In the 1997 science fiction movie, Contact, Matthew McConaughey’s character, Palmer Joss—a seminarian who was never ordained—appears on Larry King Live to talk about his book, Losing Faith. Larry asks him “Are you anti-technology? Are you anti-science?” He responds:
“No, not at all. The question I’m asking is this: Are we happier as a human race? Is the world fundamentally a better place because of technology? We shop at home, we surf the web. At the same time we feel emptier, lonelier, and more cut off from each other than at any other time in human history.”
Although the movie was engaging—and troubling—on a number of levels, this single statement was probably one of the truest to come out of Hollywood in years. Joss clearly identified our world’s loss or lack of intimacy—deep, genuine, spiritual relationships with others.
Although we can blame a lot of things for this development—technology, pop culture, our parents, the sexual revolution—the truth is that humans have been struggling with intimacy from the very beginning—right about the time our First Parents were kicked out of the Garden of Eden for disobeying God. Since then, our history is one of division, hatred, fighting, and deep loneliness spanning all generations and cultures.
Perhaps, written deep into our souls is the awareness that things were not always like they are now—and that they don’t have to be this way. In fact, it is our search for true intimacy that often leads people to seek it out in unhealthy ways through drugs, alcohol, pornography, sexual affairs, overeating—and the list goes on.
If we knew what true intimacy looked like and how to find it, these counterfeit intimacies would no longer hold such appeal.
For those whose marriages have been bombarded by adultery, bitterness, or other harmful behaviors, there is hope for change and healing. And, for couples who by grace have avoided such devastation, the possibility for greater intimacy remains. Not all need to “appear” broken to be missing out on the relationship God intends. If we understand how to rebuild intimacy, one piece at time, our marriages can be restored. In fact, they can be transformed.
I’ve hit upon those times in my Christian life where my search for intimacy left me greatly discouraged. Believing in Christ isn’t some magic warding off all effects of sin. I was demoralized by past heartaches and hardly cared enough to begin again my search for authentic intimacy with another. Risk management was the key to my survival – being alone was better. At least alone, there would be no surprises, and no rejection.
With a damaged capacity to attach and bond well with others, I continued to search for an answer until I noticed an inner clamor that eventually got my attention.
Then I understood: Real needs will not stay silent; they always find a voice. The voice may be depression, anger, or a sense of low self-esteem. Or, like a chorus, these multiple voices sing in harmony—or, rather, disharmony. This dissonance, once we finally tune into it, reveals a failure to harmonize with others, God, and even ourselves. Once I began to listen to the disorder in my heart, I was motivated to change. That started me down a path toward healing and intimacy that I would never give up.
The search for intimacy is not easy, but is worthwhile. So much of our spiritual and mental health is cultivated by connecting with others. It’s not a cliché; people need other people. Intimacy is built block upon block.
Before going further, however, let me be clear about one thing: In this article, I am talking about authentic, healthy intimacy. Many people spend much of their lives seeking real intimacy, but, in wrong places, in wrong ways, with wrong people. Addictions, failed marriages, abortions, physical or sexual abuse, and other symptoms of brokenness are the byproducts of a disordered search for intimacy.
Since so many people seek intimacy in unhealthy ways, what does a healthy search for intimacy look like? And, how can we learn to strengthen our intimacy within our marriages, especially if real relational damage has occurred?
Understanding of and appreciation for marriage
The foundation of true intimacy is found in the Creation story. God spoke various things into existence, pronouncing each one “good.” On the sixth day, He “fashioned” Adam and Eve in His image. Free and creative, God-like and pure, these two knew the heart of intimacy. Although all human relationships foster various degrees of intimacy, only that between a man and a woman in marriage is able to connect two people at the deepest mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual level.
Even though thousands of years have passed since humans lived in paradise where intimacy was as faithful as the sunrise, we can restore intimacy’s proper foundation through a proper reverence for each other and the God who created us. While we are all marred by sin (and doesn’t this show up frequently in our marriages?), Jesus came to free us and make us new creatures in Himself. As he reminded his disciples, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”1
Respect for self
Self-centeredness kills intimacy, and many couples with troubled marriages may feel like the “walking dead” due to this kind of selfishness. Yet we are to treat others – including our spouses – as we would like to be treated. Such love for others is grounded in a healthy love for self, and is elegant and rare. For many, the solution to marital strife will come from first gaining a healthy sense of self-worth. Notice that I do not refer self-esteem, which locates a person’s value in what they accomplish or in what others think of them. Self-worth is grounded in the knowledge that you are infinitely valuable in God’s eyes and that your worth is dependant on His love for you—which never ceases. When a person understands this about himself, he will begin to treat others accordingly, including his spouse.
Respect for others
The differences between a husband and wife not only deserve respect, but are worthy of our rapt attention. There are many things to learn about each other throughout life; learning begins with healthy respect – an understanding that the other person is a teacher and I am the student. As respect is developed, effective communication can flourish through the safety and awe that each feels for the other.
There may be situations in either or both of your pasts that make safety in your marriage and awe for your spouse seem impossible. Yet, the fruits of a renewed relationship with God—patience, compassion, perseverance—allow a transformation to begin.
Regardless of our differences, respect for our spouses is grounded in the reality that we will always have more in common than in opposition. While our role as husband or wife varies, nothing can alter our common need for an intimate marriage.
Within our imperfect marriages—and we must realize that they will always be such—there will be countless times when compassion for each other is what will take our marriage to the next level of peace and understanding.
Ben Franklin coined one of our better known phrases: “A friend in need is a friend indeed.” Franklin was not just reflecting on the gratitude that arises when helped out of a difficult situation. He understood that compassionate service to others is a hallmark of intimacy. The needs of another always inspire the mercy of those who love deeply. When intimate relationships are formed—and tempered with humility—we find that not only can we ask for help when it’s needed, but that our needs are actually anticipated by those with whom we are intimate.
Perhaps because true compassion is so rare, we’ve learned to settle for and expect less of ourselves and each other. Rudeness infects our culture like a virus. Basic communication has broken down and basic compassion is floundering. The individual seeking intimacy must not become discouraged in such a culture, but should remember that compassion often begets compassion.
Stoking intimacy during the challenging parenting years
Gallup data indicates a tremendous shift within our culture for people searching for a soul-mate: 88 percent of people believe there is one person “out there” who is specially destined to be their soul mate. In fact, according to Gallup, “a new study of young adults’ attitudes on love and marriage reveals that the ‘soul mate’ ideal has become the most desired characteristic of marital partners for American men and women, ages 20-29” with 94 percent of all never-married singles wanting their spouses to be soul mates first and foremost (surpassing matters of religion, economics and the ability to be a good mother and father.”2
The study concluded that marriage “is gaining popularity as a ‘SuperRelationship’—an intensely private spiritualized union, combining sexual fidelity, romantic love, emotional intimacy and togetherness.”3 But the authors conclude that it is “the exacting emotional requirements of a soul-mate relationship” that “are likely to make marriages unhappier and potentially more fragile”—and this is especially true when there are “heightened expectations for couple intimacy during the prime child-rearing years” which “may intensify this tension and lead to higher levels of marital discontent and discord.”4
The authors’ conclusion is that although couples should not “neglect each other’s sexual and emotional needs during the child-rearing years,” the new “soul-mate ideal may create unrealistic expectations for intimacy that, if unfulfilled, may lead to disappointment, estrangement and even a search for a new soul mate.”5
This study can teach many things, but one of the most important is how we much married couples need to keep our expectations in check. It is one thing to hope and plan for the best in the sacred union of marriage, but it’s quite another to expect another human being to be the source of our happiness. Only God can fulfill us at the deepest level of our being. Grounding our expectations of our spouse in the reality of paying bills, caring for sick children, dealing with job frustrations, and other struggles of our fallen world, will help us rebuild an intimate relationship based not on a star-crossed romance, but on the wonder and beauty of God’s design for the marital partnership.
Willingness to take risks
By and large we are a risky generation. We have day-traders trying to beat the market, sports enthusiasts of all types hoping to avoid the agony of defeat, and sadly, addicts who continually place themselves at greater risk in pursuit of their next “high.” When it comes to taking relational risks, however, most of us want to run the other way.
When I toyed with the idea of asking out the young woman who would eventually become my wife, I wasn’t eager to absorb a rejection. But my mother’s sage advice stuck with me: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
Our need for intimacy beckons us to take risks for the sake of love—and love alone. As with many things, high risks often pay high yields. Of all places where healthy risks are warranted, marriage is the most obvious.
For those who have feared taking these risks, remember that you are not alone. Our Designer desires to see us function properly. Through any move toward healing, He will be there every step of the way. Be sure to call to Him as you walk with your spouse into a renewed intimacy.
As a Christian counselor who specializes in intimacy disorders, I’m convinced that if we are to have intimate marriages, we need to be purposeful. The creation and maintenance of intimacy can be hard work, yet satisfying, if both husband and wife commit to the type of marriage that would please God.
Each husband and wife, and the marriage they create, are unique. Made in the image of God, we, too, are creators. And within our marriages, we can create a kinder culture that radiates intimacy from our homes to every other facet of our world.