Every married couple wants peace, love and happiness in marriage. But far too few find that marriage meets their expectations. Whose fault is this? There are biblical principles that can help couples find, and nourish, the marital intimacy that God intended.
Jim and Linda were much admired by their friends and acquaintances. They were young, good looking and newly married. They had just graduated from college, and Jim had landed his "dream job." In college, Linda had been a vivacious cheerleader and Jim had been a good athlete and good student. He and Linda were excited about his new job and the opportunities ahead, and expected to "live happily ever after."
Bob and Doris were much older when they married, but were still very vigorous and healthy. Doris had been widowed for several years, and met Bob when he began attending her church. Soon, she was swept off her feet by his charm, and had fallen in love. Both Bob and Doris had been lonely, and they bubbled with happiness and excitement as their marriage approached. Both were convinced that their troubles and loneliness were behind them, and that joy and fulfillment lay ahead.
Yet each of these couples saw their dreams turn into nightmares. They brought to marriage their past hurts and insecurities, which were compounded by the ordinary stresses of married life. Love faded, replaced by estrangement and bitterness. In their hurt, they lashed out at their mates. Each had entered marriage hoping for the love and intimacy they had dreamed of but never experienced, but their marriages ended in bitter acrimony. Hurt, fear and resentment triumphed in their lives, and dashed their dreams to pieces.
Why do so few ever achieve such longed-for intimacy in marriage? For every marriage that ends in bitterness, many more hobble along in estrangement and dullness. Does it have to be this way? Is it realistic to expect far more from marriage?
Understand a vital point. God intended from the beginning that marriage be far more than "peaceful coexistence" between two people. He designed mankind as male and female so they might become one in marriage. This oneness carries with it the connotation of true intimacy. But what is intimacy—and how is it developed and nurtured? Most marriages fall far short of the ideal that God intended, but progress can be made by all who are personally willing to grow and to change.
Our growth can begin when we recognize that we can only change ourselves. It is easy to think that if only our mate would change, our problems would be solved. This, of course, is not reality! We all bring into marriage the baggage we have previously accumulated. Because of hurt, many people erect defensive barriers, meant to keep out more hurt and disappointment. In the long run these become barriers to real intimacy. In order to draw really close to another person, one must make oneself vulnerable.
Jim and Linda had both grown up with alcoholic parents. Linda's parents divorced when she was a child. After a tumultuous childhood, she left home as a teenager to live with friends and finish high school. Her outward personality, exuberant and bubbly, hid an inner person who felt inadequate and insecure. She was easily shattered by criticism. Though others considered her very attractive, Linda lived under the shadow of her elegant mother and always felt like a "klutz" whose best would never be good enough. Both Jim and Linda had learned from childhood how to put up a good front before others, but fear kept them from moving beyond that self-protective mechanism—even with each other. Each became convinced that the breakdown of their marriage was the other's fault.
Doris was a teenager when she married her first husband; she spent the next three decades rearing children. While her husband worked hard to eke out a living for the family, he remained cold and emotionally distant from his wife and his children. Throughout her first marriage, Doris was surrounded by people, but she was deeply lonely. She saw in Bob an emotional intensity that she thought would make for a much closer relationship than she ever had with her first husband. Yet she and Bob were easily hurt; they were both fragile emotionally, and were quick to misinterpret each other's words and actions. Misunderstandings always escalated quickly. Each was convinced that if the other would change, everything would be fine.
Clearly, longing for intimacy is not enough. The world is filled with Jims and Lindas, and with Bobs and Dorises, desperately wanting what they have never had. They marry with great expectations, only to have those expectations turn to dust. Greater intimacy can be achieved, but most people do not know the keys that produce intimacy. In this article, we will examine some of those keys.
Building trust in a relationship is the greatest key to developing intimacy. Trust takes time to build, but can be torn down very quickly. What qualities help build trust in marriage? First and foremost is the quality of absolute faithfulness. Adultery will quickly devastate trust. Real faithfulness involves not only avoiding sexual contact with someone other than your mate, but also staying away from the "edges." This means avoiding all forms of pornography, and not allowing yourself to develop other emotionally close relationships with members of the opposite sex. The hurt that can come to your mate because of carelessness in these areas can undermine trust—and will greatly damage your chance of ever achieving true intimacy.
We also build trust by the way we use our tongue. When we belittle or ridicule a person—particularly in the presence of others—we make it very difficult for that person ever to trust us. Who wants to reveal the inner secrets of one's heart to someone who will fling those secrets back hurtfully? Who wants to be the butt of "put-downs"—whether humorously intended or not? We will never willingly reveal our secrets unless we feel safe doing so. Damage is magnified many times over when hurtful words are said in front of others.
Many adults were continually subjected to negative comparisons and derogatory comments while they were growing up. Highly sensitized to criticism, they are quick to feel put down. To trust other people, we must be convinced of their sincerity and their motives. While we cannot make others change their feelings or perceptions, we can conduct ourselves in ways that will foster those changes. When we focus on being trustworthy, by demonstrating loyalty and kindness in our words and deeds, we are becoming the kind of person God wants us to be. In doing that, we are also engendering the kind of environment in which trust can grow.
Forgiveness is another vital key to fostering intimacy in a relationship. Those who keep count of hurts and grievances will never move toward greater closeness. Forgiveness involves letting go of our "right" to justice. The Greek word translated "forgive" in the New Testament is aphiemi. This is the term used in Matthew 6:12, where Christ taught His disciples to ask the Father to "forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." The same term is used in Mark 1:18, where we learn that Jesus' earliest disciples, who were fishermen, "left their nets." To forgive is to leave behind.
Those who are determined to punish each offense, and to see that the other party "knows what it feels like," will only ensure that the cycle of hurt is never broken. When we forgive, it means that we turn loose of the offense. Past mistakes must not be revisited over and over again whenever we face a fresh conflict. Readiness to forgive should be one of the hallmarks of a Christian—and it is a necessary component of any intimate marriage. As the Apostle Paul explained in 1 Corinthians 13, love does not keep an account of evil.
Accepting God's forgiveness in our lives is essential, if we are to give forgiveness to others. Many who have the most trouble forgiving others grew up in homes where they never experienced much in the way of real forgiveness. They grew up viewing pardon as something that has to be earned or deserved, so they have trouble understanding the concept that the Bible calls grace. Even when they sincerely repent and begin to change, they remain weighed down by their shame over past and present sins, unable to forgive themselves. Unable to forgive themselves, they are unable to forgive others. The unaccepted become the unaccepting, and the unforgiven become the unforgiving. Those who cannot understand and accept God's grace for themselves are certainly unable to extend true forgiveness to others.
Another key to building an intimate relationship with your mate is to spend time talking about what is important to each of you. The ability to share hopes and dreams builds a bond that grows with the sharing. Communication involves much more than one person talking; it must also involve someone listening. Active listening—seeking to understand what the other person is really trying to say—will help minimize misunderstanding, and will encourage communication.
We communicate not only by our words, but also by our body language, our voice inflection and the look in our eyes. Paying attention to someone, and actively listening, actually conveys a message from the listener—it says that the listener considers the speaker important! When we tune out our mate's conversation, perhaps because we are absorbed in a television show or in reading the newspaper, we are sending a strong message that we do not value him or her. While that may not be the message that we wish to send, it is likely the message that our mate will be receiving.
We must also be sure to apply the Golden Rule when we speak. Speak to your mate with the same sort of kindness, courtesy and consideration that you want your mate to use toward you. Unkind and hurtful comments will shut down real communication, and make the hearer feel defensive. When we feel defensive, we generally quit listening, and we start defending and protecting ourselves.
In our hectic, fast-paced world, many couples never seem to find time to talk deeply. If a husband and wife want to grow in intimacy and closeness, they must ensure that they have time alone—without interruption—to talk about what is on their minds. Look for a time or a place that works within your circumstances, whether it may be a walk together, sitting on the porch or going out for coffee or a meal. If you cannot find time for this in your schedule, you had better examine your priorities and rearrange your schedule. You cannot be close without communication.
A fourth vital key is to value giving over getting. When we focus simply on meeting our own needs and wants, we are taking an inherently selfish approach to life. A fundamental difference between love and lust is that love focuses on giving, helping and serving the other person, while lust focuses only on deriving pleasure for the self. When we practice the way of give in a relationship, we are displaying the very mind of Christ (Philippians 2:3–8).
At their wedding, husband and wife customarily promise to love, honor and cherish one another. Yet, after the wedding, too many focus on their needs rather than their responsibilities. No human being can totally meet the needs of another. Only God can do that! Dr. Larry Crabb, noted author and psychologist, compares marital selfishness to a tick's view of a dog. The tick, says Crabb, does not care what he can give the dog to help it have a good life. Rather, it seeks what is in it for him. The problem with many marriages is that there are two ticks and no dog!
Demanding that our mate make us happy will only intensify our sense of emptiness and frustration. Others simply cannot guarantee our feelings by their actions. We are responsible for how we treat our mate, but we cannot take responsibility for how they feel. Another person's feelings depend on too many factors beyond our control. We must each assume responsibility for our own feelings and behavior, while we let others take responsibility for theirs.
Jesus Christ emphasized the importance of being a giver. But if we are to emulate Christ's example, we must remember that His giving was always motivated by love—and that He gave from the heart. When we give to another, but do it begrudgingly rather than from the heart, it is unfulfilling to giver and receiver, and also unacceptable before God. Only if we look to God to meet all of our needs (cf. Philippians 4:19) can we truly have what it takes to genuinely give to others. Putting our focus on giving rather than taking is a vital key to real happiness in life.
In applying these principles that lead to greater intimacy in marriage, never forget that the most important intimate relationship is the one we have with God. He is the only One who can supply all of our needs and fill our inner emptiness. When we expect another human being to do so, we are making an impossible demand and setting ourselves up for disappointment and frustration.
Seek God's help to grow and change. He is always there, and is the source of the power that we need to truly change our attitudes and behavior. Real change must be made from the inside out—and that change is only possible through the help and power of God.
Be thankful, and count your blessings every day. No one who remains unthankful can experience real contentment in life. We can derive an inner peace and contentment from our relationship with God, far more than from the circumstances around us. When we have this inner peace from God, we can exude it in our relationships with others. Being thankful and casting our cares upon our Creator, recognizing His loving care for us, leads to this spirit of peace.
We should also seek to develop a healthy sense of humor, and learn to see the lighter side of life. This can help us to put life in perspective. A look at the creation certainly demonstrates that God has a sense of humor; just think of the antics of the animal world. Are we able to laugh at ourselves, and to recognize our own foibles and idiosyncrasies? If not, we will go through life taking ourselves far too seriously and being quick to bristle up and have our feelings hurt.
As human beings, we were made for intimacy. Our Creator wanted us to share intimacy with Him—and intimacy with a lifelong mate—as fulfilling blessings from Him. Such intimacy does not come easily or naturally, because our fear and our defensiveness all too often get in the way. However, with God's help, we can change and grow toward achieving our ultimate potential. It really is possible to build a more intimate marriage, and to learn lessons from that marriage that will help us prepare for a genuinely intimate relationship with our Creator and our Savior for all eternity.