In relationships, the word ‘intimacy’ is often used as a euphemism for sex, but this is a very narrow and impoverished view. Some people have suggested that the meaning is better encapsulated through its sounds: “in-to-me-see” better captures the idea that intimacy involves the knowledge of the interior life of each other.
In any relationship, especially in marriage, its strength and quality can be measured by the depth and sincerity of the intimacy we share. Sometimes intimacy happens spontaneously and seemingly without any conscious effort on our part – and what a gift it is when that happens!
But it would be a mistake to think that this was the norm. For any couple to have sustained and vibrant intimacy, one that increases in depth and meaning over years and decades, proactive investment is required.
Communication is more than talking and listening
Central to the deepening of our intimacy is communication. Communication in relationships is often misunderstood as merely being about talking and listening.
When we break the word ‘communication’ down to its Latin roots, we get: together (com) – one (uni) – action (cation) – that is, it is the action or process of becoming one.
In other words, the essence of communication is about our union of personhood. It’s really very similar in meaning to the word ‘communion’ which refers to the union of both the material and the inner emotional, spiritual life of the person.
Another way to think about it, is that intimacy requires the involvement of both our body and soul. It’s about being united in all our personhood, not just one or the other aspect.
What are some of the clues as to how we can better accomplish the intimacy to for which married couples long?
One is to remember that communication has two principle modes: Verbal and Physical.
The verbal mode is about the words we say or write.
Physical communication includes our body language and gestures, facial expressions and touch. As married couples, this body language includes a sexual dimension – our love making.
Both verbal and physical communication include the dimensions of body and soul: we engage the body in the basic activity of communication whether it’s talking, writing, various gestures, or love making; but it is only fully personal and intimate when we also engage the soul, the sharing of our internal selves, our inner lives.
The soul dimension is all about emotional connection and is what ultimately deepens the intimacy between us.
However, our communication can be shallow. When there is no soul involved it becomes merely an activity our bodies do. So, we’re talking but there’s no emotional sharing or openness. Or we’re having sex, but we are not really making love. In both cases the emotional connection and vulnerability are absent.
In contrast, whenever we engage both our body and soul in our communication it is deeply personal, emotional and intimate. In fact, we would say, it becomes ‘intimacy’ only when there is emotional vulnerability and a giving and receiving of the internal life of each other.
Sexual preference in communication
As men and women, we make use of both verbal and physical communication. That’s pretty obvious!
What is less well understood is that, as a generalisation, men and women tend to approach communication from different reference points; we each have an underlying preference in how we communicate.
It’s just like being right or left handed: if we are left-handed, we naturally use that hand in many more circumstances than our right. There is nothing wrong with our other hand, in fact, we need it and still use it, but the other is preferred and usually stronger and more skilled.
This is a useful analogy for how men and women often have preferred modes in the way they communicate.
For example, like many women, Francine has a strong preference towards verbal means of communication. She can talk and share her feelings quite readily. She bases her friendships on intimate conversation. When she is excited, anxious or upset, she likes to talk about it.
In fact, like most women, she is equipped with a larger language centre in her brain compared to men, which is richly connected to the emotion centres.
While a woman typically sees verbal communication as a means of connecting, men more typically use verbal language primarily as a way to transfer information. A man’s use of verbal communication is more pragmatic and functional – he’s more likely to use it to articulate order or establish understanding. When he wants to connect intimately with his wife, it’s typically not his primary means.
For example, like many men, Byron is more inclined to express his desire for connection with Francine through physical expression, including lovemaking. When Francine is upset, his instinct is to reach out in physical ways, to hold her, to hug her, or to do something concrete and practical to ‘fix it’.
In contrast to Francine, if he is anxious or stressed about something, the last thing he wants to do is to talk about it. He’s more likely to go out and do some physical work, like cleaning up the yard as a way of processing his stress.
A man will typically approach lovemaking as a means of connecting with his wife, of building intimacy and connection. His wife, however, will more likely see the very same act more as a celebration of unity already accomplished… usually through verbal means!
In other words, she looks to lovemaking when she is feeling close and connected to her husband, while he is more likely to look to lovemaking as a way of becoming close and connected.
Living and loving with our differences
We can’t tell you how helpful and indeed liberating it was to understand and acknowledge these differences. Having grown up in a culture that is constantly trying to pretend there are no differences between the sexes, rather than helping us understand the innate and complementary difference between us, developing this simple understanding was empowering and freeing.
Understanding our naturally preferential communication styles freed us to recognise the good intentions in the other even though their efforts to reach out was often clumsy or poorly understood. Byron could appreciate that when Francine probed him to talk after a difficult day, she wasn’t trying to control, she was seeking to understand him better. Similarly, when Byron reached out to Francine physically, she learnt to recognise the sincere intention of his touch and could avoid misinterpreting it as self-serving.
That most couples, but not all, tend to follow these communication preferences at some level, is both natural and obvious. But whatever your communication preference, it helps to understand this preference, especially when it matters… such as when we are seeking to deepen the intimacy in our marriage.
The important thing to remember is that our many differences, whether they be based in our sex, personality, faith, ethnicity or any number of factors, are opportunities for deeper intimacy.
Our differences, while sometimes challenging, if properly understood are ultimately a gift to our relationship. They highlight ground that offers of rich discovery and issues an invitation for a new adventure; ‘dig here, precious gems below’!
The Mass: A Mystery of two parts
It strikes us that the structure of the Mass is an interesting parallel to this communication theory. It also has two parts: The Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
In the first part, the Liturgy of the Word, God speaks to us through the scriptures and we dialogue with God in prayers of praise and contrition. This is a verbal exchange.
In the second part, the Liturgy of the Eucharist, though it is accompanied by the words of consecration, the most powerful part of the mystery is taking place in actions, that is, physically. Christ gives his body and blood to us in a physical way in the Eucharist.
And we call it ‘communion’, because just like intimate communication, through participation, we become one with Christ.
If you find it difficult to feel connected to what is going on at Mass, remember that like a marriage, our faith is a relationship – a relationship with God. And just as our marriages need our attention in both verbal and physical communication, so also does our faith.