The Most Important Tool For Restoring Emotional Intimacy to Your Marriage
Peggy Ferguson, Ph.D.: Thu, Nov 4th 2010
The first thing you must do to restore intimacy to your most important relationship is to increase the amount of time that you spend together. It is not only the first thing that you must do, it is the most important thing you must do if you want to recover that sense of “us-ness”.
Partners often come into counseling complaining that they have grown apart, that they are not feeling loved, or that they do not feel important to the other partner. What most of these couples have in common is that they do not spend much time together. They usually believe that they do not spend any less time together than their friends spend with their spouses. They may be correct. However, when couples are missing the closeness that they once had and not feeling loved, a lack of time together is a major part of the problem.
Of course, many couples are in chronic conflict with each other. Chronic conflict makes it difficult to enjoy the moment with your partner when you are primed and ready to see everything they say or do as negative and motivated by a desire to hurt you in some way. Ongoing conflict and negative feelings about the partner and the relationship play a role in avoiding spending time with each other. Who wants to expose himself or herself to a person or situation that is just going to hurt their feelings? Athough this couple has to work through the conflict to restore a desire to spend time together, they have to spend time together to work through the conflict.
There are just as many other couples who are not in chronic conflict that feel disconnected and emotionally abandoned by each other. The most common excuse I hear is that “we are so busy” with work/school/kids/aging parents/etc., that we don’t have the time or energy to carve out any time for ourselves as a couple. Most people live very busy lifestyles these days.
Parents of school aged kids often find that their evenings and weekends of taken up by soccer/football/baseball/karate/dance/etc., and protest that they just don’t have the time to set aside for “dates” or “couple time”. Parents who are so over-engaged with kid activities are often actually doing a disservice to the kids, who are also over-engaged. Tired, stressed out kids will often try to tell parents that they want to quit some of the activities, but parents, fearful that the kids will develop a pattern of not following through, keep the child engaged past their interest and tolerance. These kids could benefit from a little unstructured time and may actually benefit more from a set of parents that are more tuned in to each other, more loving and accepting toward each other, and happier in their marriage than parents sacrificing their marriage for extracurricular activities. Parents are a child's most important role models for how to be in relationships. Parents that are spending an inadequate amount of time and attention on their marriage are modeling this to the kids. Marital problems that are associated with not spending enough time together, are also serving as a model for the children's adult relationships.
Not only is spending time together essential for restoring intimacy and marital happiness, the way you spend time together is also important. For one partner, spending time in the same room watching the same television program may count as quality time together. For the other spouse, this activity does not count at all, and may serve as a source of hurt and anger. You do not have to be doing anything “special” like taking a vacation or going on a “date night” to be engaged in establishing closeness in your relationship. Many people still harbor the notion that they can spend next to no time together, carve out a tiny slice (one hour a week as date night), then will count as “quality” vs. “quantity” time together. "Quality” time may spent in a dark movie theater does not allow for meaningful conversation. If you are setting aside small blocks of time for your marriage, examine it for the actual amount of “quality time” you are getting from it. Quality time equals time engaged meaningfully with each other. Do you have to be talking to spend quality time? No. If you are both together, connected in some meaningful way, where you both believe it to be meaningful, you have quality time. Couples share meaningful exchanges throughout the day, that may not add up to very little actual time together, but that account for feeling close and connected.
However, couples need more than “quality time” together. They need a quantity of time together. Couples who are experiencing a lack of closeness usually need to spend more time together to have that sense of connection. While just being together and being engaged meaningfully, whether or not you are talking, it usually takes spending quite a bit of time together to establish that shared sense of being meaningfully engaged.
Partners also enter relationships with their own emotional baggage, which may include insecurities and a higher need for closeness than the other partner. Conversely, one partner may have a much lower need for closeness than the other partner, based on his/her own emotional baggage. A couple will rarely have the same level of need for closeness vs. distance at the same time. In the beginning couples share that same desire for closeness as they are establishing the relationship. It is often described as the process of “falling in love”, when each is excited about seeing the other, pays a lot of attention to what the other is thinking/feeling, and is very conscious of relationship dynamics. At this point, both partner are flooded with neurochemicals that make this a very exciting time. When couples come into counseling, one will often say that s/he just wants to feel like s/he did when they first got together. S/he wants to re-experience that sense of falling in love or being in love. Couples can regain a sense of falling in love or being in love, but desire to have that experience does not magically make it happen. It takes much time and effort.
Couples that desire a return of closeness or emotional intimacy, can make that happen by slowing down and dedicating the time and energy that it will take to accomplish it. If you don’t have anything to talk about, or are having awkward silence in your time together, try some couple communication exercises, a couple’s retreat, or a joint activity. You can take a dance class or learn a foreign language. Break out of the rut and do something different. By restoring the emotional closeness and intimacy, many couples will notice an improvement in their sex life. Emotional intimacy and sexual intimacy are usually interwoven.