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Thursday, July 22, 2010
I’m just beginning to digest some of the reader survey results (more on that in an upcoming post). Something that stood out was a clear interest in the topic of intimacy. The question was intentionally vague, so before we unpack the subject very much we should try to define this elusive, ubiquitous goal of intimacy that we all seek in our marriages.

I should start by saying I don’t know that there is one right answer to this complex question. If there is, then I surely don’t have it! But the question is certainly worth exploring, and I hope you will comment with your own definition of intimacy. We can all learn from each other.

Intimacy has commonly become an interchangeable euphemism for sex, which somewhat shortchanges the concept. On top of sexual intimacy, you also hear phrases like emotional intimacy, spiritual intimacy and even intellectual intimacy. You also see conflicting opinions on the importance of intimacy in marriage. There’s the camp that says it is the most important ingredient for a happy marriage. And then there are those who say an overemphasis on intimacy causes marital gridlock.

So what are we to make of all this intimacy business? Like I said, I don’t really know the answer, or even if there is a single right answer. But I have two theorems on intimacy, and I’d love to get your feedback on them.

Bringing Your Whole Being

The fullest and most enduring kind of marital intimacy is the kind that involves the entirety of your being: spirit, soul and body.

As it is in our relationship with God, marital intimacy starts with spiritual intimacy. It’s at least partly tied up in the “great mystery” Paul describes in Ephesians 5 when he talks about a man and woman becoming “one flesh,” quoting from Genesis.

Next comes intimacy of the soul (mind, will and emotions). Some call this emotional intimacy, romantic intimacy, and others toss in intellectual intimacy. I think all three of our soul’s components are part of the equation here – something we commonly describe as being soul mates.

Last but not least we have physical intimacy. Yes, sure, we are talking sex. But we are also talking about non-sexual touch, kissing, massage and every other aspect of the joining of our physical bodies.

To me there is a logical progression in these areas, or an intimacy food chain, if you will. My food chain theory goes like this. Spiritual intimacy paves the way for intimacy in the realm of the soul, which in turn provides fertile ground for physical intimacy. I think that’s the best, most enduring path to intimacy. Sure, you can have physical intimacy without the other components, but in general it will be shallow and meaningless without them. Likewise, it’s much easier to be intimate with our thoughts and feelings if we have a firm foundation of spiritual intimacy.

Naked Without Shame

I have a fairly simple definition of intimacy:

Genuine intimacy comes from being fully known and completely loved.

If you take intimacy out of the marital context for a moment you’ll see what I mean. Think of your closest friends. These are the ones who you are comfortable being yourself with, the ones who you know accept you for who you are, the ones where you are free to get real with each other, without judgment or fear. It’s no different in marriage.

Intimacy with Jesus is really the same thing too, isn’t it? It’s that whole bridal paradigm thing all over again. We come to him in our weakness and brokenness, and how does he respond? Total love, acceptance and forgiveness. Oh, that we can get the amazing power and intimacy of this kind of grace and apply it to our marriages.

The phrase I often use for this kind of intimacy is “naked without shame.” It comes from Genesis. In the context of God giving us the one-flesh directive for marriage, look what comes next.

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.”    Genesis 2:24-25

That’s right, naked and unashamed. I love that! Just as being one flesh is about so much more than physical intimacy, so is being naked without shame about so much more than having sex with the lights on! It’s about bringing the fullness of who you are to your marriage, without fear of rejection or judgment, and receiving total love and acceptance from your spouse in return. It also means receiving their nakedness in the same fashion.  That is the pathway to real intimacy.

This is a simple in concept, perhaps, but difficult to achieve in reality. Fear and shame are such powerful forces. Past hurts and disappointments, human frailty and strong emotions all will send you running for the fig leaves. But hopefully, as you learn to give and receive grace, you’ll gradually get comfortable taking them off.

What do you think of my two intimacy theorems? What is your own definition of intimacy and how to achieve and sustain it in marriage?

(For more on this topic, see my series “On Being One Flesh” listed in the “Notable Series” widget on the left sidebar.)


Kathleen Quiring | Project M said...

A lot of good stuff here, Scott. I agree that there is a problem with using "sex" and "intimacy" interchangeably. As you point out, there are many different kinds of intimacy. You can have intimacy with same-sex friends, for example, which isn't sexual at all. It's about knowing each other, as you suggest.

I also really like your idea that spiritual intimacy of the soul is the best place to start, and creates a fertile ground for physical intimacy. I understand this to refer to first getting to know your partner by dating, which eventually leads to getting to know him/her sexually (preferably after marriage).

I recently read an interesting definition of intimacy as sharing something with another person that is not shared with anyone else. By this definition, then, social networking sites like Facebook destroy intimacy by letting everyone in on the details of your life. When you show 200 people pictures of your newborn baby in the hospital, intimacy is destroyed, because you no longer share that moment exclusively with the people who were in the room. I dunno if that's relevant to the discussion here (it was in a book on technology and the soul), but I thought I'd throw that out there.

Shelby Riley said...

Love your thoughts, Scott. With intimacy comes the idea of self-protection, and in the most safe, intimate relationships, we find we don't need much protection, because the other person has shown us that they are willing to care for us and protect us. I often use the image of a drawbridge: in the safest, most intimate relationships, my drawbridge can be totally down. When couples start to have problems, and they feel hurt, rejected, or disrespected, they tend to pull their drawbridge up and close off, in order to protect themselves. Rebuilding intimacy involves slowly lowering the drawbridge and letting someone back in little by little as you build a new way to care for and protect each other and show that you can be safe. And that occurs in each area of intimacy that you describe. Thanks for the post!

Scott said...

Thank you both, Kathleen and Shelby for your thoughts.

The concept of adding exclusivity as part of the definition of intimacy never occured to me but it makes a lot of sense. I can see how something shared privately between husband and wife that no one else is even aware of adds would built trust and add a sense of oneness.

And I really like the drawbridge analogy for describing our desire for self protection after we've experienced hurt or rejection. Trust and safety, knowing the other person has our best interest at heart, are key to building intimacy.

Lori Lowe said...

Scott, this is an exceptional post on an important topic to marriage. I have felt that marriage is about achieving true intimacy, which means to me learning how to know and be known, to love and be loved. So your definition of being fully known and fully loved is right there with me. I also agree with your progression of different types of intimacy. So often we use intimacy to mean sexual intimacy, but the deeper issues of being vulnerable with one another enhance even physical intimacy. I plan to share this post with my readers tomorrow. Thanks again!

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