During our sexual desert years, the word “intimacy” would get me all hot and bothered—and not in a good way. My husband would say, “I want to be more intimate with you.” I would hear, “I want more sex.” In my mind, “intimacy” was his code word for “sex.” He would say the word, and I would feel the heat of anger and frustration rise in me. Why does he always want sex? Why can’t he just love me for me? Why am I only a vagina to him? He never talked about his feelings, his desires, his need for connection in relation to anything else—only about sex. Emotion was my native language; the only time I heard this native tongue spoken was when my husband was talking about sex. Why do we have to focus on physical intimacy when I need emotional intimacy?
At some point, my husband began to make an effort to establish emotional intimacy with me in other ways, ways that I’d said I wanted. By then, my perception of certain words and phrases screamed “I’m really talking about sex and am only doing this with an ulterior motive.” He would attempt the things I’d been asking of him—unloading the dishwasher without being asked, carrying the dirty laundry downstairs with me, spending time letting me talk about my feelings without trying to “fix” things for me. Those things all represented my unmet needs—primarily feeling like we were part of a team, with a shared life. That was what I needed in order to feel the intimate connection that made me open to sexual desire. But as soon as he would do those things, instead of letting myself feel filled in any way, I assumed he had a motive—sex.
And round and round we went.
I often thought we should just take a sex break. Give me a period of time—I thought several months would be ideal—when we can work on just emotional intimacy so I can stop feeling so edgy and expecting that every effort he makes is about getting some action. We never tried this, and I know now it never would have worked.
My mistake was in trying to compartmentalize different types of intimacy. I thought there was a huge gap between non-sexual intimacy and sexual intimacy. I thought that you had to work on only one at a time. I thought, Well, if we work on this one area, then we can check that off the list and we can move on the other area.
The popular wisdom is that women are great multitaskers. We understand that we have to work on different tasks or different facets of the same project in an integrated fashion rather than a linear one. Yet I somehow thought intimacy was different, that we could separate types of intimacy. I was wrong.
Intimacy is holistic. Intimacy is the connection between two whole selves—sexual and non-sexual, physical and spiritual, all of it together in one package. Working on one without working on the other isn’t enough. It will never be enough.
I remember a moment several months into making sexual changes. At that point, I had gotten to the point of being fully engaged when we were having sex but hadn’t yet figured out how not to refuse sometimes. Although my husband was still following patterns of response to me that had been built in our climate of constant “no,” I was starting to notice a sense of relaxation between us that I hadn’t experienced in years. He was laughing more. I was no longer feeling a tension between my shoulders every time he looked at me. We were more comfortable with each other.
I remember this moment because I was knitting a blanket. Each row in knitting builds on and intertwines with the previous row while it establishes the foundation for the next row. You’re never just working on one row at a time; everything is connected. It suddenly struck me how intimacy is like that—all intertwined, with the work you’re doing on one thing becoming part of the work you’re doing in every other area. I looked at the two strands of yarn the pattern called for. I looked at the blanket that was beginning to emerge. And suddenly, I got it. Those strands of yarn, the work I was doing, all of it was working together to create this whole new piece that would provide comfort and warmth in years to come.
Intimacy can never be about just sexual or emotional connection. It is about a full knowing, a working together to create a tapestry of bonds that connect, entangle, and comfort as we move forward together in life.