Maintaining intimacy in long-term relationships

StaceyNHerrera

**This is a work of nonfiction based on actual events that I have experienced firsthand.**

I was in a sexless marriage for many years. We got along swell. Enjoying each other’s company was never a problem, and there was plenty of love, but we weren’t having sex.

We had solid sexual chemistry for most of the relationship until I had some health issues that required surgery. It took me nearly a year to recover, and my husband was impatient through the process.

I am a communicator, so I was pretty good about sharing what was going on with me. But he had a hard time reconciling the gap between his sexual desire and my sexual ability.

As you can imagine, this took a toll on the relationship.

But it wasn’t the sexlessness that led to the demise of our marriage; it was the lack of intimacy.

For him, every touch was a prelude to sex. And while I requested non-sexual touch regularly, it was challenging for him to deliver. So I became reluctant to initiate contact. And when he touched me, my body tensed.

We could talk about anything but us. Most conversations about our relationship ended in a stalemate.

We stopped flirting with one another. I could still see the desire in my husband's eyes when he looked at me. But I never felt seen as a person. We were in a perpetual tug-of-war. Except we both wanted the same thing —to feel close.

He felt rejected by my body, and I felt emotionally abandoned. And we couldn’t seem to meet in the middle.

There are many reasons why sexual desire wanes.

Some lulls in your sex life may be temporary.

Life gets hectic sometimes, and the unexpected shows up unannounced. Work becomes stressful. You catch the flu, your parents get older, and the kids are always around. So sometimes, sex takes a backseat.

But what happens when sexlessness becomes chronic?

When bouts of low libido last longer than expected, most relationships suffer. One of you wants to have sex, and the other one doesn’t. Sex becomes a special occasion, if it’s an occasion at all. Resentment sets in, and passive-aggressive behavior becomes all too familiar. And before long, the once-thriving emotional connection seems non-existent.

I have had a ton of conversations with people who are in sexless marriages or long-term relationships. Here are a few things I’ve heard:

“I have a wife and two kids and I’m the sole provider in my family. That means if I don’t work we don’t have money. After working all day, there isn’t much time left. By the time we have dinner and get the kids to fall asleep, I’m exhausted. So off to bed I go, mostly without her.” — 35 yr. old, Male

“I have a full-time job and I manage our household. Between work, chores, and kids, sex just feels like one more thing to do. My husband doesn’t get it. Maybe if he helped out more, I would be more interested. — 28 yr. old, Female

“I am mostly in good health, but I take a few medications. For high blood pressure and diabetes. Seems like my sex drive has gotten lower since I started on the meds. And when I do get the urge, my erection doesn’t always last. So I’d rather not.” — 52 yr. old, Male

Now, if I were to have a conversation with their partners, I would likely hear a different story. The partner with the higher sex drive often feels rejected, the way my husband did. And the partner with low libido often feels pressured, the way I did. Both feel disconnected, but the bigger problem is more profound than sex.

What’s missing is intimacy.

Relationships that lack sex can survive. And I’m not talking about staying together for the sake of the kids or being housemates with a marriage certificate and tax breaks.

If intimacy is present, relationships can still thrive, even without sex, with warmth, love, and physical affection.

“Our souls crave intimacy” — Erwin Raphael McManus.

What is intimacy anyway?

Intimacy can often feel elusive, primarily when people use the word intimacy interchangeably to refer to sex. But you can have sex without being intimate. And you can be intimate without having sex.

Intimacy is the feeling of being both open and close. Which seems vague, I know. That’s because intimacy is not a single thing. It’s several things merging to create an ecosystem called intimacy.

“It seemed strange to me that in the enormous lexicon of the English language, the state of being in the kind of relationship we’re all pursuing in this life has no additional adequate descriptors.” — Dr. Habib Sadeghi

I have found that the following four ingredients are often a recipe for intimacy in both romantic and platonic relationships:

Vulnerability

In Daring Greatly, Dr. Brené Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”

Vulnerability is about letting your guard down and sharing, even when there is a potential risk of being ridiculed, abandoned, or rejected.

Empathy

When you brave the choppy waters of vulnerability, you hope that empathy meets you at the shore.

Empathy requires an offer of undivided attention and a sharing of feelings. That means listening to understand, not just to respond, which allows the other person to feel less alone and more connected.

Acceptance

In relationships, acceptance means giving your partner space to be authentic. Loving them as they are, not as you wish them to be.

An authentic person is a free person. Acceptance gives your partner permission to be themself with you. They won’t need to tiptoe or lie for fear of your disappointment. They can disrobe from societal expectations and be who they are.

Gratitude

Expressing gratitude to your partner is vital to intimacy. It’s so easy to give your partner a hard time about the not-so-great stuff. But it should be just as easy to express appreciation.

To know that you are appreciated and valued is priceless.

Intimacy is a biological need.

The need for physical and emotional closeness is innate. Touch is the only sense that we cannot live without, and our emotions color the experiences of our lives.

The desire to be physically held and emotionally naked is innate. But so often, we are either unaware of the desire or are afraid to express it.

“We are most alive when we find it, most devastated when we lose it, most empty when we give up on it, most inhuman when we betray it, and most passionate when we pursue it.” — Erwin Raphael McManus

Sex is not always evidence of love.

Sometimes sex is just sex, so using sex as a substitute for intimacy can be very damaging.

In some cases, sex can be a conduit for intimacy. But if you can’t get close to one another in the absence of sex, the relationship may eventually burn out.

Why is it hard to maintain intimacy in long-term relationships?

Humans are pack animals. We once lived in tribes, complete with a tangle of people to share chores and struggles. We hunted, gathered, cooked, and ate together. We birthed and raised our children as a community, and we lived, loved, and grieved as a unit.

Now we are living a much more individuated experience, particularly here in America. And because technology evolves faster than biology, we are struggling to catch up.

The emotional, physical, and structural fulfillment once offered by an entire community now falls on the shoulders of our partners.

Sure, you can pay a nanny to help with the kids and a housekeeper to do the chores. Postmates can take care of dinner. Your therapist can help you sort through your childhood issues, and a coach can help you organize the chaos called your life. But you cannot outsource intimacy.

This is a new paradigm; it’s never been done before. And there are way too few models of what sustainable intimacy looks like.

That’s why it’s hard. But it’s doable.

Sustainable intimacy is possible.

Even though the odds may seem to be stacked against you, intimacy can be maintained long-term.

Practice

Intimacy is a practice. You will not get it right all the time. Sometimes you won’t meet your partner’s vulnerability with empathy. Your partner will not always say thank you when you stop what you’re doing to hold space for them. You’ll both have unrealistic expectations sometimes, and that’s okay.

Competency is the goal, not perfection.

You’re going to get it wrong. Sometimes you'll be disappointed, and feelings might get hurt. But practice makes better.

If you both resign to the fact that there is no failure when you try, you’ll be good.

Know what you need.

I need people to tell me how they feel about me. Because for me, actions do not speak louder than words, and I know this to be undeniably true. And the people who love me know it too because I’ve told them.

The need is not as critical as having the language to express it. If you know what you need, you can find the words.

Keep an open mind.

Once you know what you need, you can make requests. But that does not guarantee fulfillment.

When making requests, there are three possible outcomes: Yes. No. Negotiation.

  • Yes - your partner is ready, willing, and able to fulfill your desire.
  • No - for whatever reason, your partner cannot fulfill your request.
  • Negotiation - perhaps your partner cannot fulfill your request, but they may be willing to discuss alternative means that may be attainable.

Blame, shame, and manipulation-free accountability.

You need to hold one another accountable for broken agreements without blaming, shaming, or manipulating.

That means no yelling. No chastising. Or guilt-tripping. Your partner is not a child. And aggression has no place in a conversation about accountability.

Be clear when an agreement has been broken so that you can present it in a way that your partner can receive it. The whole point is to make it digestible. Conversations about accountability should inspire change, not resentment.

Be honest about how you’re feeling without blaming your partner for said feelings. Express your unmet need, but don’t shame your partner for not meeting it. Communicate any fears that may have come up for you. But never try to manipulate your partner into making you feel better.

You can be accountable for how you show up. While also holding your partner accountable for the broken agreement.

Forgiveness

Once you have acknowledged and discussed a broken agreement, you have to release it—both of you.

Resentment is a grown-up grudge. So please don’t allow them to rot. If there is anything that needs to be forgiven, forgive it, and let go.

This step alone may improve your relationship.

Centering intimacy in your relationship can make you a better communicator.

Because intimacy has no bottom and no finish line, the level of intimacy will evolve as you do.

The deeper you go, the better you get at expressing yourself and the more intimacy you’ll experience.

And it might improve your sex life.

If intimacy is the center of your relationship, you might have more sex even with time, health, or financial hurdles.

When sex becomes a medium for intimacy rather than the source, everything changes. Maybe the way you do sex might look different over time. Or perhaps you broaden your definition of what qualifies as sex. Either way, building your relationship on a foundation of intimacy could breathe life back into your dead bedroom.

Originally published at https://medium.com

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Intimacy & Relationship coach, writer, and creator of The Sensuality Project. I specialize in Relationship-ing (it's a verb).

Los Angeles County, CA
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