Intimacy remains a hot topic for most parents, given our struggle to find the time and energy to connect with our spouses, especially if we’re pissed off at them. But if we want our relationships to last, we need to get intimate with intimacy.
According to psychologists, the two main reasons that couples divorce are: (1) high levels of conflict; and (2) loss of intimacy and connection.
For some of us, intimacy is less about what we do with each other and more about how we are with each other; for others, intimacy and sex are the same. Yet, in the National Survey of Marital Strengths (2008), a study of more than 50,000 people, not one of the Top 10 Strengths of Happy Couples cites sex specifically. Yet at least three strengths point to intimacy and connection:
#1 I am very satisfied with how we talk to each other.
#2 We feel very close to each other.
#6 I am completely satisfied with the amount of affection from my partner.
What does the #1 strength—I am very satisfied with how we talk to each other—have to do with intimacy? According to the study’s authors, David Olson and Amy Olson-Sigg, “communication and intimacy are closely interrelated.” Olson and Olson-Sigg go a step further and claim that the one communication skill paramount for building and sustaining intimacy is listening.
In other words, the best way to talk to each other might be finding the best way to listen to each other. Here are two quick tools to improve listening skills:
(1) Put the kibosh on interrupting. Before jumping in during an intense conversation, ask: “Are you finished speaking?”
(2) Get curious and practice open-ended questions, those that invite more than yes, no, or maybe as a response. Open-ended questions start with what or how: e.g., “What’s important to you about that?” “How can we resolve this?”
The #2 strength—We feel very close to each other—speaks directly to intimacy and connection. Like so many other experiences, though, what makes us feel close to our spouses can be subjective. Consider asking each other:
What verbal or physical experiences help you feel close to me?
What verbal or physical experiences work against you feeling close to me?
If there were one thing I could do to increase our closeness, what would it be?
Like closeness, the 6th strength—I am completely satisfied with the amount of affection from my partner—is more about individual than shared preferences. Ask each other:
How do you define affection?
What are your favorite ways to give affection?
What are your favorite ways to receive affection?
If the answer is sex, inquire:
What sexual acts feel most affectionate to you?
Which ones don’t feel affectionate?
In addition to sex, what other kinds of affection do you like?
The goal isn’t to agree with each other, but to get to know each other’s likes and dislikes. If we’re keen on connecting, our spouse’s answers give us a heads-up on enhancing closeness and affection in line with their desires, not just our own.
Interestingly, when it comes to sexuality, the #1 strength of happy vs. unhappy couples is I am completely satisfied with the affection from my partner. Put another way, affection and sexual satisfaction are intimately connected.
Certainly, there are other factors that impact relationship happiness when it comes to sexuality: e.g., feeling sexually fulfilled and satisfied, thinking our spouses don’t use or refuse sex unfairly, believing our spouses are sexually interested in us, and not worrying that spouses will cheat. We can definitely work on any or all of these areas to enhance our connection (sexual and otherwise) with our mates.
But when time and energy are at a premium, when we need to pick and choose among options for connecting with spouses, these approaches might just be our best bet:
Learn about and increase closeness with each other.
Listen well, and listen more, to each other.
Increase affection with each other.