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  • samreastwood

Bringing Back Intimacy

 

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘intimacy’? If you went straight to ‘sex’ then you’re not alone. ‘Intimacy’ is a word that’s often used as a euphemism for sexual activity, most often in relation to our romantic partnerships. In both intimate partner and individual work, intimacy is a subject that comes up over and over again as something that feels ‘missing’ in our relationships. People talk about how their sex lives have waned over time, and how disconnected they feel from their partner(s) as a result.


The first question for me is always to ask what intimacy means to them. More often than not, the client will say they want more, or better quality sex. But sex is something you can do with anybody. Yes, I know that there are many, many societal and cultural expectations around who we have sex with. The old trope of men being able to sleep around and women are considered less attractive the more people they’ve had sex with still exists for many of us. That gay men are all promiscuous and lesbian women fall quickly, madly in love and have loads of sex until the inevitable ‘bed death’ sets in is another. These stereotypes are factually inaccurate but still they exist to give us unrealistic expectations around what sex and intimacy really looks like in a long term relationship. So is it really the act of sex that people are missing? Or is it something more?


In reality, when I actually work with clients who are perceiving problems with their sexual intimacy, the thing they say most is that they miss their partner. They miss the physical closeness that sexual activity can bring but more, they miss the sharing of time, meaningful conversations, and a feeling of really ‘knowing’ their partner on a truly deep level. There is often a feeling of loneliness within the relationship. Sexual intimacy releases dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins which can help us feel more bonded to our partner. When we’re in a new relationship, we have higher than usual levels of dopamine. This creates a craving for the other person which we often satisfy with sex (and it’s worth noting here that not everyone experiences sexual attraction, but for the purposes of this article we’ll concentrate mostly on those that do). Sex releases endorphins, which make us feel good, and oxytocin, which encourages bonding between partners. In the early stages of a relationship this cycle is often spontaneous, the mere thought of our partner can kick off the dopamine, starting a craving for endorphins that is only satisfied by sex, followed by our bonding hormone. Over time dopamine calms down a bit, and leaves more room for oxytocin to do the work of fostering a deeper, more trusting connection. Sex is still a great facilitator for this, but for relationships to work longer term they can’t rely solely on physical intimacy to keep a connection going. That spontaneous desire for sex is often replaced by a need to build up to attraction and wanting.


There are lots of factors that might influence whether sexual intimacy is present in a relationship or not. Big life changes such as moving house, having children, changes in physical health and betrayals can all be impactful on someone’s level of sexual desire. And it is also natural for this to ebb and flow over the course of a relationship. But it can also be the little things that can put the brakes on desire. Remember when you were first with your partner and you would make time to go on dates; hold hands while you were walking; greet each other when you came in the door; talk and really listen? Life can slowly chip away at these moments of connection. We get busy getting out of the door in the morning, the children are there if we have them, and we’re tired from work and housework and the demands of everyday life. We lose the emotional intimacy of knowing our partner’s inner world, because we just don’t make time to know them anymore. Without the emotional intimacy, the desire and wanting of the other sexually doesn’t have a chance to build.


We could talk a lot about ways to increase sexual desire, but what I hear the most is that partners want to reconnect without the pressure of having to ‘perform’. Often it is a good idea to take sex entirely off the table in the beginning and focus on emotional intimacy. Engaging in intimate partner therapy can be a hugely important step in working towards emotional intimacy, particularly if there is conflict present in the relationship. Therapy can help partners to learn how to communicate in a way that really helps them to understand each other, getting right down to the root causes of any issues and re-establishing those shared goals and ambitions that you had with each other at the beginning. Therapy isn’t the only way though, so here are a few ideas that might help you get started.

 

  • Firstly – unplug! So often I hear ‘we used to talk but now they’re always distracted by their phone’. Try setting aside a time every day where your phone is in another room, the TV is off, and you can really pay attention to each other.


  • Listen actively – when your partner is telling you about their day, be open to hearing about it. If they are describing a problem, ask if they want comfort, or a solution. If they ask for comfort, try affirming what they say. ‘I hear that situation at work made you really angry, I can understand why it made you feel that way’ or ‘I can see that you’re upset, do you want to tell me more?’ are good ways to start. Try to listen to hear, rather than listen to respond.


  • Re-introduce non-sexual touch. Hand holding, shoulder rubs, or sitting closely together on the sofa without any expectation that it might lead to sex, can help that oxytocin start to release.


  • For a bigger oxytocin hit, try standing together and hugging until you both feel relaxed. Neither of you should be holding the other’s weight. After a short amount of time you should feel your breathing start to soften and your muscles become less tense. Aim for a minimum of 3 minutes, but stay as long as you want.


  • Eye gazing. This can feel a little weird to start with, but sit or stand facing each other and gaze softly into each other’s eyes. It's not a staring competition, you're allowed to blink! Again, aim for 3 minutes. This can feel a little exposing, so build up to it if you need to.


  • Find ways to laugh together! Play games, watch a favourite comedy, reconnect over the things that made you laugh together in the beginning. Laughter releases endorphins – feeling good together increases connection.


  • Be curious, ask questions. What are your partner’s ambitions and goals? What gets them excited? What was their first childhood pet called? Get to know them again! There are lots of prompt questions available online and you can even buy card decks to help. Fostering that deep sense of knowing the other is the aim.

 

If you’re asexual than these activities can also help build intimacy in your relationship. If you’re interested in sexual intimacy, then don’t forget that solo sex doesn’t have to be off the table while you’re working on your emotional intimacy, but it can be good to discuss this with your partner too. Of course all of these activities can help build up to sexual intimacy, but they must be done without the expectation of that happening. If you find you’re only engaging in the activities as a means to an end, then it might be time to re-examine what the relationship really means to you.


If this is something you feel you and your partner(s) could use a little extra help with working out, do get in touch and see how therapy might help.


Sam x




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