The Train Station and The Airport
“What’s your excuse for not being more intimate?” The announcer’s voice boomed from the car radio. I mulled over his question while he completed the rest of the commercial. At the end, it was clear he wasn’t talking to everyone; he was just talking to impotent men – intimacy being a code word for having sex.
Actually, the question I thought he was asking is much more important. What excuse do people make for not being more emotionally intimate? Women, more prone than men to self-reflection, say they are afraid of intimacy, blaming their childhood, their parents, their weight.
Of course they are afraid of intimacy; everyone is. That raises an existential question: How close can I get to the person I love without losing myself, yet how much distance do I need without feeling isolated? As couples get to know each other they grapple with how much to trust, how much to share of themselves. This continues whether they are together for a short time or a life time. There is never a point at which they can say: Now I am no longer afraid of being intimate. The issue is not getting rid of the fear; rather, it’s choosing someone willing to risk the learning and growing together.
Men are less prone to even think about the concept of intimacy. They are more likely to attribute external explanations for why a relationship lacks closeness. When they do talk about intimacy, it’s usually with the radio announcer’s definition – sex.
This raises the gender differences in understanding intimacy. For women, intimacy comes as a result of sharing feelings. Even arguing that brings a good resolution allows women to feel closer to a man. And women need to feel close before they want to make love.
For men, though, it’s just the opposite. Men feel the closest towards a woman after they’ve made love. That’s when they are most open with their feelings, most willing to share of themselves. The different styles of expressing intimacy are sort of like the couple wanting to take a trip together but the woman is waiting at the train station while the man is at the airport.
Navigating these gender differences can be difficult because it must be done in ways that are acceptable to both men and women: women must feel emotionally connected while men can’t feel smothered with words and emotions.
Jack and Joyce were discussing this. He said “I always feel close with you when we sit together watching television. Or when I’m reading and you’re doing the bills or knitting. I like just knowing you’re in the same room, even if we’re not talking.”
Joyce frowned. “If you don’t talk to me, there’s no reason for me to be there. It’s boring. I’d rather knit or read in another room.
Jack and Joyce have not negotiated their different needs for closeness. To do so, they might compromise with her willingly being in the same room sometimes even if they aren’t talking, knowing it is important to him. And, his making the effort to connect in her fashion by talking, being affectionate (not sexual) sharing dreams, fantasies of their future, talking about their past – just talking about something personal.
Too many couples have lost the habit of being affectionate – except when in the bedroom. They have forgotten how they used to physically touch, speak affectionate words, send loving notes – before they ever entered the bedroom, which increased their affection once they got there.
Arthur, a successful dentist, had been married 16 years and had two children. He came to the first therapy session alone; his wife refused to come, saying nothing could help them. It was too late. His complaint was his wife’s problems with intimacy, meaning she hadn’t wanted sex for over a year. He needed to decide whether or not to leave the marriage.
After listening to him describe their situation, I explained the different meanings women and men have about intimacy. I ended the session suggesting he do something during the week that his wife would consider intimate.
The following week, he reported a change in her. “She has been nice to me. We even made love.”
“What did you do differently?” I inquired.
“Nothing,” he said quickly.
But when I gave a quizzical look, he rethought his response. “Well, I sort of showed some interest; I teased her. One day, I kissed her while she was cooking and then I walked away. Another time I walked by her in the family room, rubbed her neck for a few seconds, and then quickly walked away. In bed, one night, I cuddled with her, but then turned over and went to sleep. I did this type of thing a couple of nights; I got her aroused but didn’t follow through. Maybe that was what worked.”
“You mean you did this as a ploy, to trick her?” I asked.
“Yea, to get her thinking we were going to make love and then I’d leave her high and dry.”
“Could you tell her reaction when you teased her? Did she seem irritated? Did she pull away?”
“No,” he smiled, remembering. “No, she seemed to like it.”
When I chuckled, he got defensive. “You think I was being mean? Well, maybe, but I as so frustrated, I just had to do something. And it worked.”
“I’m not surprised it worked,” I said, “but I doubt it worked for the reason you think it did. You were physically affectionate, something women like. You touched her, kissed her, cuddled with her. What’s not for her to like. In bed, you thought you were being mean by teasing her. I’m guessing she appreciated the cuddling without any pressure for sex. So, when you did finally reach out to her sexually, she wanted to make love because she was feeling closer to you.”
“Come on. It can’t be that simple.”
“The simple part is being physically affectionate, separate from sex. Remember, women need to feel close before they want sex.”
“When we first got together, I did used to do those types of things. I enjoyed pleasing. I enjoyed it, too. Maybe it could be that simple. I guess I’ve got to go over to the train station if I want her to feel close to me, if I want her in my life.”
Imagine if the radio announcer had a different commercial: “What’s your excuse for not being intimate? You haven’t figured out how to accommodate your different styles of closeness? Well, work on it; don’t give up.”
Now, that would be a really great commercial.
If you have questions or comments or want more information, contact me at:
Dr. Karen Gail Lewis
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