Our needs for affection mature along with us. As babies, we couldn't thrive without sufficient affection and warmth from our parents. And the strength of that parent-baby bond has a huge impact on our ability to form stable relationships as adults.
What do adults seek from their intimate relationships? Today it's accepted that partners expect their spouse to simultaneously be a best friend and confidante. But in addition, they want their partner to be the person that they feel most secure with. They also expect this same person will be a dynamic lover. But even more than this, a spouse needs to be soothed and comforted sometimes while other times, they'll provide this reassurance to their partner. So alternately, each partner plays the child, the lover and the parent. That said, it's easy to see why relationships can be so tricky.
What exactly is the difference between sexual and emotional intimacy? It seems to me that sexual intimacy is a component of emotional intimacy. Yet we see that many people try to achieve sexual intimacy outside the context of an emotionally intimate relationship. Isn't this the definition of hooking up? Two people seek an outlet for their sexual appetites. They undress and physically unite as 'lovers.' But they may not even know each other's names. As physical desire grows and brains are flooded with feel-good, bonding hormones, they remain two ships that go bump but pass in the night. The work of Dr. Miriam Grossman suggests that women in particular can be traumatized by casual sexual relationships. I suspect that many men are probably very affected also.
So what is emotional intimacy? You recognize it when you lie unclothed in your lover's arms but instead of feeling naked, you realize how blessed you are to have this partner for life. You are there as yourself. Emotional intimacy occurs despite one's imperfections and shortcomings. You and your spouse have seen each other at your best and your worst. Yet you still love each other. In fact, love grows and your relationship deepens because you keep giving to each other over time as you experience life together.
Lust at first sight is entirely different. Someone responds very positively to another's shape or other qualities. In their mind, the other person, or shall we say body, is there to make THEM happy. This limited view of someone else is sad and superficial. They are imposing their needs as if the object of their desire exists solely to fulfill them. A relationship built on false impressions, as opposed to investing the time and energy to discover what one's partner is really all about, will deteriorate. Eventually, the object of desire will demand that their needs be met, too. And when that happens, the 'loving' partner may find they're quite angry at their partner's audacity.
Yes, physical attraction to one's beloved is important. But it is a motivator to create a relationship. It is not the relationship in and of itself. And yet, we are often fooled. Or, another scenario develops after meeting someone of the opposite sex who starts fulfilling important emotional needs that are not being fulfilled by one's spouse. "Ah, s/he makes me feel so good." If you are not married, that's very nice. However, if you are married, then the odds are that you're projecting a fantasy that elevates the distraction but minimizes the reality of the wonderful qualities of your spouse. Fortunately, this situation can be addressed.
Let's get back to bed hopping. It in no way equates with the foundation of society that is the married couple. So why do we also seem to be wired to be promiscuous? I don't know, but this tension does offer an opportunity to assert your commitment to the covenant you created with your spouse. To add some clarity: imagine if you, as a parent, would suggest that your married child, who is living a warm and healthy marriage, go and find out if the grass really IS greener elsewhere? Even if your child were to be experiencing the normal difficulties of relationship life, wouldn't you much prefer that they grow past their issues?
I also think that some people seek out physical intimacy without it being in the context of an emotionally intimate relationship because they are very insecure at combining affection, warmth, trust, commitment, sexuality and vulnerability. So they attempt to self-soothe. But, in the process, they use someone to achieve their goal. Mutually consensual selfishness is trending, but it's not good for you, neither spiritually, emotionally or physically.
Even when people create and engage in a physically exclusive relationship, do they automatically achieve emotional intimacy? Not necessarily. Unfortunately, nothing is guaranteed. But let's first compare living together versus marriage as alternative scenarios to developing emotional intimacy.
A couple can live together in an exclusive commitment. "Why marry?," someone can argue. "You don't need a piece of paper to create a wonderful relationship, do you?" Probably not. But, what is your honest goal? If you only want someone who is basically compatible to warm up half of your bed, then as long as it works, great. After that, it's on to the next one. For you, living together sounds reasonable.
Reciprocity in caring about each other is a vital component of a couple's emotional intimacy. It builds up both love and connection. Unfortunately, someone can be married but miss the point of caring entirely. Nonetheless, I emphasize that it is only after you have made this incredible lifelong commitment that the enormity of it hits and you can then begin to really grow together. Life will provide many experiences and the depth of your marriage should deepen as a result of your struggles to care for each other.
Developing emotional intimacy takes place in steps:
- You have to admit to yourself that you are vulnerable.
- Despite being uncomfortable, you will have to share that vulnerability with your partner.
- They in turn will have to admit to and share their own vulnerabilities.
- Together you must respect each other and be there for each other.
- Your smiles and tears become meaningful within this context.
A couple needs to constantly expend energy to develop and enhance their emotional intimacy. Unfortunately, a couple can disconnect along the way and begin to lose their closeness. But with some effort, they can achieve greater emotional intimacy than they ever had before. And with that increased emotional connection, their physical intimacy will so much more profound.