Marital intimacy is about much more than sex. I have already written about five ways we connect with our spouse, each requiring consistent attention and intentionality.
The kind of intimacy that typically helps women feel most connected to their husband is emotional intimacy. When you combine the words “emotional” and “intimacy,” men typically have ideas about what each word means separately, but have a harder time putting them together.
Emotional intimacy is about sharing ourselves. It’s the feeling of being known. The idea of being known is one of the most common euphemisms for physical intimacy in Scripture (e.g. Genesis 4:1), in part, because the concepts are so interconnected. And yet to “know” someone is not simply a euphemism, for God says to his people through his prophet, “you only have I known of all the families of the earth” (Amos 3:2). Obviously, this cannot mean physical intimacy. Instead, it means experiential knowledge of a whole person — heart, head and soul.
“Being a good listener means listening with someone else’s interests in mind, not our own.”
Sometimes knowing someone at this level means simply being there with them in an important moment. It means laughing together at life’s oddities, and crying together at life’s cruelties, and being anxious together in life’s mysteries. This kind of intimacy happens freely and easily when a relationship first starts. But as time goes on, and familiarity sets in, the desire that once nearly consumed us begins to wane. It no longer just happens anymore. Being truly and deeply known takes hard work.
Emotional intimacy goes through a transition from those intense and consistent experiences of finding out all kinds of new things about your spouse to the more subtle ebbs and flows of normal day-to-day life. How is emotional intimacy sustained and kindled? Good communication. More importantly, good listening. Quality listening leads to quality knowing. Intimacy in marriage lies on the other side of familiar verses like James 1:19 and Proverbs 18:13.
What Does It Mean to Listen?
So, what does “quality listening” even mean? First, it means undistracted listening. We often “listen” with our phones in our hands, or with the television on, or while trying to knock out another task on our to-do list. We may be the world’s best multitasker, but to the speaker we are communicating, “These other activities are more important than you.” Put it down, turn it off, set it aside for a minute. And if you can’t because something requires your attention immediately, ask your spouse if it is okay to talk later, when you can be more attentive.
Second, good listening means listening for the sake of understanding, and not fixing. Men, in particular, stumble at this point. The primary task of listening is to understand someone else, to know what it is like to be them, and to experience what they have experienced. Often, when we hear someone speak, we are simply waiting to reply. Sometimes, we are just trying to be helpful. Other times, we are looking for a quick fix-it so that they will move on. Often, we are just trying to defend ourselves. Whatever the case, we are less concerned in understanding our spouses than we are in trying to find some resolution.
Being a good listener means listening with someone else’s interests in mind, not our own.
Two Opportunities to Listen Well
“Does your spouse feel received, understood, and valued?”
While good listening isn’t always required (sometimes simple answers or courtesies are all that love requires), there are two specific contexts in which it is especially valuable. The first one comes when your spouse wants to tell you about something that interests them. Every conversation like this is a bid for connection. They want to be known! That is emotional intimacy.
Your spouse could be talking about an annoyance at work, or a difficulty with a friend, or any number of things that are important to them. Listening well to them about these issues, whether positive or negative, builds trust into your relationship. Your spouse walks away from the interaction knowing you genuinely care about what is important to them. That trust cultivates connectivity and intimacy.
The second major opportunity for good listening comes in some sort of personal conflict. Good listening in this setting is doubly difficult because not only do you have to resist the temptation to fix the issue, you also have to resist the temptation to defend yourself. You are not a doormat. Truth must be had. If there is an accusation that needs to be defended against, there will be time for that. But first there must be active, quality listening. Good listening in the midst of conflict decreases the amount of distrust in the relationship.
Most people believe that trust and mistrust are the opposite poles of the same spectrum, but actually they are two completely separate spectrums. Both trust and mistrust can each be high (typical of a new relationship), or low (typical of an acquaintance), or somewhere in the middle. We want high trust with low mistrust; this is the best setting for intense emotional intimacy.
One Test for Good Listening
How do you know when you’ve been a good listener? When your spouse can say yes to the following question: Do you feel received, understood, and valued?
“Good listening in the midst of conflict decreases the amount of distrust in the relationship.”
Received means that we weren’t distracted or defending, but that we genuinely engage in the process of listening. Understood means that we weren’t adding to or overly interpreting, but that we genuinely understand the core of what they are trying to tell us. Valued means that we weren’t dismissive or demeaning, but that we genuinely care about whatever their particular concern may be.
Sharing experiences together and being a quality listener takes time and devotion. The dividends it pays in our relationships, however, make it one of the most rewarding investments one can make in a marriage, leading to a greater sense of joy, contentment, and security for both spouses. More importantly though, it’s something God calls us to as a witness to his listening love for us.