When I was in high school, most cars had bench-style front seats. My boyfriend and I joked that we could tell which couples were married and which weren't. The married couples always sat on opposite ends of the seat.
We assumed, as we snuggled together on the driver's side, that those old married people had lost the closeness we enjoyed. Now, I realize, we didn't have a clue.
Romantic intensity is not the same as intimacy. It's rather the kindling that gets the fire started. And the fire will go out unless something more substantial catches the flame. A long-lasting blaze needs hardwood logs. But if the logs are packed too tightly, the flame can be smothered. And if placed too far apart, the logs won't be able to hold a flame for long. Likewise, as couples build emotional intimacy, they face the challenge of incorporating both separateness and togetherness in an enduring relationship.
The Early Years
Beyond the "Velcro Stage"
"He's not the same guy I married," complained Jen. "We used to talk for hours. Now I can't pry him away from the TV."
Across the room, Mike confided to his buddy, "Before we were married, she thought I was great. Now she complains all the time. Marriage really is magic—I used to be Prince Charming, now I'm a toad."
Mike and Jen, married little more than a year, realize the honeymoon is over. Before their marriage, they enjoyed what psychologist Harriet Lerner calls the "Velcro stage" of a relationship—that sense of being two perfectly interlocking parts of a whole. And they had expected the feeling to last forever.
Finding the right balance of closeness and distance is a trial-and-error process largely determined by individual comfort levels. Mike, accustomed to dealing with things on his own, used TV as a protective buffer and felt smothered when Jen wanted more closeness. In contrast, Jen felt threatened by the distance between them. Without realizing it, she expressed her fears by criticizing Mike, who then would lash out defensively and retreat even further.
Frightened by their unhappiness, they talked to their pastor. He assured them what they were going through was normal and necessary. Prior to marriage, Jen seldom saw the side of Mike that sought privacy when he felt stressed or unsure of himself. When she did catch glimpses of it, she interpreted his detachment as independence and strength. Now, when he clammed up she felt unloved.
Likewise, Mike had misinterpreted Jen's outgoing nature as confidence, not realizing she was often uncomfortable doing things on her own. Now, on the days Mike feels overloaded at work, Jen's need for conversation seems like just another demand.
Their pastor also helped them move away from blaming each other to communicating their thoughts and feelings without responding defensively. Jen stopped accusing Mike of watching too much television. Instead, she told him: "I feel shut out when you head straight for the TV after work. I'm scared you don't love me anymore." When Jen stopped verbally attacking Mike, his old defensive line of, "I do not!" became, "I still love you. But when I'm under pressure at work and not sure I'll measure up, I need to escape a little."
Recognizing each other's vulnerabilities was scary because it meant they could no longer expect the other to fill in their own gaps. A welcome surprise for Mike and Jen, however, was the growing sense of empathy and connectedness they felt. As their frustration level decreased, the sniping tapered off and they began to appreciate each other as complex individuals.
Jen decided that if Mike needed a little TV time to unwind, she would go jogging, an activity she had dropped in favor of "togetherness." At first, Mike enjoyed his solitary time after work, but by the end of the first week he started missing Jen. The next week, instead of watching TV, he joined her.
To their surprise, going jogging drew them closer. Reassured by Mike's companionship, Jen had less need for conversation to feel connected. Mike slowly got used to having company, even when he was stressed, and found it easier to tell Jen about his day after their evening run. Days began to go by without the TV on. And when Mike did need his old buffer, Jen would snuggle quietly beside him or occupy herself in another room without begrudging him.
There's no such thing as a matched set when it comes to marriage. As Mike and Jen are finding, intimacy grows through a daily process of learning about and then respecting one another's unique needs and differences. You need that foundation for intimacy as you enter the middle years, when your lives become increasingly complex.
The Middle Years
Avoiding the Triangular Trap
Marriage's middle years are fraught with opportunities to avoid intimacy. Growing children, crowded calendars and demanding careers all compete for our attention and sap our energy. Couples often unknowingly push to the background whatever is going on between them—both good and bad. But the emotional energy doesn't disappear—rather it is diverted in a process called triangulation. A couple's interaction revolves around a third party—kids, work or outside involvements—and not surprisingly, the stability they have in their marriage comes at the expense of intimacy.
On their tenth anniversary, Bob and Lynn dined at the same elegant restaurant where Bob had proposed. Over dessert, they looked deep into each other's eyes and realized, "We have nothing to say." The appetizer, salad and main course had exhausted the topics of their kids'activities, problems and schedules for the coming week. What had they talked about on that romantic evening a decade ago? Were kids and schedules all they had in common?
Each of them had gravitated toward comfortable roles. Lynn was involved at the kids' school and Bob focused on work and coaching soccer. It wasn't unusual for them to cross paths for only a few minutes each evening, which left them feeling more like business partners managing their children's "careers" than romantic partners enjoying their relationship.
Looking through old photo albums, Bob and Lynn were surprised at how many enjoyable activities they had dropped since having children. When Bob realized it had been years since they had gone out for fun and not merely to fulfill an obligation, he decided some changes were in order. So they bit the bullet—or in this case, the pencil stub—pulled out their calendar, and began to look for a space to fit themselves in. The first opening they found was several weeks away, and they marked it in capital letters.
Carving out couple time was only the first step. Next, Bob and Lynn had to decide what to do together. For starters, they resumed some of the shared activities they had enjoyed before their kids came along, such as biking and tennis. As time went on, they also revived individual hobbies—for Bob it was photography; for Lynn, playing her clarinet. Renewing personal and joint interests provided many new connecting points for their relationship.
They also began getting up 20 minutes earlier than the kids so they could enjoy a quiet breakfast together. By mutual declaration, this was personal time—no "business" discussions were allowed. Redesigning their schedules allowed Bob and Lynn to rebuild a sense of intimacy.
However, busyness isn't the only intimacy killer. Often, the culprits are unresolved conflict and resentment. In those instances, couples need the courage to work through long-standing difficulties before they can reconnect with each other. For example, a wife who harbors resentment because of feeling neglected by her husband may, instead of dealing directly with the issue, complain about a disobedient child. On the surface, marital peace is preserved, as parents join forces to deal with this "problem child," but real closeness is thwarted. A "safe" distance between them prevails that can only be bridged if they shift their focus from the child and tackle the discomfort in their marriage.
Distractions will always exist in this season of marriage; and the busier you are, the more important couple time becomes. Plan together how you will organize your priorities and don't hesitate to drop some commitments in favor of your spouse.
Two in the Nest
When the last child leaves home, couples enter an important new phase—one without the prescribed tasks of setting up a home, building careers and raising a family. In their newly quiet house, couples must answer a significant question: "What will we do with the next 20, 30, maybe even 40 years?"
The answer, and what it means to their marriage, has much to do with what went on before. Some couples feel a sense of completion and satisfaction at this stage and embrace the freedom to follow up on long-held dreams or explore new opportunities together. Others, who have depended on their children or careers to give meaning and shape to their lives, may experience a crushing sense of loss and despair.
Jane and Sam felt the shift in their marriage the autumn their youngest daughter left for college. When their three children were in high school, Jane had moved from part-time to full-time work to help pay future college expenses. She also hoped full-time work would alleviate the sadness she felt with the kids leaving home.
Instead, she felt herself coming alive at work as she discovered skills and interests she had allowed to lie fallow while focusing on her roles as wife and mother. She was also discovering a growing dissatisfaction with her marriage as she struggled to fit her "new self" into old patterns.
Sam, on the other hand, had reached a plateau in his career. Although he struggled with feelings of regret, he realized work wouldn't supply all the meaning it had once promised. In his restlessness, his attention was turning more toward his inner life and home. That's when he noticed his wife wasn't "there" anymore, and he felt betrayed.
Jane and Sam, like many couples, designed their marriage around the roles necessary to meet the demands of a growing family and neglected parts of themselves due to time and energy constraints. However, those neglected parts eventually lobby for attention and when they are heeded, they often don't fit into the old marital design.
This dilemma could have pulled Sam and Jane apart had they not sought counseling. Their therapist assured them that since they were entering a new chapter of their lives, re-evaluation of their marriage was natural. Just knowing the transition was normal took some of the pressure off.
They now felt free to talk about the new parts of themselves they were discovering and what was important to each. In the past, Sam had counted on Jane to keep things humming at home as he devoted himself to his career. Now that his wife had a thriving career, Sam's choices were to resent her "slacking off" at home or voluntarily help out. With their therapist's encouragement, they forged a new marriage "contract," one that encompassed support for Jane's new ventures and appreciation for Sam's new homeward focus.
At first he struggled with his new duties, but to his surprise he actually didn't mind increasing his share of the household tasks. In fact, he gained a sense of satisfaction and pride in his domestic abilities. To her astonishment, Jane, who used to resent her double load of responsibilities, had some trouble handing household duties over to Sam. It was hard to let him take over tasks she considered her own domain—and even harder to let him do them his way.
However, she gradually backed off and, instead of feeling threatened, found she enjoyed having more of Sam's partnership at home. No longer overburdened by household duties, Jane's resentment (and tiredness) faded into relaxation. The two of them began spending happy evenings in conversation and found they were delighted by the new dimensions each was developing.
Though inevitable and necessary, transitions are hard on a marriage, and it's easy to blame your spouse for the discomfort you feel. But blame never solves a problem. Be honest about your own part in the difficulty and try to frame your conflicts and dilemmas as couple problems rather than individual failings. Doing so invites good will and communicates a sense of safety.
Achieving intimacy is a lifelong challenge. But as you and your spouse commit yourselves to overcoming obstacles and fighting your own particular dragons, the reward is a solid and richly textured relationship that two starry-eyed teenagers could only guess at.
Beverly J. Burch, M.A., is a pyschotherapist practicing in the Chicago area.
Copyright © 1997 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.