Developing intimacy in a relationship
I thought I was doing okay. We were talking. She knows I love her, because I tell her. Now she says she wants more intimacy.
Intimacy is a sense of closeness or togetherness shared with another person that can take some time and work to establish in a relationship. For men who have experienced child sexual abuse or sexual assault, like many men, becoming comfortable with intimacy can be a challenge. Below is some information about intimacy, details of some of the difficulties a man who has experienced sexual victimization can face, along with suggestions on how to further develop intimacy in relationships.
What is intimacy
Intimacy is a close personal connection between two people that usually develops over time. Typically, children learn about and develop intimate relationships through interacting with parents and close family members. As we grow older opportunities arise to develop more intimate relationships outside of the home, getting to know people, establishing commitment and trust, building connections through work, play, sexual contact, parenting, etc. The journey towards creating intimate relationships is therefore potentially never ending and everyone’s experience in growing up and learning about intimacy is going to be different:
Men, sexual abuse and intimacy
Cultural beliefs about men, about what a man should stereotypically do and be, influence how men understand and relate to intimacy. When the traditional man’s role of breadwinner, going out to work in order to provide food and shelter, was dominant, there was little expectation that men should learn about or put energy into developing more intimate relationships. Now, however, partners, men and their children are seeking a greater degree of intimacy.
What do you know about intimacy?
What training did you receive in intimacy while you were growing up?
Are you or your partner seeking to invite intimacy into your lives?
A difficulty that men face with regards to developing intimacy in relationships is that there is an expectation that, as men, they should stand on their own two feet and be firmly self-reliant. This expectation can make men reluctant to acknowledge personal struggles or vulnerabilities, yet the disclosure of worries and difficulties can lead to greater intimacy. Further difficulties are created for men by the cultural habit of mixing up sex and intimacy, where intimacy is seen and used in an instrumental way as something you do in order to obtain sex. Although sex is often an important part of a close intimate relationship and can increase feelings of intimacy, sex and intimacy are not one and the same. There can be intimacy without sex and sex without intimacy.
For men who have experienced sexual violence, confusion and uncertainty around intimacy is understandable, if you consider how some people who perpetrate sexual abuse invest considerable time and effort in getting to know a child, to build trust and a sense of intimacy in order to commit sexual abuse. The person committing sexual abuse might even tell themselves that they love a child and that this is a mutual relationship. When sexual abuse involves such a profound betrayal of trust, it is not surprising that closeness in future relationships can evoke discomfort and be difficult to manage. An experience of child sexual abuse can lead to:
- Reluctance to trust someone or let anyone get close
- Perceiving any expression of care or attention as a sign of sexual interest or precursor to sexual activity.
- Wariness about sharing personal information, due to the way it has been manipulated and used in the past
- Uncomfortableness with gentle touch or touch without prior specific agreement.
- Difficulties with any sexual intimacy, due to the fact it can trigger flashbacks.
These difficulties, although not insurmountable, can take some time and patience to sort out. What can make problems related to intimacy extra tricky to work out is that sometimes in order to gain assistance a man might feel pressured to speak about a history of sexual abuse (something he may not have previously told anyone about).
Becoming clear about and developing intimacy
In seeking to develop more intimate caring relationships, it can be useful to explicitly differentiate sexual intimacy from other forms of intimacy. The following list identifies a number of opportunities for enhancing intimacy in relationships:
- Emotional Intimacy – you are able to share a wide range of both positive and negative feelings without fear of judgement or rejection
- Physical Intimacy – The delight in being sensual, playful, and sensitive in sexual intimacy that is joyful and fulfilling for both partners.
- Intellectual Intimacy – Sharing ideas or talking about issues or even hotly debating opinions and still respect each other’s beliefs and views
- Spiritual Intimacy – discussing how spirituality works in our lives, in such a way that we respect each others particular spiritual needs and beliefs
- Conflict Intimacy – the ability to work through our differences in a fair way, and reach solutions that are broadly and mutually satisfactory, recognizing that perfect solutions are not part of human life.
- Work Intimacy – You are able to agree on ways to share the common loads of tasks in maintaining your home, incomes, and pursuing other mutually agreed goals.
- Parenting Intimacy – If you have children, you have developed shared ways of being supportive to each other while enabling our children to grow and become separate individuals.
- Crisis Intimacy – You are able to stand together in times of crisis, both external and internal to our relationship and offer support and understanding.
- Aesthetic Intimacy – Being delighted in beauty, music art, nature and a whole range of aesthetic experiences and each of us is prepared to support the other’s enjoyment of different aesthetic pleasures.
- Play Intimacy – Having fun together, through recreation, relaxation or humor.
The intention of the above list is to help highlight the multiple possibilities and opportunities for intimacy in relationships.
In seeking to make intimacy more a part of your life and relationships, it is important to recognise that intimacy is relational. Intimacy is not something you can do on your own, the degrees of intimacy possible in a relationship is dependent on there being a shared commitment and interest. Negotiating and building intimacy in relationships is, therefore, reliant on a clear knowledge of your own and a partner’s preferences and a willingness to put time and energy into the relationship. You might consider:
- What kind of relationship do you want?
- What brings you closer to people, what pushes you away?
- Are you aware of your friends or partner’s likes or dislikes, what builds connections in your relationship with them?
- How close a relationship do you/they want?
- What time and energy are you willing to put in to developing intimacy in this relationship?
- How might you make them aware of your interest in building greater intimacy on a number of levels?
In posing these questions, it is recognized that there is no prescribed right way of ‘being intimate’ in a relationship. No two relationships are alike. Although what has gone before might provide a guide to a man’s preferences or areas he might want to work on, history does not dictate the future.
Becoming comfortable with intimacy is not easily worked out on your own. Relationships can provide opportunities for learning, healing and change for both parties. As the below partners of men who have experienced sexual abuse highlight:
He's good at being independent and he knows how to take care of himself. Even though he's not that good at intimacy, I am. So having learnt off each other I am more ndependent and he is more intimate.
I used to complain saying 'you haven't said you love me in ages,' once I realised that this wasn't getting what I wanted from him, I started telling him that I need to feel loved sometimes and I explained to him what makes me feel loved.
As indicated earlier, building and maintaining intimacy in relationships is likely to be a life long project. It is not something you do just once. Also, it is useful to recognise that what builds intimacy in relationships changes, as people’s preferences and choices change over time.
Practical tips for building and maintaining intimacy
Some practical tips to help men understand and enhance intimacy and love in a relationship are offered by in the book Five Love Languages Men's Edition: The Secret to Love That Lasts. This book encourages men to talk with their partners and to learn about and attend to both, their own and their partner’s preferred ways of developing closeness and expressing care. In doing so it demystifies love and intimacy, presenting information in a practical useful way.
If you were asked, could you identify your preferred ‘love language’ and that of your partner from the following list?
- Words of Affirmation – Compliments, words of appreciation, positive feedback about specific things your partner has done.
- Quality Time – Togetherness – giving undivided attention, more than just physical proximity. Quality conversation – talking about your day, keeping each other up-to-date, expressing your feelings, being available to listen with care.
- Receiving Gifts – Putting time and thought into creating/buying gifts. The gift of your ‘self’ – simply being there at crucial times
- Acts of Service – Doing practical tasks for your partner eg. Household chores. Particularly doing these without being asked
- Physical Touch – Loving touch crucial to healthy emotional development for babies and children. Affection is also important for adults, in addition to sexual touch
Possession of knowledge of your own and your partner's preferred ways of relating is important. Just as important is letting people know and acting on these preferences in ways and at times when it will build intimacy.
The above information is not intended as a comprehensive guide to men and intimacy following an experience of sexual abuse or sexual assault, more an invitation to explore possibilities for developing intimacy in caring supportive relationships. An experience of sexual abuse or sexual assault might mean that extra patience is required in some areas or there is a need to speak to someone in order to gain extra assistance, it does not however define the possibilities for intimacy in relationships.
- Augsburger, D. (1988) Sustaining Love, Regal Publishing.
- Chapman, G. (2004) Five Love Languages Men's Edition: The Secret to Love That Lasts, Northfield Press.