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Intimacy: Cultivating Intimacy

by Gary Oliver, Ph.D. and Carrie Oliver, L.P.C.

What is intimacy?  It seems like everybody wants it, but few know what it looks like, how to define it or how to get it. How do we define intimacy? Simply put, intimacy means into-me-see. What does intimacy require? The first step to cultivating intimacy is to realize that the only way we can truly know another person or to be able to penetrate walls is to see them through the eyes of God. When we experience hopelessness in marriage it is often because we have lost our perspective and we have become unable to see our spouse as God sees them. When our perspective becomes distorted the barriers to intimacy are more likely to grow. Barriers are structures that we build that prevent someone from seeing in.

You don't have to be married very long to experience the ability to build walls that keep others out, especially the one with whom we desire the deepest levels of intimacy. Go figure! Some of us experienced that ability even in the first week of marriage. In our work with couples and from our own marriage experience we've discovered there are things couples can do that build emotional, psychological and spiritual barriers to intimacy we hunger for. One of the main barrier builders is our unwillingness to truly accept and then understand our spouse's differences.

When I (Carrie) married I knew that males and females had a different anatomy. Gary was grateful that I possessed this knowledge. However, I knew little about the extent of differences between these two genders and the impact that differences would have on my marriage. Gender differences are only the beginning. We can be different in our personality type, cultural background, ethnicity, birth order, denomination, etc. How many differences we have may not be as important as to what we "do" with our differences.

The first step to making your differences work for you is to become a student of your partner. Who is this person that at one time you thought you knew so well? Ask yourself, "Do I spend more time studying and trying to understand my partner or more time contemplating how they should be studying and trying to understand and please and agree with me?" Cultivating intimacy through understanding differences requires a concerted effort to first understand how your spouse approaches and lives in their world and then to join them there and finally to embrace who they are.

We have many examples from our marriage. Like most men Gary typically would not seek to engage in long periods of "chat time". He enjoys planning, problem solving, vision casting but just plain chatting is not his thing. Because he watched me and learned that women enjoy this type of behavior he began experimenting with chatting, particularly in the mornings over coffee before work. From this small effort to meet me in my world our intimacy grew. I began to learn that many men enjoy connection while engaged in activity and not necessarily talking while doing the activity. I began to join Gary in his activities. He likes to go to movies. I often thought that movies were designed by men so they would have 2 hours where they would not have to talk to their wives. Gary actually feels connected to me while watching a movie or simply when I sit next to him in the room while he is reading. I tried scuba diving, an activity that he enjoys. This is a stretch for me but something I wanted to do to join him in his world. Joining our spouse in their world speaks love, acceptance and appreciation for who God designed them to be.

From our personal and clinical experience we can tell you that it's easy for couples to get caught up in demanding that their individual needs be met, pouting because they aren't being met or demeaning each other for how different they are. We all know how painful it is when our spouse misses our needs or who we really are. It's even more painful when they don't seem to want to know. Nursing that pain becomes the mortar between the bricks of the wall that will be built if we do not choose to understand and value our differences.

Cultivating intimacy requires that we think through the many dimensions of who our spouse is and then ask God to help us become aware of opportunities to affirm them in who they are and to relate to them in ways that are meaningful to them. The first step is to begin to see them through God's eyes. Intimacy is the process of two people coming together; it is not two people becoming the same. But oh how we push, cajole, connive and argue with our spouse to get them to become like us. Meaningful change begins us choosing to change ourselves since we rarely have control over whether our spouse will change. Sometimes it is a very intimate moment when we can take our eyes off of ourselves and put them on the one that we chose to marry and to love and to meet them in their world.

Questions for you to think about:

(l). What are topics or feelings that you find uncomfortable to talk about with your mate? What are you most likely to do when you feel uncomfortable? What could you do differently to allow your spouse to join you in these things?

(2). What are 3 qualities that you like about your spouse that are different from you? What are 3 things that are not particularly endearing things about your spouse? How could you begin to accept your spouse in these differences, perhaps even affirm your spouse.

Used with permission from the book Mad About Us: Moving from Anger to Intimacy with Your Spouse by Gary J. Oliver and Carrie Oliver.

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