In Genesis we are told that God created man and woman to be in relationship with Him and with each other. Some people are amazed when they come to the part that says they were “naked and unashamed”. Why the amazement? In today’s world is amazing that two people can be so completely comfortable with each other that they are vulnerable, not just sexually, but with their entire self. We are amazed when just verses later we read after both have eaten of the forbidden fruit that man and woman covered themselves to hide from each other and from God.
Hiding is what most of us know how to do. The naked and unashamed part is what causes us to dawn our masks that help us hide, fake it, deny, conceal and protect. These are all ways of hiding from ourselves, each other and God. Brennan Manning in his book “Abba’s Child,” calls this type of behavior putting on the imposter self. This imposter prevents us from communicating to another person who we really are and has little invested in seeing inside of someone else. Intimacy. An illusive concept to many of us and yet many of us are missing exactly what God designed us for ï¿½intimacy with him first and then with each other. To know and be known.
God created us in His image. This means that, like Him, we can experience intimacy. On the human level that means the ability to be naked and unashamed with our mind, our will and our emotions. A marriage has little chance of surviving if a couple does not grasp the importance of cultivating and growing intimacy. One of the most important tasks in the first few years of marriage is to understand what intimacy is and some of the practical things we can do to help intimacy thrive.
Cultivate Intimacy By Embracing Your God-given Differences
What is intimacy? It seems like everybody talks about it, everybody wants it, but few know what it looks like, how to define it or how to get it. How do we define intimacy? Simply put, intimacy means into-me-see. What does intimacy require? The first step to cultivating intimacy is to realize that the only way we can truly know another person or to be able to penetrate walls is to see them through the eyes of God. Okay, that is easier said then done. But with God’s help it can be done.
When we experience hopelessness in marriage it is often because we have lost our perspective and we have become unable to see our spouse as God sees them. When our perspective becomes distorted the barriers to intimacy are more likely to grow. We know that when sin entered into the world the one of the first things that Man and Woman did was to construct barriers. Barriers are structures that we build that prevent someone from seeing in.
You don’t have to be married very long to experience the ability to build walls that keep others out, especially the one with whom we desire the deepest levels of intimacy. Go figure! Some of us experienced that ability even in the first week of marriage. In our work with couples and from our own marriage experience we’ve discovered there are things couples can do that build emotional, psychological and spiritual barriers to intimacy we hunger for. One of the main barrier builders is our unwillingness to truly accept and then understand our spouse’s differences.
When I (Carrie) married I knew that males and females had a different anatomy. Gary was grateful that I possessed this knowledge. However, I knew little about the extent of differences between these two genders and the impact that differences would have on my marriage. Gender differences are only the beginning. We can be different in our personality type, cultural background, ethnicity, birth order, denomination, etc. How many differences we have may not be as important as to what we “do” with our differences.
The first step to making your differences work for you is to become a student of your partner. Who is this person that at one time you thought you knew so well? Ask yourself, “Do I spend more time studying and trying to understand my partner or more time contemplating how they should be studying and trying to understand and please and agree with me?” Cultivating intimacy through understanding differences requires a concerted effort to first understand how your spouse approaches and lives in their world and then to join them there and finally to embrace who they are.
We have many examples from our marriage. Like most men Gary typically would not seek to engage in long periods of “chat time”. He enjoys planning, problem solving, vision casting but just plain chatting is not his thing. Because he watched me and learned that women enjoy this type of behavior he began experimenting with chatting, particularly in the mornings over coffee before work. From this small effort to meet me in my world our intimacy grew. I began to learn that many men enjoy connection while engaged in activity and not necessarily talking while doing the activity. I began to join Gary in his activities. He likes to go to movies. I often thought that movies were designed by men so they would have 2 hours where they would not have to talk to their wives. Gary actually feels connected to me while watching a movie or simply when I sit next to him in the room while he is reading. I tried scuba diving, an activity that he enjoys. This is a stretch for me but something I wanted to do to join him in his world. Joining our spouse in their world speaks love, acceptance and appreciation for who God designed them to be.
From our personal and clinical experience we can tell you that it’s easy for couples to get caught up in demanding that their individual needs be met, pouting because they aren’t being met or demeaning each other for how different they are. We all know how painful it when our spouse misses our needs or who we really are. It’s even more painful when they don’t seem to want to know. Nursing that pain becomes the mortar between the bricks of the wall that will be built if we do not choose to understand and value our differences.
Cultivating intimacy requires that we think through the many dimensions of who our spouse is and then ask God to help us become aware of opportunities to affirm them in who they are and to relate to them in ways that are meaningful to them. The first step is to begin to see them through God’s eyes. Intimacy is the process of two people coming together, it is not two people becoming the same. But oh how we push, cajole, connive and argue with our spouse to get them to become like us. Meaningful change begins us choosing to change ourselves since we rarely have control over whether our spouse will change. Sometimes it is a very intimate moment when we can take our eyes off of ourselves and put them on the one that we chose to marry and to love and to meet them in their world.
Cultivate Intimacy by Practicing Passionate Love
What do you think of when you hear the word intimacy? Perhaps you might think of the word passion. Passion is a word we associate with the word intimacy. Talking about passionate love may include sexual intimacy but does not necessarily begin or end there. Passion is a powerful emotion that includes love, joy, enthusiasm, dedication, intensity and devotion. What are you passionate about? Are you passionate about your relationship with your spouse? Almost every marriage that ended in divorce had some level of passion in the beginning. Marriages that last have learned to cultivate a passionate love throughout the lifetime of the marriage.
In Desiring God John Piper talks about passionate love. He says that “passionate love is the overflow of joy in God that spills over onto others in our life. Once again we must begin with God. If our joy in the Lord is passionless then chances are we will not experience the level of passionate love that God desires us to develop with our spouse. Passionate love is unconditional love. This love loves when our spouse is cranky, sad, angry, anxious, depressed, sick, and even when they hurt us. I (Carrie) began to notice as I had children that I could love them when they were doing all of these things why did I have such trouble when it came to Gary? I was not really loving unconditionally. I kept score, I had high expectations of him, but didn’t want him to have expectations of me, basically I was quite selfish! We tend to love passionately when we are dating because we are more accepting and then we get married and things change.
In the gospel of John chapter 17 we read and see a very intimate conversation between a Father and a Son. The point of this passage culminates with Christ talking of the love that God put in Him and his desire that this same type of love would be in his beloved. Some of the most profound opportunities for intimacy between you and your spouse may not be when the birds are singing and the flowers are blooming and the rainbow is bright but rather when your spouse comes home tired depressed, somewhat joyless or cranky at that point unconditional love helps you to release rights and seeks to encourage, embrace and comfort. There is nothing like the feeling of the joy when we choose to love unconditionally, to give, to serve. We become alive. What does our spouse experience? Complete safety.
Intimacy is cultivated when we can see beyond the behaviors and go directly to the heart of our spouse and seek to touch them there. Passionate love enables us to do just that. The crazy thing about all of this is that the more we love in this manor the more likely we are to be loved back in the way we desire. When we are passionate about loving unconditionally we may even be surprised when our spouse accepts us and meets us at the deepest part of our heart. Why surprised? Because our eyes were not focused on getting what we wanted. We’re not saying we shouldn’t express our needs. Part of intimacy is allowing another to know who we are and what we need. Intimacy involves having a healthy self-awareness so that we can allow our spouse to see us for who we are.
Passionate love involves forgiving. Understanding and practicing the process of forgiveness is essential if we want deeper levels of intimacy. The longer we are married the easier it is to accumulate fairly long score cards of wrongs that our spouse has committed against us. We may have even tried to work through these wrongs and think forgiveness has taken place but just as soon as we think that is true up crops an issue and we will pull up one of those wrong doings of our spouse from our score card and off and running we will go. We all know the outcome of this. Everybody looses. When we have a commitment to love passionately we begin to experience forgiveness in greater, fuller and more thorough ways. The process of forgiveness is very intimate. To fully forgive or to be forgiven.
Over our 21 years marriage we’ve learned nine words that have helped us tear down the walls, increase the trust and build bridges into each other’s hearts. These nine words are, “I was wrong. I am sorry. Please forgive me.” Early in our marriage it was easy for me (Carrie) to say I was sorry. I liked harmony and so sorry was an easy way to achieve harmony. However, asking for forgiveness is very different than being sorry. When we admit our wrong and desire forgiveness we have a new resolve to turn from whatever the hurtful behavior is. That is one side of the coin.
The person asked to forgive must truly forgive, releasing their hurt and not using this as leverage or ammunition our putting it in a gunny sack to pull out at a later time. Hopefully you can recall a moment when this was the experience, the tenderness of the one heart recognizing it’s sin and a hurt heart releasing the pain. This is intimacy. This makes for a hot relationship. Forgiveness is released by passionate love and allows us to experience each other in deep ways. Passionate love is unconditional love that disarms distance and truly the chords that materialize the safety net for which we can be intimate with each other.
Cultivate Intimacy Through Prayer
You’ve read enough of this chapter to know that intimacy encompasses the totality of who God has made us to be. As we experience intimacy within our relationship it touches other realms. As we cultivate a spiritual connection with God first and then with each other we are touched in our sexual intimacy, our communication intimacy, our friendship intimacy and so on. The spiritual connection is vital for deeper levels of intimacy and prayer is the lifeline to knowing God and a way for couples to know their spouse that other realms of the relationship cannot provide.
Recent research as shown that when couples pray together regularly this may actually reduce their risk for divorce. Why are we so amazed by this? God even says himself that where two or more are gathered he is in their midst. Imagine every time we pray together as husband and wife God is in our midst. This is our God with his strength, his power, his forgiveness, his grace, mercy, tenderness, kindness, and unconditional love. Why wouldn’t we do this more often?
We heard many reasons from couples and some of the “greatest hits” of reasons why couples don’t pray include: we are too busy and can’t find the time; we have different schedules; the kids interrupt us; I’m not as spiritual as my spouse so I don’t want to pray out loud; we’ve never done it before; we’re not sure what to say or we are bored with prayer. Many Christians are living lives that don’t particularly look much different than those of non-believers. We are busy, we are tired, we are hurried, anxious, depressed and sometimes bored. The vitality and joy of prayer has been lost.
Cultivating intimacy through prayer may require that there be an individual rededication to the Lord, a renewal of the heart that may be tired and shriveled. Ask God to renew your heart, to renew a right spirit within you and then grow that relationship with him. When two people bring their joy and love of God together in couples prayer powerful things happen. First, prayer together can produce increased perspective of each others hearts. When we I Gary hear Carrie talk to God I hear parts of her that I do not hear otherwise. She may even talk to God differently than she talks to me, or the kids, or friends and that is a part of her I love to know. I see her in new and fresh ways.
Secondly, prayer produces increased power for a relationship. As we pray together, as God is in the midst of two people his strength and power is released. A marriage relationship exists by the strength of God. As we pray we thank God for his provision and we together ask him for what we need. His promises apply to every aspect of the marriage relationship. Philippians 1:6 that it is God who began the good work of your marriage it is he that will perfect it. It is God who is at work in us for his own good pleasure, Philippians 4:13. Finally, praying with our spouse increases the passion for God thus increasing the passion for one another. Prayer provides the avenue for increased perspective, and increased power and increased passion resulting in greater degrees of intimacy with God and thus with each other.
Couples in their first few years of marriage actually have a unique opportunity to set the pattern for praying together regularly. Prayer does not have to be long hours of praying nor does it require long prayer lists. Prayer can involve praising God together, worshiping, praying the Psalms together. Prayer can be sharing simple requests for the needs of the day. Prayer provides a safe place for forgiveness of sins. Prayer provides a very intimate moment when we hear our spouse ask for forgiveness for a sin and watch the heart soften when forgiveness is felt from our loving God. Begin now to pray together. Take a few moments each day to turn to God with your spouse and share an intimate moment with an intimate God. Prayer can truly deepen the love and safety of the marriage relationship.
Growing an intimate marriage is an exciting, fulfilling and sometimes overwhelming experience. Cultivating Intimacy (Into-me-see) the ability to know and be known is no easy task and many couples miss it altogether. We see numerous couples on the verge of divorce and hear them express the lonely words of he/she has absolutely no idea who I am. Start now in the early years to risk being vulnerable, to begin to take off the mask, to renounce living the “imposter” life. Embrace your spouse as being different from you and study them in order know them. Pretend that you will eventually have to take a final exam that requires you to know everything about who your mate is. You will be graded! Practice passionate unconditional love and begin to pray daily with your spouse. Your marriage will grow to be a vibrant reflection of what God intended for man and woman.
(l). What are topics or feelings that you find uncomfortable to talk about with your mate? What are you most likely to do when you feel uncomfortable? What could you do differently to allow your spouse to join you in these things.
(2). What are 3 qualities that you like about your spouse that are different from you? What are 3 things that are not particurly endearing things about your spouse? How could you begin to accept your spouse in these differences, perhaps even affirm your spouse.
(3). What are 3 ways you could express “passionate” love to your spouse that you are not already doing?
(4). If you agree with Step 3 of cultivating intimacy by praying together how can you begin to implement this step in your life? If you are already praying together how could you deepen this thus deepening your level of intimacy.
Suggested reading. Abba’s Child by Brennan Manning, Richard Foster’s book on Prayer, How to Bring Out the Best In Your Spouse by Wright and Oliver
A version of this chapter is published in Stoop & Stoop (eds), The Complete Marriage Book: Collected Wisdom from Leading Marriage Experts, MI: Revell Pub., 2002.
Copyright © 2001 The Center for Marriage and Family Studies, used with permission.
Gary J. Oliver, Ph.D. is a husband, father, clinical psychologist and executive director of The Center for Marriage and Family Studies on the campus of John Brown University.
Read more from Dr. Oliver at www.liferelationships.