Marital Intimacy Is More Than Sex

Five Ways to Connect with Your Spouse

“We just don’t feel connected.” Both of them felt the same way. Somewhere in the timeline of their relationship they had begun to drift apart, and now they felt as if they were living lives that were running on a parallel track rather than living lives intimately connected. But how do you solve the problem of “connectedness”?

Usually when people begin to feel disconnected from one another, the root issue of the problem is intimacy. There are a number of reasons that intimacy may decline. Some of them are subtle, yet insidious, like the ever-increasing busyness of family life. Other reasons are overt and intentional, like trying to use the lack of intimacy as payback. Whatever the reason, once intimacy begins to wane, it can become hard to get back on track. One of the keys to reconnecting is understanding that intimacy is a multifaceted thing. In fact, there are five different types of intimacy, and only when we keep all five functioning can we have marriages that feel profoundly connected.

1. Spiritual Intimacy

The first — and most foundational — type of intimacy is spiritual intimacy. Spiritual intimacy can be seen as the hub from which all other intimacy types protrude. If spiritual intimacy is high, then the other types of intimacy, though they will have seasons of greater or lesser intensity, will have a certain level of natural resiliency. Spiritual intimacy comes from being in the word together, praying for one another, and worshiping together. The word of God is the nourishment of our souls (Matthew 4:4; Deuteronomy 8:3). When we are on the same spiritual diet, we can expect to grow in similar ways and therefore grow together — not separately.

“If spiritual intimacy is high, then the other types of intimacy will have a natural resiliency.”

The old adage that the family that prays together stays together, while not infallible, is generally true. At the same time, this doesn’t just mean praying in each other’s presence, but actually making each other a central part of your prayers privately (and not just asking God to fix all the things that annoy you about your spouse). Worship is an incredibly intimate act that knits the souls of Jesus’s people closer to each other and himself. There are legitimate reasons that spouses may not be worshiping next to each other (e.g., helping out with nurseries or choir), but if connectedness is an issue, it may be time to put those activities aside for a season while you focus on the spiritual intimacy between you and your spouse.

2. Recreational Intimacy

The second type of intimacy is recreational intimacy. Recreational intimacy is the bond that is created and strengthened by doing activities together. These activities can range vastly, from the mild (e.g., doing a crossword together) to the extreme (e.g., hang gliding), but it is the mutual enjoyment of them that fuels a couple’s connection.

This sort of intimacy tends to be its highest early in the relationship when both partners are willing to do and try things outside of their comfort zone just to have the opportunity to be in each other’s presence. As presence becomes more the norm than the exception, our motivation to engage in uninteresting activities may dwindle. Furthermore, as life gets more complicated with jobs, kids, house, and much more, the opportunities to engage in recreational activity plummet, and the cost can skyrocket. Nonetheless, God has made us to enjoy life’s activities — especially with our spouses (Ecclesiastes 9:9) — and our marriages need the ability to laugh and play together if they are to endure the times of tears and toil.

3. Intellectual Intimacy

The third type of intimacy is intellectual intimacy. Intellectual intimacy is the activity of connecting to one another by discussing certain issues. The topics can be lighthearted (e.g., favorite movie) or serious (e.g., politics), but mental exercise with your spouse reinforces the relationship cord.

“Our marriages need the ability to laugh and play together if they are to endure the times of tears and toil.”

Similar to recreational intimacy, intellectual intimacy tends to be at its highest at the beginning of a relationship. Oftentimes it’s because the couple is still getting to know each other and how they think on various topics. As time passes, couples often assume they know how their spouse thinks on nearly every issue, and they cease exploring each other’s intellectual worlds. While a spouse can often predict what the other will think on a particular issue, details matter. No matter how many times a couple has discussed an issue, there is almost always some piece that is new and can be explored. And the rewards for doing so are well worth it.

4. Physical Intimacy

The fourth type of intimacy is physical intimacy. Physical intimacy is the domain most people think of when they hear the word “intimate.” This includes but is not limited to sexual activity. There is also nonsexual physical intimacy such as holding hands, cuddling on the couch, or a hug. Sometimes nonsexual physical intimacy (e.g., cuddling) can lead to something more amorous (sexual activity), but it doesn’t always have to — and in fact, this is one of the biggest complaints for women.

Men often take any physical intimacy as a sign that women want sexual intimacy, when sometimes the they just need to cuddle. Still, of all the types of intimacy, this one pays the biggest dividends for men. When asked to rank how close they feel to their spouse, men typically feel the most connected when physical intimacy (and especially sexual physical intimacy) is highest. This is no surprise to the Christian, as God instructs man to delight in these activities with his wife (Proverbs 5:18–19).

5. Emotional Intimacy

The fifth type of intimacy is emotional intimacy. Emotional intimacy is the sharing of one’s own experiences with another. Men grapple with this distinction over and above that of intellectual intimacy; however, one (intellectual intimacy) discusses topics and is usually dominated by thoughts, whereas the other (emotional intimacy) discusses experience and is usually dominated by emotion. Men also generally have a much more limited emotional vocabulary and tend to be less comfortable with emotive speech. Therefore, men often misunderstand their spouses when they speak, thinking that what she wants is an exchange of ideas when what she really wants is someone to identify with her feelings.

Regardless of any limitations, men are called to shepherd their wife’s heart just as much as women are called to shepherd their husband’s sexuality. Just as men feel most connected when physical intimacy is highest, women generally feel most connected when emotional intimacy is highest. There is a reason that the first thing Adam does when he sees Eve is not get her into bed, but utters the world’s first love poem (Genesis 2:23).

Cycles of Intimacy vs. Cycles of Isolation

Now, here’s the tricky part: When men feel disconnected, they often try to get physical intimacy via the route of recreational intimacy (let’s do something fun together and maybe we will end up in bed together), whereas women, when they feel disconnected, often try to get emotional intimacy via the route of intellectual intimacy (let’s talk about something and maybe we will end up sharing our feelings). Both spouses feel the disconnection but are trying to solve the problem in opposite ways. Further complicating the matter, men often do not feel like talking or sharing their emotions if they do not feel physically intimate. And women often do not want physical intimacy if they do not feel emotionally intimate.

“Shepherding your spouse in these areas is the key to feeling this sort of genuine, robust connection.”

Here couples can easily find themselves in cycles of isolation, more and more demanding that their own intimacy needs be met before they are willing to meet their spouse’s. This is where the Christian commitment to love one another, even when it hurts (John 13:34–35; Galatians 5:13; 6:2; Ephesians 4:2, 32; 1 Peter 4:8–10), can help the couple move from cycles of isolation to cycles of intimacy as they lovingly put each other’s needs before their own.

Shepherding our spouse in these areas, even when we ourselves feel out of touch, is the key to feeling this sort of genuine, robust connection. This type of connection does more than give us warm and fuzzy feelings for a moment. It helps ground us in the intimate love of the one in whom our connection is eternal and unfailing: God himself.

(@RevJASquires) serves as pastor of counseling and congregational care at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. He and his wife have five children.