Patient Daily Living

Enhancing Intimacy

By Barry McCarthy PhD

In our excerpt of Dr. Barry McCarthy's landmark book, Rekindling Desire, every couple can find ways to bring sexual and emotional intimacy back into their relationship.

Rekindling Desire

Desire for an intimate, secure relationship is a major force driving the decision to marry. An intimate marriage facilitates sexual desire. Intimacy is broad based; it is not limited to sexual intercourse or even sexuality. Intimacy involves both emotional and sexual dimensions. A prime function of sexuality is to reinforce and deepen intimacy. Intimacy is higher during pleasuring and afterplay, less so during intercourse itself. Traditionally, intimacy has been strongly valued by women and undervalued by men. In reality, intimacy is of as much value for men as for women. The role of emotional intimacy is to nurture your marital bond, while the role of sexual intimacy is to energize your bond.

The essence of intimacy is feeling emotionally open, securely attached, and valued. At its core, marriage is a respectful, trusting commitment. Intimacy enhances these feelings. People have emotionally close relationships with friends, siblings, parents, and mentors. The integration of emotional and sexual intimacy makes the marriage relationship special (Johnson, 2004).

No-sex marriages have a major negative impact on intimacy. Unfortunately, sexual dysfunction and conflicts have stronger negative effects on the marital bond than do the positive dimensions of healthy sexuality. Lack of intimacy drains loving feelings and threatens marital viability. Intimacy and sexuality play a significant, but not dominant, role in a good marriage, contributing 15 percent to 20 percent to marital vitality and satisfaction. Inhibited sexual desire (ISD) and other sexual problems have a major negative role. Sexual problems subvert the relationship, often resulting in separation and divorce, especially in the first 5 years of marriage.

The three most common sexual problems are sexual dysfunction, fertility problems, and an extramarital affair. Of these, an affair has the most impact on intimacy because it is a direct challenge to the trust bond. People do not choose to have a sexual dysfunction or a fertility problem, whereas an affair is at least partly a choice behavior. Affairs are a violation of the trust bond, subverting emotional and sexual intimacy.

Which is more important—emotional or sexual intimacy? This makes a great talk show debate or argument at a bar but is not helpful for the couple. Emotional intimacy and sexual intimacy are different but complementary. In a healthy relationship, both types of intimacy are well integrated.

Traditionally, men and women learn very different lessons about intimacy. Women are socialized to value feelings, emotional attachment, and an intimate relationship but to devalue sexuality, especially eroticism. Males are socialized to identify masculinity with sexuality and to emphasize sexual prowess, especially intercourse frequency. Men are not socialized to value emotional closeness, intimacy, or a committed sexual relationship. It is no wonder that with such different socialization and peer influences, men and women have a difficult time understanding and communicating the meaning of intimacy, touching, and sexuality.

There are more similarities than differences in intimacy needs between women and men, especially for married couples (Gottman & Silver, 1999). The idea of an innate "war between the sexes" or that men and women are from different planets is nonsense. Both women and men are capable of desire, pleasure, eroticism, and satisfaction. Both are capable of empathy, closeness, sadness, and anger. Gender struggles are not primarily based on biological differences, nor are they predestined. Misunderstandings and conflicts are primarily a function of socialization and media hype rather than genetic or hormonal differences.

Our premise, which has strong empirical support, is that an intimate, satisfying marriage recognizes shared feelings, capabilities, and values of both the woman and man (Metz & McCarthy, 2010). This promotes a respectful, trusting friendship, which is the foundation for a satisfying, stable marriage. Emotional and sexual intimacy generates special feelings and energizes the marital bond.

Healthy sexuality plays an integral role in couple satisfaction. The main functions of sexuality are as a shared pleasure, a means to deepen and reinforce intimacy, and a tension reducer to alleviate the stresses inherent in life and marriage. Intimacy and sexuality energize and strengthen your couple bond. When sexuality is problematic or nonexistent, it serves as a major drain, robbing the marriage of intimacy and vitality and threatening the viability of the relationship.

Emotional 'intimacy

Emotional intimacy has a more subtle role in marital satisfaction than sexual intimacy, but it is just as important. Mature intimacy is quite different from the romantic love that initially brought the couple together. Romantic love is an intense emotional experience; your partner has chosen you. Romantic love usually dissipates by the time the couple is married or within the first year. When romantic love is replaced by mature intimacy, the marriage has a solid foundation. It is integral to emotional intimacy to feel cared for and care for your partner, share positive and negative feelings, acknowledge personal strengths and vulnerabilities, experience empathic communication, feel personally validated, enjoy a sense of "we-ness," establish closeness, and value your secure bond.

An emotionally intimate relationship brings out the best in each partner. Emotional intimacy blends autonomy and coupleness. Both emotional caring and a positive influence process are reinforced. There is a beneficial reciprocal relationship between emotional intimacy and sexual satisfaction. However, sexual problems subvert emotional intimacy. Decreased emotional intimacy makes sexual problems worse and sets the stage for a no-sex marriage. Emotional intimacy has value in itself. It is a major factor in both psychological well-being and marital satisfaction. Maintaining emotional intimacy is a positive prognostic sign for resolving sexual desire and dysfunction problems.

Unfortunately, intimacy is an overused term whose definition centers on "feeling good." Intimacy is more than positive feelings. Genuine intimacy includes the entire range of personal and couple feelings and experiences. In addition to positives and strengths, intimacy involves sharing a range of vulnerabilities, fears, and negative experiences— from anger, disappointment, boredom, and numbness to joy, excitement, closeness, and love. The core of marriage is respect, trust, and commitment. Without this, intimacy is vulnerable and unstable.

Throughout this book, we emphasize the necessity for partners to be an intimate sexual team. Intimacy does not mean giving up your personhood. You retain autonomy and individuality. The challenge is to achieve a healthy balance of individuality and coupleness. Either extreme can cause problems. People who are isolated or overly protective of personal boundaries are unable to feel close and share their lives. At the other extreme are enmeshed or fused couples. These couples are so reactive that they cannot make requests, incorporate negative feedback, or express sexual needs. They think of themselves as extremely intimate, but clinicians view this brand of closeness as a self-defeating pseudo-intimacy. Healthy intimacy allows for both individuality and coupleness (Lobitz & Lobitz, 1996).

Emotional intimacy includes freedom to express feelings without needing the approval of your spouse. It helps to have the partner's emotional validation, but the validation has to be genuine, not given to placate or accommodate. Healthy marriages accept differences in feelings, attitudes, and behavior without negating intimacy. Being an intimate couple does not mean being clones of each other. Intimate partners listen to and discuss feelings in a respectful, caring manner. Your partner does not have to agree with you. Each person has a right to his or her feelings and thoughts. A strength of intimate relationships is that your partner knows you psychologically and emotionally. You feel loved and accepted for who you are, for your strengths and vulnerabilities, competencies and idiosyncrasies (Doherty, 2013).

Sexual Intimacy

Ideally, emotional and sexual intimacy are integrated. Some couples have difficulty with emotional intimacy but do well with sexual intimacy. More typical is that couples enjoy emotional intimacy but are inhibited sexually. The most common pattern is that the couple has difficulty with both emotional and sexual intimacy. The traditional marriage therapy maxim was that if the couple resolved emotional and relationship problems, sex would take care of itself. Although this is true for some couples and some sexual problems, it is not the norm. Sexual intimacy, especially sexual desire, is a unique dimension that needs to be specifically addressed to flourish.

Sexuality is more than genitals, intercourse, and orgasm. Sexual intimacy is more than functional sex. The essence of sexual intimacy is openness and comfort, the ability to share your body—especially through sensual, playful, and erotic touch. People can be sexually responsive and functional with no intimacy. Consider the one-night stand or angry sex. Sex is at its most human when the relationship integrates eroticism and intimacy. Sharing yourself, your body, and your feelings is the essence of sexual intimacy. Partners share sexual thoughts and feelings, enjoy sensuality and nondemand pleasuring, give and receive erotic stimulation, come together during intercourse, allow arousal to flow to orgasm, and enjoy afterplay as a bonding experience.

The main functions of couple sexuality are sharing pleasure, deepening and strengthening intimacy, and reducing tension to deal with life and relationship stresses. Marital sex can mix and match these functions, depending on the couple's feelings, needs, situation, and time constraints. Sometimes sex is very intimate—tender, warm, extended, and loving. At other times, sex is short, intense, and lustful. Intimate sex can be loving, erotic, or both. Intimate sexuality involves awareness of feelings and needs in the moment. Intimacy includes freedom to take sexual risks and communicate desires. The prescription for vital sexual desire and satisfying couple sexuality is to integrate emotional intimacy, nondemand pleasuring, and erotic scenarios.

Nondemand pleasuring is key. Affectionate experiences (holding hands, kissing, hugging) and sensual (massaging each other, cuddling on the couch semiclothed, snuggling at night or in the morning) have value in themselves. Couples enjoy touching both inside and outside the bedroom. Touching can serve as a bridge to sexual desire, but not all touching can or should lead to intercourse. Touching also is a way to demonstrate attachment. Sometimes you want an orgasm; sometimes you want a hug. Men have a hard time asking for a hug, so they initiate sex. Women have a hard time saying they feel lustful, so they initiate a hug. Optimally, the woman and man are comfortable initiating nondemand pleasuring, erotic play, and intercourse.

Touching is a request, not a demand. Intimate coercion has no place in marriage or any relationship. Coercion poisons sexual desire. Intimate coercion includes the threat of an affair, withholding love or money, being angry or belittling, or using sex as a bribe. Genuine intimacy respects the autonomy and personal boundaries of each partner. Requests do not carry the implicit threat of a negative consequence if there is no sex. The partner has the right to accept, say no, or offer an alternative way to emotionally and physically connect. A demand says, "Do this my way now or there will be negative consequences." A request says, "This is how I feel and what I want; I am open to your feelings and needs. I want this to be enjoyable, or at least acceptable, for both of us." With demands, you win the sexual battle but lose the intimacy bond. With requests, both partners and couple intimacy are winners.

Exercise: Emotional Intimacy

In discussions of intimacy, the traditional focus is on the spontaneous expression of feelings. We are in favor of spontaneity and naturalness, but it is naive and self-defeating to believe that this alone will sustain a marriage, especially a marriage plagued by sexual issues. This exercise asks you to have a planned, intentional "intimacy date."

Traditionally, males have undervalued intimacy, so let the man be the initiator. Be sure you are both alert and awake, have time (at least a half an hour, although an hour is preferred), and will not be interrupted (the children are asleep or out of the house, the answering machine is on, and you do not answer the door). The man can enhance the milieu by pouring two glasses of wine and playing music in the background as you sit on the porch or in the family room. Initiation is personal and inviting, not "We have to do this exercise."

Discuss an experience when you felt especially emotionally intimate. Examples include walking on the beach and sharing affectionate touch, disclosing hopes and dreams, recalling your most intimate lovemaking, showing your spouse the neighborhood in which you grew up, discussing your best and worst childhood experiences, deciding you want to start a family, going on a picnic or hike and talking about your life plans, feeling romantic and loving after attending a friend's wedding, reacting to a loss and crying together, sharing excitement after a promotion, staying up all night to wallpaper your first apartment, walking in the rain, realizing after your first child was born that you are a family. Focus on feelings, not on the event. How open were you? How close did you feel? How trusting were you?

What is the current state of emotional intimacy in your marriage? Be honest and specific. What do you say or do that facilitates intimacy? How frequently does it occur? How genuine are your feelings? How do you feel after an intimate time together?

The next topic is sensitive and difficult. What attitudes, behaviors, and feelings inhibit intimacy? Focus on your personal feelings and behavior, not on what your partner does or does not do. It is a cop-out to blame your spouse. Take responsibility for your behavior. Specifically, what do you do or not do that blocks emotional intimacy? Is it intentional or unintentional? What are the advantages of maintaining barriers to intimacy? Are you willing to give up these barriers?

Make three specific requests of your partner that will enhance feelings of intimacy. Remember, these are requests, not demands. What do you want your partner to say or do that would increase your feelings of intimacy? Examples include talking by phone during the day (at least every other day); nondemand touching before going to sleep or on waking; taking a walk and talking about feelings at least once a week; disclosing a painful experience or feeling as your partner empathically listens; saying "I love you" in a genuine manner; going out for dinner or coffee once a week and discussing couple plans; putting on music and dancing after the children are asleep; making birthdays and your anniversary special celebrations; making a romantic gesture like bringing flowers or a personal gift; desisting name calling and not engaging in dirty fighting in the midst of a conflict; greeting your partner with a hug. Each spouse makes three specific, personal requests.

Intimacy does not mean you get everything you ask for or want. Each partner is his or her own person with separate feelings, perceptions, and needs. Your partner does not have to give you everything the way you want it. Losing personal autonomy or giving up a sense of self to please your spouse does not promote genuine intimacy. In fact, it subverts intimacy. Both partners commit to listening in a respectful, caring manner. Both are committed to increasing intimacy, expressing feelings, and being a respectful, trusting couple.

The Interplay Between Emotional and Sexual Intimacy

Emotional and sexual intimacy are different but complementary. Emotional intimacy usually involves affectionate touch, sometimes sensual touch, but usually not erotic touch. Sexual intimacy focuses on erotic touch and usually, but not necessarily, includes intercourse. Women often say they need to feel emotionally connected before having sex. Men often say that sex facilitates emotional connection. Ideally, the woman and man value both emotional and sexual intimacy. These are not dichotomous dimensions; nor are they gender specific. Emotional intimacy can be as valuable for the man as for the woman. He has a right to emotional closeness, a hug, a supportive partner, just as she does. She has as much right to eroticism and orgasm as he does. Desire, pleasure, and orgasm promote her well-being as well as couple satisfaction.

Intimacy dates can be primarily touching or a blend of talking and touching. Although intimacy dates can evolve into intercourse, that is not their purpose. The primary function of intimacy dates is to enhance feelings of openness and attachment. Touching—whether affectionate, sensual, or playful—facilitates intimacy. Think of your spouse as an intimate friend who allows you to express a range of feelings and with whom you share good and bad times. Intimacy dates keep couples connected and set the stage for sexual desire.

Exercise: Sexual Intimacy

This exercise focuses on enhancing sexual communication and pleasure. Because the man traditionally initiates sexual activity, let the woman take the lead. Ideally, both the woman and man are comfortable initiating. Both feel free to say no to a sexual request and suggest an alternative means to physically connect. To establish a comfortable milieu, begin by taking a shower or bath together. Cleanliness (especially washing genitals) facilitates sexuality. Show - ering or bathing can be a sensual experience. If showering, experiment with types of spray or temperatures; if bathing, try a new bath oil or soap to increase awareness of sensual stimuli.

Start by soaping your partner's back. Trace muscles and con - tours; rub and gently massage, then ask him to face you. Soap his chest, stomach, genitals, hips, and legs. Let him soap and wash you. Many couples find sexual play in the shower particularly inviting. As you rinse off, play with his body, including his genitals.

Proceed to the bedroom, feeling natural being nude. Pleasuring and erotic scenarios are best done in the nude. Begin touching, using the giver?receiver format. Midway through, switch to mutual stimulation. Most couples enjoy both partner interaction arousal and self-entrancement arousal; be aware of your feelings and preferences. Explore and see what feels good.

What is the best way to transition from pleasuring to eroticism? The traditional sexual script was to move from "foreplay" to intercourse, with the man directing foreplay to get the woman ready for intercourse. Be intimate partners; engage in nondemand pleasuring; evolve into erotic stimulation, which can include intercourse but is not limited to intercourse.

In pleasuring, the woman enjoys touching for herself, with out second-guessing his desires. The man is passive, with his eyes closed as he takes in pleasurable sensations. She mixes genital with nongenital pleasuring. Couples are used to short, intense male arousal. Experiment with moderate and fluctuating levels of pleasure for both of you. Be aware that subjective arousal waxes and wanes, as does his erection. This is a new experience for couples who always go to intercourse on the first erection.

Then switch roles. He can enjoy being the giver in a pleasureoriented manner rather than regarding it as goal-oriented foreplay. Enjoy exploratory touching rather than focusing on "turning her on." Experiment with playful, teasing pleasuring, mixing nongenital and genital touching. Let her decide when to transition to mutual give-and-take erotic touching.

Experiment with multiple stimulation in the context of erotic, nonintercourse sexuality. Later you can experiment with multiple stimulation during intercourse. Examples include kneeling while facing your partner, who is also kneeling, and kissing while giving mutual manual stimulation, with the man doing oral breast stimulation; the woman standing, the man kneeling and giving manual vulva stimulation, combined with oral breast stimulation; engaging in mutual manual stimulation while the woman verbalizes a fantasy of him being her sexual slave; the woman lying on her side, the man kneeling, rubbing his penis against her breast as he manually stimulates her vulva; the woman lying on her back, the man between her legs, giving oral stimulation and simultaneously manual anal stimulation, while she caresses her breasts and verbalizes erotic feelings. If she desires, continue erotic stimulation to orgasm.

Let the woman initiate the transition from pleasuring to intercourse and guide intromission. Integrate multiple stimulation during intercourse. Traditionally, men focus solely on thrusting. Most women (and men) find that multiple stimulation during intercourse increases involvement and erotic flow. Here are some examples: From the man-on-top position, the woman caresses his testicles as he stretches and licks her breast; from the rearentry position, the man caresses her vulva as she verbalizes erotic feelings and he fantasizes; in the woman-on-top position, he watches her arousal as he plays with her breasts and she uses circular thrusting; from the side-by-side position, she strokes his chest as he rubs her buttocks and they kiss each other's bodies.

Afterplay is an integral part of sexuality. Many couples feel emotionally closer after being sexual than at any other time. Strengthening intimacy is a prime function of sexuality. You feel emotionally bonded after a sexual experience. Afterplay is the most ignored element in sex. Do you like to lie and hold each other, sleep in your partner's arms, engage in playful tickling or share a warm kiss, take a walk, read poetry, nap and start again, or talk and come down together? Find one or two afterplay scenarios that are comfortable, satisfying, and bonding.

Maintaining Intimacy During Hard Times

Intimacy nurtures the marital bond. Yet it does more than that. Intimacy is easy when things are going well. A measure of marital viability is the ability to retain intimacy and stay emotionally connected during times of stress or conflict. Maintaining a view of your spouse as your intimate sexual friend even when there are disappointments or frustrations is a sign of mature intimacy and a healthy relationship. Conflict does not have to negate emotional intimacy. Anger need not be a reason to stop being sexual. Learn to deal with hurt and angry feelings—outside the bedroom. Sexually intimate couples who have confidence in their ability to resolve conflicts have an invaluable marital resource. Couples who do not sacrifice intimacy while dealing with conflicts and negative feelings are especially healthy.

What happens when anger and conflict center on sexual issues, especially an extramarital affair or a sexual secret such as compulsive use of porn? It is doubtful that what we say in this book will successfully address these problems. This type of issue usually requires professional therapy. Rather than letting the problem fester and destroy intimacy, it is a sign of good judgment to seek couple or sex therapy. (Appendix A offers suggestions and guidelines for choosing a therapist.)

Enhancing emotional and sexual intimacy is a powerful means to build and reinforce sexual desire. Partners who reestablish intimacy are in a better position to challenge their no-sex marriage. Intimacy is a couple process; being an intimate couple makes it easier to deal with sexual problems. This does not take away personal responsibility. However, it does change the guilt?blame trap that paralyzes the couple.

Intimacy has the positive function of enhancing the marital bond and building feelings of caring and closeness. Just as important, the couple becomes aware of how draining the sexual problem is and is motivated to confront it. Both partners value an emotionally and sexually intimate relationship.

Key Points

  • Emotional and sexual intimacy are different but complementary. Emotional intimacy nurtures the bond, while sexual intimacy energizes the bond.
  • Intimacy is much more than a "feel good" concept. Acceptance of individual strengths and vulnerabilities promotes genuine couple intimacy.
  • Intimacy provides a crucial relational resource in confronting and changing ISD.

- Written By

Barry McCarthy PhD

Barry McCarthy, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, professor of psychology at American University in Washington, DC and certified sex and marital therapist. He has published extensively on couples and sexuality and is the author of 14 books.