Intimate Relationships | Blog | Professionelle

By Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes

Intimate Relationships

This article is based on notes taken with permission during the recent Professionelle networking seminar, presented by clinical psychologist, Dr Allyson Waite.

 

The World Health Organisation has affirmed sexuality to be a central aspect of being human throughout life but, that said, every woman (and many men) know there’s a lot more to intimate relationships than the intimate relations element. So let’s start at the beginning.

What is intimacy anyway?

There are a surprising number of aspects to intimacy.  It is:

  • psychological – a meeting of values and a sharing of interests
  • emotional – sharing what we feel and seeking support when we need it, and giving support too
  • social – being a couple interacting with others in the community
  • physical – this is very strong at the start of love, and continues through life as physical proximity and touch (as well as sex, which changes over life but is ageless)
  • operational – doing together the things that need doing in life
  • spiritual – sharing beliefs without fear of judgement and being supportive of each others’ beliefs

I’ve fallen in love, now what?

Allyson spoke about the phase that comes after the dizzying and exciting time of falling love. She called this next phase “standing in love”, when there’s a shift back to reality, and the true work of the relationship begins. This is the time that Hollywood and fairy tales gloss over as ‘happily ever after’ with a soft focus parting shot. In fact, it is a time of:

  • creating and valuing moments: moments of comfort, of delight, of shared fun, and of appreciation of your Significant Other [S.O.]
  • making it clear you are a priority for each other, not just flatmates without opportunities to connect
  • cherishing your partner and his or her uniqueness and even accepting that there will be times when there seems very little to cherish!
  • expecting that there will be changes as you both grow and figuring out how to weather the changes

I should be perfect

Given the inevitable changes in a relationship as it moves through the “standing” phase, it isn’t surprising that expectations and reality can get out of step. As professional working women we tend to place high demands on ourselves and in the process we do a disservice to ourselves and our Significant Other. As Allyson said,

We expect so much of ourselves before we even get to intimacy

The external pressures of the “always on” culture and living as the sandwich generation between elderly parents and young families are tough enough to live with. However, perhaps the pressures that undermine intimacy the most live purely in our heads. For example, perfectionism is a streak we know runs through a good proportion of women in our membership. It leads to unhelpful thoughts like, I ought to be passionate at any time. I ought still to look like I did fifteen years ago. I ought to find moments of intimacy spontaneously, and leap into them effortlessly.

Quite a few in the seminar smiled wryly at this quotation Allyson shared:

Sex should not be the last, weary act of a long, weary day

So what can we do to keep intimacy, in all its forms, alive and well? After all, research clearly shows that we are hard wired to need close connection with another person.

Allyson recommended a book called Staying in Love by a former colleague, Robyn Salisbury, and below are some key pieces of advice.

Avoid the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

For a start, we should cut out these four intimacy killers:

  1. criticism
  2. contempt
  3. defensiveness
  4. stonewalling ie refusing to engage

Opportunities to connect

Amid the busyness of life it can be easy to become like players in a ball game, tossing each other errands and messages but never playing in the same part of the field. Intimacy needs opportunities to connect. That’s why there is the well-founded wisdom of the date-night for long established couples. It’s quality time to check in with each other and be present in the moment without distractions.

Sometimes it can help to signal to your S.O. that you’re wanting to engage rather than leaping in and effectively demand they listen. “Is this a good time to talk?”

5:1 ratio

This is the positivity ratio we’ve written about elsewhere, reflecting research by Dr John Gottman. He charted the amount of time couples spent arguing versus interacting positively – touching, smiling, paying compliments, laughing, etc – and found a ratio of 5:1  between the amount of positivity and negativity in stable relationships. As long as there are five times as many positive interactions between partners as there are negative, the relationship is likely to be stable. Another angle on this is that while we remember criticism we respond to praise. (note that a version of this ratio exists in the workplace. Researched by Losada, the ratio is 3:1).

It’s also worth mentioning the power of celebrating together. Couples who fail to celebrate the good things that happen are more likely to separate  than those who fight.

“Day-long love-making”

This recommendation for sustaining intimacy came from feedback we received after the seminar. Our member wrote,

When I did a marriage preparation course through my church they emphasised “day long love making” as being important to marriage.  That phrase usually gets people’s attention.  However, it simply means all of the “little things” that Ally mentioned – talking, a touch here and there, being connected by the little things and not just arriving together at the end of the night in the same bed!

We thought this was a wonderful comment and it was evocative of Allyson’s advice to ‘build bridges to desire’ rather than expecting spontaneity to burst into life.

Interdependence and individuality

Lastly, Allyson highly recommended Esther Perel’s TED talk on sustaining desire in a long term relationship. Perel brilliantly lays out the challenge in an enduring relationship of sustaining both love and desire. How can we be our partner’s source of security and familiar comfort AND his/her erotic partner, full of mystery and surprise?

The key, it seems, lies in awareness of those moments when our S.O. is separate and complete without us – for example, when s/he gives a well-received talk and is warmly applauded for it. We see our S.O. then as others see him/her – from a distance, and in a positive light, and independent. The moment of separation rekindles something of the early days when there was less familarity and more surprise.

When I look at my partner radiant and confident, [that’s] probably the biggest turn-on across the board.

Now you know!

Acknowledgment

Dr Allyson Waite is a Registered Clinical Psychologist who trained in the UK. She currently works in private practice where she offers psychological assessment and treatment, supervision and training.  She is co-director of Sex Therapy New Zealand and specialises in the area of relationship and sex therapy and works with couples to help them create greater intimacy and emotional connection. Her contact details are allywaite@xtra.co.nz and 021 060 4992.

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