Developing intimacy in your relationships
Intimacy is the foundation of any lasting and satisfying relationship, whether it is with a friend or with your spouse (or future spouse). Building intimacy into your relationships is like building an investment portfolio for retirement. It involves intentionality, time, and risk.
Intentionality means being purposeful in your relationships. It means that you have to work at them. Here’s an example: in order to build intimacy into a friendship you decide to change some habits, like talking about yourself less and asking more questions about your friend.
Risk or vulnerability means being open before others. I like to think about intimacy as “in to me see.” Intimacy means knowing the other inside and out. There are several different kinds of intimacy:
There is intellectual intimacy. This involves talking about current events and what you think about them, discussing themes in books that you’re reading or movies you’ve watched, or sharing what you learned in a recent sermon or conference you attended. Sharing what you think with your friend or spouse develops intimacy between you. Doing this around the dinner table at night develops closeness within the family that creates strong unity. Of course, this is where debate and rhetorical skill is either going to be developed or squashed. Learning how to disagree agreeably helps maintain intimacy over the long haul.
There is recreational intimacy. This involves doing things with your friend or your spouse that you enjoy. All kinds of crazy and intimacy-building conversations take place when you are bowling or playing cards. Your competitiveness and how you handle winning and losing come out when you play games or watch sporting events together. Going on walks or hikes or bike rides provides a lot of time to talk or to learn to be comfortable with silence. Even silence can be an expression of intimacy. Drive time is definitely not the time to have in-depth serious conversation. This is a time to be light-hearted, to have fun, to sing. It is not a time to debate.
There is social intimacy. This occurs when you do things with your friend or spouse or family with others. This is so important for our relationships. You may have witnessed the young couple who starts ‘going steady’ and suddenly drops out of all other relationships and activities. This is not healthy. We know each other in a whole new light when we watch and hear each other interact with others. When Shelley and I first got married, I noticed that she told stories and related funny incidents to others differently than I did. I would never tell that story that way. But she did—and it was okay. She didn’t tell stories wrongly; she just told them differently. And people laughed and enjoyed her storytelling. Friends, couples, and families need to do things with other people. It helps us see into each other from an entirely different perspective. Sometimes we even get to hear about experiences or events in our friend’s life in a conversation with others that we never thought to ask about or that our friend never thought to share with us.
There is emotional intimacy. Emotional intimacy is developed when we talk with others about how we’re feeling. Women seem to have less difficulty at this than men. For many men this takes some work and effort. I had a friend in seminary who kept his emotional intimacy at a pretty simple level. He either felt good or bad. As far as he was concerned, what else did you need to know? The reality is that there are several different categories of feelings, as well as differing levels of intensity of feelings. Google “feeling word lists” and see what pops up. It might be helpful for your husband to know how upset you are with the situation at work. Are you annoyed, irritated, agitated, mad, angry, full of rage, or furious? When we grieve we often experience the whole gambit of emotions, from confusion to fear, to doubt, to denial, to anger, to deep sorrow. Which one are you feeling because of that recent loss in your life? Let your friend know, and you will become more intimate with him.
There is spiritual intimacy. This perhaps more than any of the others may overlap with other intimacies. Spiritual intimacy is developed as you pray with your friend or spouse, as you read and discuss the Bible together, or as you share what God has been teaching you recently. These things—prayer, Bible reading, spiritual discussion—often involve the other intimacies. It is hard to pray without revealing what you think about God and yourself and God’s ability to rule or provide for your needs. It is almost impossible to talk about what the Bible teaches without some emotion: excitement, joy, conviction, or in some cases, defensiveness. Being a part of a small group—we call them LIFE groups at our church—allows us to develop spiritual intimacy with each other as we pray together, study the Bible or other biblical books together, and discuss how the gospel answers our problems together.
Intimacy also involves physical touch. How we express that with our friends varies from culture to culture. I recently shared in a sermon that when I went with my friend Stu to Ethiopia in 2008, we quickly made friends of some of the pastors in Gambella. I remember walking down the street—we did a lot of walking—and one of the pastors took my hand and held it while we were walking! Yikes! I was uncomfortable to say the least. At the same time I was honored that he would express his friendship in this manner. That was a demonstration of friendship in their culture. Friends touch each other—appropriately—with handshakes, fist bumps, and, yes, even hugs. The man in Gambella held my hand because we had prayed together and talked about our families and ministry and life together. The same is true for us, especially in our most intimate of relationships.
Physical intimacy is an outflowing of the other intimacies. Relationships that begin with physical intimacy are not satisfying and don’t last. When relationships begin this way they are not formed out of love for the other, but out of what we can get for ourselves.
Finally, intimacy takes time. The only way you develop the trust that is necessary to take the risks that are necessary to share more and more of who you are is over time. Take the time, make the time, schedule the time if you have to. The only way you get quality time with your kids, your spouse, or your friends is through quantity of time.
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