First Things First: How to keep intimacy strong in your marriage

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Marriage can be a wonderful experience when both spouses are connected and headed in the same direction. Life can be beautiful when you walk side by side, working together. But marriage isn't always this way.

My wife and I recently celebrated 18 years of marriage, and we haven't always been on the same page. But we've learned having a happy, healthy marriage takes intentionality and commitment. And it requires a healthy level of intimacy. It's important to keep intimacy strong in your marriage.

Let me clarify what is meant by the word intimacy. Intimacy is not sex, although that's part of it. Intimacy is so much more! It's the close connection you have with another person. It's feeling comfortable around your partner. It's communicating your needs and feelings. It's appreciating each other for who you are, not what you do or bring to the relationship. Intimacy is the intentional, ongoing process of fully knowing your spouse and being fully known by your spouse.

Did you know there was more to intimacy than just sex?

There are several types of intimacy: emotional, intellectual, experiential, spiritual and sexual. And they're all intertwined.

Nurturing intimacy in your marriage requires building up these types. As you strengthen one area, the whole becomes stronger. Think of it as your health. Being healthy is more than just working out. It's eating right, getting plenty of rest, hydrating and exercising. When you focus on one area, you feel better. But to get healthy, you have to work on all the areas.

Here's a cool thing about strengthening intimacy in your marriage: When you strengthen one area, others are boosted as well. So, if we want to keep intimacy strong in our marriage, we must do some work. Marriage isn't easy. But having a happy, healthy, thriving marriage is possible for any couple who commit to the work. And it's so worth the effort.

Let's look at each type of intimacy and some workouts to strengthen them.

EMOTIONAL INTIMACY

Emotional intimacy is understanding what's happening inside your spouse (and feeling like they know you the same way). Emotional intimacy is demonstrated through communication and requires vulnerability. You have to listen and share. This is often the toughest intimacy to build, but it's the glue that holds them all together. These conversations usually involve tough topics like feelings in response to someone's actions, perception of yourself or a difficult childhood. They may also include your hopes, dreams and desires.

> Take the first step: When you and your spouse see each other next, ask, "What is one thing you wish went differently today? Why?" Listen and validate their feelings. This creates a vulnerable and safe environment.

INTELLECTUAL INTIMACY

Intellectual intimacy is about getting to know how your spouse's mind works and letting them understand you better. Don't get scared! And no, this doesn't mean you can learn to read their mind. We all have a worldview shaped by our values, beliefs and experiences. You and your spouse grew up in different families, work different jobs and may have grown up in different cultures.

> Take the first step: Ask your spouse, "What's one thing or topic you've always wanted to do/learn? Let's find a time to put it on the calendar and learn it together."

Sometimes, intellectual intimacy can lead to talking about things you disagree on. If you disagree with your spouse, ask questions about why they believe what they believe and make sure you're asking those questions to learn more about them, not change their mind.

EXPERIENTIAL INTIMACY

Experiential intimacy is the experiences and quality time you spend together. It's bonding over shared interests. You don't have to do everything together, but experiences together are often how relationships begin and grow.

> Take the first step: Ask your spouse, "When is the last time we did something new together? Let's decide on one new thing to try this month." Setting regular time in your schedule to experience new things together can help strengthen your experiential intimacy.

SPIRITUAL INTIMACY

Spirituality means different things to different people. For some, faith and religion are essential. For others, meditation or nature may feed their spirits. Spirituality involves your belief and values.

> Take the first step: If faith is an integral part of your life, worshiping and praying together is an ideal way to grow your spiritual intimacy. Ask your spouse, "What's one thing you do to help you feel grounded? Can we try it together, or do you prefer to do it alone?"

One of my favorite ways to increase spiritual intimacy is by getting into nature. Take a walk in nature with your spouse, hand in hand and device free.

SEXUAL INTIMACY

This one seems straightforward, but there is so much more than sex. It's the physical connection between you and your spouse. It's all the touching, kissing and hugging.

Sexual intimacy may be hard for some people because of past trauma or abuse. Be attentive to your spouse. If there is past trauma, offer to walk alongside them as they seek help to address it.

> Take the first step: I could say have more sex, but it takes a lot more. Ask your spouse, "How many times a week would you say is ideal for us to have sex?" Scheduling sex doesn't have to mean it'll be boring. Sometimes the anticipation can add to the excitement. But don't just focus on the sex. Be intentional about physically connecting with your spouse in ways that make them feel safe. Maybe that's cuddling, holding hands or a massage.

Choosing to strengthen the intimacy in your marriage is a beautiful journey. It takes trust, acceptance, vulnerability, compassion, communication and time. Enjoy the journey!

Mitchell Qualls is vice president of operations at family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email him at mitchell@firstthings.org.

photo Mitchell Qualls