with a canned, pleasant answer to "What on earth did you do all day?!"

As one mom told me, "Marriage shouldn't be a contest about who had the most stressful day. Let your husband win that one. He will be happier thinking that he is creating a wonderful life for you through his noble sacrifice. He doesn't need your stress on top of his."

Once in a while, I listen to Dr. Laura on the radio while I'm running errands. One of her recurring themes is to remind women that they are married to men, and not to their girlfriends. Hours of talking? Deep sharing? Feelings? The daily minutiae of life? Save it for your girlfriends. Your husband will never be interested in that!

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  1. Interesting post.
    I think it really depends on the man and the woman. My sister has been married for two years, and it's her husband that wants to talk about everything! (not like she doesn't....)
    My husband and I fit the prototype very nicely, not as extremely as your friend, mind, but my husband calls "sex" "intimacy". If he says "we need more intimacy" or "I'm missing our times of intimacy lately", I know exactly what he means. If I complain that intimacy is missing, he will sit there and listen to my going on and on, but his listening is like someone who is clocking the hours of a night watch or something. He rarely responds, and if he does, it sounds fake.
    Sometimes I feel a bit inadequate talking so much about feelings when he doesn't share much about his.

  2. Men and women are different. That's just the way it is. For men, intimacy is tied to sex. And as far as I'm concerned, that's okay. We need to understand the root of this "problem", as it were.

    There was a time when motherhood wasn't such a lonely prospect, when families stayed in one place for generations and women were connected to each other. We didn't need to seek to have every need met by our husbands. As we have dispersed, and more women are choosing careers over family, as we are all doing different things at different stages of life, it has become harder for many women to connect with other women for the kind of support and camaraderie that we can only get from each other. Let's face it: no man has ever given birth. Their perspective is decidedly limited.

    I don't believe God ever designed marriage to be what we have come to expect based on Harlequin romance novels and Hollywood movies. It ain't sexy, I know, but the real truth of the matter is that marriage is as much practical and functional as it is emotional. And I believe that when our expectations are reality based, when we can appreciate the very real differences in the way men and women relate, intimacy can increase, emotional as well as sexual intimacy.. I know my husband is more responsive to me because he knows I'm not going to pressure him to be and do something or someone he isn't meant to be.

    I hope that rambling makes some sense.

  3. Rebecca, I once had a friend who told me that she thought that the verse in Genesis that says "and her desire shall be unto her husband" meant that the woman would desire a level of intimacy from her husband that he was unable to give. I thought that was profound.

  4. Thatmom, I think that's very profound. I think it could be added to the official list of possible meanings of that difficult little sentence.

    You make a lot of sense. (I know, my name is not Rebecca, I'm not the blog owner....)

  5. Thanks for the plug and your comments in the discussion. Oh the endless discussion of the differences between men and women. I've found that this differences can either be viewed as a threat or a challenge.

    As a challenge, it's a chance to grow more as people and together.

  6. It sure can be a challenge. We have tried to plan a night once a week where we make sure the kids are in bed early and the TV does not get turned on after dinner, a night where I can talk "before" our little "rendezvous." One evening he jokingly informed me that a new rule was that I had a 500 word limit! I chuckled and told him that I could easily keep it to 500 words, but that I'd be going directly to sleep when we were done talking! If men only knew that talking to us was a kind of foreplay, that completes our satisfaction, and ties us together more, they might try harder.