Mental Health Matters: Learning to be Intimate

When I first met my husband, I didn’t want to hug or kiss in public, or private either…not really. Touching outside of sex was uncomfortable. I didn’t even want to hold hands. I remember when Dwight shared this detail with my aunt and uncle; they both replied with raised eyebrows and strange looks.

“I like to hold hands…in bed,” I clarified.

“In bed?” they both questioned in unison.

Their responses cued me that my behavior was out of the ordinary. I’ve since learned it wasn’t strange. It was just an intimacy issue.

At the root of intimacy is an idea of creating closeness. And according to every psychologist ever, how human beings create closeness is directly related to how they bond with their mother in infancy. Later, intimacy is reinforced by what is learned in the family: either too little or too much bonding can lead to intimacy problems in adulthood. Intimacy problems in adulthood can lead to unhealthy ways of creating intimacy, or in other words, codependency.

Whew.

Poor boundaries, people pleasing, and swooping in to help folks, even though they’d never asked each represented my desire for connection. If I let everyone in, did what others wanted, and superwomaned my way into others’ lives, then we’d be close, right?

Wrong.

I had to learn how to be intimate in appropriate ways.

My level of intimacy increased as I began to re-learn who I was and re-shape my identity according to my own likes and desires. Once I was less shameful about my background and proclivities and learned to love my whole self, I became comfortable with being me. These behaviors led to being intimate with myself, which helped me to naturally develop closeness with others. Hugging, kissing, and cuddling, which are a part of physical intimacy, were easier to offer and receive. However, other types of intimacy had to be strengthened.


Emotional Intimacy: After years of learned suppression, I had to figure out how to feel my way through experiences instead of ignoring them. First, I expressed different emotions with my husband. I stopped covering specific feelings, and instead moved through sadness or anger, by actually saying, “I’m sad because…” and then not remaining stuck in sorrow. Next, I practiced honoring my children’s feelings. For example, when one of my daughters didn’t do well on an exam, I asked her how she felt? I prompted her to attach words to her feelings to provide a safe space for being an emotional being.


Spiritual Intimacy: I’ve written about my non-Christian status on this blog once. It took a lot for me to share this belief. Living in the South (or America, in general) hasn’t made professing a non-Christian identity easy. But once I did, I was able to accept a part of me that I’d kept hidden for so long for fear of judgment. (For me, all roads lead back to identity work, apparently). Expressing my frustration with how the majority marginalizes non-Christians (in a safe space) served as a way for me to honor my own beliefs, which I’d hoped would lead to more relaxed conversations with friends and family. This is what spiritual intimacy is, and it’s an important part of every relationship. How can I connect with someone if we can’t discuss our beliefs in an open, respectful, and non-judgmental way?


Mental Intimacy: Because I like to engage in conversation, mental intimacy is something with which I thrive. Before Dwight and I married, we knew pretty much everything about one another. Questions like what is your deepest fear were commonplace during our first year of dating. Mental intimacy isn’t limited to a romantic relationship, though. In an effort to know others deeply, I ask my friends and family real questions. If they shirk answers or keep me at sarcasm-level responses, then I know our relationship isn’t going far. There is no judgment in this because we can’t always be as close as we want to be with others, plus boundaries are a thing. I’m simply saying that a non-authentic answer to an authentic question blocks connection and can stunt this type of intimacy.


Sooo, where are you in terms of creating close connections? Are you only intimate in romantic relationships? Only with friends and not family? Better at one of these than another? Let me know in the comments.

There are 4 Types of Intimacy does a great job of categorizing intimacy.

The Dance of Intimacy is good for a general understanding of intimacy.


Sofia from The Unhappy Wife book

unhappy-wifeSofia was the first wife that I’d interviewed. Her story is interesting for two reasons. The first is because I wanted ethnic diversity. She identifies as Latina and her ex-husband is part African. It was great to be able to show that marital challenges are cross-cultural. This story was also interesting because there are not many women who are willing to share details about intimacy with the world.

Concept: At the crux of this narrative is a sexless marriage. Sofia and Leo didn’t have sex for years. What caused the lack of sex was Leo’s infertility. This was the one story where I was able to show the husband’s innermost feelings. Leo’s reaction to his inability to produce sperm affected how he interacted for the remainder of their marriage. He once told Sofia, “If I would’ve found out it was you who was infertile, I would’ve left.” This is a direct quote. Whether it was because of gender or ethnicity, not being able to have sex and procreate was a big deal to Leo. It seemed to be what being a man and marriage was about for him.

But Leo wasn’t the only one who had a view of how marriage was supposed to go. Sofia did too. Another central part of the story was how much she enjoyed taking care of Leo’s needs. Because he was career military, he was always coming and going. Sofia enjoyed this. She helped him pack out to leave, and she helped him unpack when he returned. She cooked and assumed other duties that some of us might deem “old-fashioned.”

Commentary: I wanted to show how both Sofia and Leo had developed a societal stereotype about wives, husbands and marriage, and then lived out those ideas. Leo believed a husband was someone who could give his wife a baby, and if he couldn’t do that, then what was the point of being married, much less having sex? Is this the truth? I’m not a man and I’ve never been infertile, but I suppose if my gender identity was inextricably linked to my fertility, then where would that leave me? What would that make me?

The fact that Sofia stayed with Leo for years, even after his insensitive comment also struck me as odd. She explained that she was fine because she continued to do the part of marriage she liked: taking care of Leo. That was her focus. I suppose that can be marriage, but I’m not sure it’s a relationship. I’m not sure that a husband and wife can sleep separately, have no sex and be 100% happy. This is also why I categorized her experience as part of the “Detached Wife” section. It seemed that she was separated from the reality of her relationship.

unhappy-wifeWhat do you think?

What else stood out for you in this story? Do you think she should’ve been in another category? Is sex important for a marriage and/or relationship? Or am I trippin?

It’s not too late to order The Unhappy Wife here, so you can catch up. Next month, we have to skip Rhadiya, because she also signed a waiver that doesn’t allow me to discuss her story in public. And if you read the book, then you probably understand why! So we’ll move on to everyone’s second favorite wife, Miss Sharlene 😉