Misunderstanding Intimacy Is The Biggest Mistake I Made In Marriage

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intimate couple in bed

Last night I went to dinner with two single friends. It was an impromptu invitation that I hesitated to accept. Usually, when I accept these invitations I end up regretting them.

I hesitate to go out with my single friends because history has taught me it often isn’t a good idea. 

I don’t have funny stories of Tinder dates or unsolicited Snapchat photos. I don’t show up to these dinners giving care of what I look like. Jeans, a sort of fancy t-shirt, and red lipstick are enough for me. I don’t have wild night-out stories to swap. I have no comparative struggles to talk about.

My single friends have all these stories. Most of them have kids, too. There’s too much of a gap. I don’t hesitate to go out with my single friends for any reason other than I feel like I have nothing to contribute to the conversation. I can’t relate. It feels rude to interject tales of my marriage.

I Should Be Divorced

In a few weeks, my husband and I will celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary. 10 years married and 15 together. We should, statistically, be divorced already. All markers point to it. We married young. We are a military family. We’ve lost a child (and will remain childless). We grew up together and grew apart, too.

I was a teenager when we started to date. Figured we’d go on a few dates and let it fizzle out. Neither of us was interested in marriage or a long-term commitment. We didn’t talk about the future because we expected to fail. Often making jokes about dating to “get it out of our system”.

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One thing led to another and then we were married. If you had asked me what intimacy was I couldn’t have answered. If you had asked me 3, 6, or more years ago, I still couldn’t have answered. I’m unsure I could have really answered that question until last night.

I spent years searching for intimacy. Believing that it could only be found in the bedroom. Or with packages and bows from store-bought, itchy lace ensembles. Or with keeping track of the frequency of sex. Or at fancy bed and breakfasts with expensive lover packages. With gifts. Over wine. Attention, praise, or compliments. I believed all the commercial-grade garbage about what was and what wasn’t intimacy.

My misguided belief about intimacy drove us to the brink of divorce. I didn’t think we would survive any more years of forced separations and no communication. We called it quits. Washed our hands and were walking away. Two pink lines kept us together for one more try at marriage.

When our son was stillborn I knew it would be the death of our marriage, too. I drank a lot after that.

My reality of a failing marriage and the death of my child. 10 years of our haphazardly, camouflaged crafted union. Childhood trauma. Support systems that deteriorated. Losing my job when I was unable to “return to normal”. Everyone in my life turned away and everything fell apart almost at one time, it seemed. Everything except for my marriage.

I wonder now how many others have the wrong idea of intimacy. How many others are searching for it in places it doesn’t hide. How many others are looking so hard they are missing it.

7 Levels of Intimacy

We both committed to trauma-informed therapy in the wake of our grief. During that time I read tons of books — including ones on intimacy. In Seven Levels of Intimacy: The Art of Loving and the Joy of Being Loved, Matthew Kelly details the key of each level of intimacy.

1. Cliche Communication

In this part of the relationship, topics stick to the surface level. Questions like, how are you? Here, communication does not go beyond these parameters.

2. Communication of Facts

Cliche communications move to the communication of facts: How’s the weather, the stock market, etc. Kelly says that most relationships rotate between these two initial levels because we fear the third level of intimacy. This is, according to him, why many relationships cycle through feelings of being stuck.

3. Opinions

This is when relationships start to get real. Here we share our opinions with each other. Doing this requires vulnerability and trust. To move past it, we must understand and accept that others have different experiences than we do.

Dr. Barbara Wilson, a clinical psychologist says that we may use others’ opinions to test out the waters here. Statements like “My mother always said..”, for example, allow for some protection in case of rejection. 

4. Hopes & Dreams

This level is feeling comfortable sharing those hopes and dreams with each other. At this level, we begin to share our own dreams and build them together.

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5. Feelings

This is when we cultivate our ability to share our deepest feelings. You wouldn’t share opinions, hopes, and dreams with someone you don’t feel comfortable with. The same is true for the sharing of feelings. Being able to identify your own while also holding space for your partner to have separate feelings is key.

6. Thoughts, Fears, and Failures

Here we feel comfortable sharing some of the darkest parts of who we are. Many of us have thoughts, fears, and failures we don’t want to confront alone. Committing to sharing these with someone else requires a deep level of trust and vulnerability.

7. Legitimate Needs

This is the highest level of intimacy. Physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs are communicated. Here two people can sit down and identify each unique set of needs. Then build a lifestyle that can accommodate both parties. Because needs are constantly changing, this will need to be evaluated periodically.

Intimacy is Earned, See?

You won’t find intimacy with ribbons or bows. You won’t find it between high thread count sheets. It doesn’t come adorned with lace. You won’t find it at the bottom of a very expensive bottle of wine.

It doesn’t happen at the beginning and sometimes not in the middle. Sometimes intimacy never happens at all. It isn’t given. It’s earned. It takes work. It’s working on yourself, working on each other and working together too. It’s doing things you don’t want to.

Intimacy is compromising when you’d rather not. It’s loving yourself first. It’s learning what the other person needs while identifying your needs too. It’s boundaries and selectiveness. Intimacy is therapy. It’s unpacking your own traumas and dealing with them too.

Intimacy grows in the storm like a weed. It’s finding the attractiveness in messy buns and sweatpants. Old clothes with holes and sweat stains. Weight gain and weight loss. Tragedy. Bad take-out and TV shows you wouldn’t watch alone. Failed home renovation projects and big mistakes. Intimacy demands give and take.

I wish I had understood what intimacy was in the beginning. I wasted so many years trying to find intimacy that I failed to see it.

I missed the opportunities to build it past level three all those years. I believed all the hype about intimacy put out by magazines, movies, and the like.

It was all wrong.

I don’t like going out with my single friends because everything I could add to the conversation sounds cliche. Sentiments like “You’ll know when you find the one” and “Don’t settle”, sound cheap from marriage high horse.

Last night, the conversation took a funny turn. One friend asked me what kept my marriage afloat through grief, loss, and unpredictable military life. I didn’t hesitate this time.

We have that good-good intimacy now, I said. The kind that requires nothing to exist. The kind where we don’t turn on the TV or the radio because we’re too busy talking. Often about nothing in particular. That good-good intimacy that passes no judgment. The kind that can’t be captured fully in a movie or book. A certain physical and emotional ease in the presence of each other.

And whatever that looks like for you is worth working for.

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Leah O'Daniel is a freelance writer with a love for creative writing. She focuses on personal growth, trauma, and sociological concepts. 

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.