Going the Distance: Five Strategies for Maintaining Intimacy & Connection in Your Relationship

Take a moment to remember what it was like to be young and in love.  Love is exhilarating!  And building an intimate bond with the person who you plan to be your life partner is very fulfilling as you grow and dream of your future together.  You feel known, accepted, and complete with “your person” by your side in life.  All you want is to guard and cherish that relationship for a lifetime.  Most of those younger versions of ourselves dream that they will be the type of couple that has a happy and long-lasting relationship that can “go the distance”. 

Beyond these fuzzy feelings, there are also many added benefits of having an intimate relationship with your spouse.  Research has shown through numerous studies that intimate relationships:  reduce stress, improve mortality rates for longer and healthier lives, can provide a greater sense of life purpose, expand awareness of self and others, develop social skills, improve overall health & wellness, improve self-concept, and offer safety and stability.  Despite these, and other satisfying benefits, many still find themselves asking a bigger question:  If marriage is supposed to be so great, then why do some relationships go the distance, and others deteriorate? 

Good things in life typically require an investment.  To have a fulfilling relationship, it takes growth, commitment, awareness, and just like any new experience or job in life, you need tools and skills to be successful.  While there are numerous ways a couple can be resourced with tools that help them grow and overcome challenges, here are five tried and true, research approved strategies for maintaining the intimacy in your relationship for the long haul.


Shared Activities

It’s a natural instinct in humans to grow, learn, and expand their awareness in life.  The brain is designed to constantly evolve throughout its lifespan.  During the initial dating stages of a relationship and the honeymoon phase of marriage, a couple can spend literally hours talking on the phone as they learn about each other.  This is due in part to the hunger that we have to take in new information and expand our understanding for the person we are interested in.  This new rapid surge of knowledge and emotion also works to unlock new internal experiences for the individual.  The addition of a person into your life brings new perspectives, new feelings, new interactions, and new experiences.  Eventually, however, the novelty wears off and the relationship enters into the auto-pilot phase, as we believe that we know everything in the relationship.  This is a natural phenomenon for every relationship, and also limits our ability to grow as a couple, making the relationship vulnerable to misunderstandings and disconnection. 

If the relationship was built off of learning and growing together, then one of the ways that auto-pilot mode can be avoided is to engage in new and fun experiences together again.  This has been tested and supported by the “self-expansion model”.  Psychologists Arthur and Elaine Aron and their colleagues proposed that people naturally want to increase their knowledge and skill-sets to successfully and efficiently achieve their goals (aka: “expand the self”).  They also found that intimate relationships were one of the resources people use to accomplish their self-expansion.  By engaging in new shared activities together, you not only increase your own internal experiences, but you also have your partner’s perspectives, resources, and experiences to add to your growth.  


Traveling and dining out provides unique cultural experiences and are great ways for a couple to see more of the world while they learn and experience new cultures together.  While adventurous and fun, it can also cost more time and money than some people have access to.  Planning dates and self-expansion don’t have to stop there.  Dance lessons, hiking/outdoor activities, cooking, learning and playing new games, book or movie clubs, learning a language, trivia nights, and learning a new sport or exercise are all fun ways to restore the energy and excitement back to the relationship.


Social Support

Life is full of stressors that drain our energy.  Having a social network of supportive friends and loved ones has been shown to improve overall health and wellness.  These social supports affirm how we are valued and cared for.  However, the most unique and important social supporter is found in the role of one’s companion.  This intimate role as a social supporter in marriage assists to facilitate resilience and adaptive coping skills through tough times, provides validation, and shows a general responsiveness towards one’s worth, feelings, needs, and actions.  

Healthy relationships can almost always be characterized by the presence of supportive behaviors.  However, it is also worth noting that the form of support is important.  Visible support, while well-intentioned, can sometimes place added pressure on the spouse, and unintentionally impact their self-esteem, causing them to question their abilities or remind them of how much they’re struggling to even need the extra support.  Visible support can sometimes come in the form of advice, direct statements, or actions that are made known to the recipient.  An example of this could be when your spouse feels insecure about their health and appearance, so they decide to cut back sugar and begin an exercise routine.  As an attempt to support your spouse’s goals, you may say, “I went to the store today and I made sure not to buy any junk food while you’re dieting so you won’t be tempted”.  While incredibly supportive and well intentioned, it can create doubt in the recipients mind that you don’t trust them, it could emphasize their struggle of discipline, and it requires them to use more mental energy to think through their response to you – a response that could result in frustration and hurt feelings when you meant well.  Therefore, the suggested and research approved method is to offer “invisible support”, a supportive behavior that is more subtle and helps to redirect the energy from the stressor to their goals.  Examples could look like this:

  • Buying healthier options at the store, without emphasizing that you did. 
  • Taking care of household chores without mentioning it, even if they don’t typically fall to you.
  • Filling the gas tank and washing the car before your partner takes it to a special event/work meeting.
  • Preparing or ordering in their favorite food, without looking for any praise.
  • Having the coffee/tea prepared before your partner can do it for their early work day.  
  • Hyping up the dog so they are really excited to see your partner when they get home. 

Capitalization

As much as we enjoy having someone to support us through the hard times, people also love it just as much when there is someone to celebrate the good times with us.  Capitalizing on these positive moments with your spouse is another key skill to maintaining emotional intimacy in your relationship.  Sharing positive events with a spouse has many benefits, as it helps to build on one’s personal and interpersonal resources when they have a partner to share and relive the positive moments with.  This experience of sharing helps to expand and deepen those resources, while also providing a mood booster for both spouses as they share the positive experience together.  


The way the listening spouse receives and joins with the celebratory story is vital for how one capitalizes on the opportunity to intimately connect.  There are four things to note, yet only one simple method for this to be most successful as the listener.  The listener has the option to use an active or passive tone along with a constructive or destructive message in the way they respond.  Giving faint praise, being dismissive, negative, or even redirecting the news to one’s own related story are all ways that tear down an important moment through passive and destructive methods.  Meanwhile, an active constructive style provides the highest reported levels of intimacy in relationship exchanges.  This is because this intentional style of responsiveness capitalizes on the moment as the listening partner gives their full attention to share the enthusiasm of the positive event with their spouse, and deepen the positive meaning behind the experience.  It is comforting to feel heard, understood, and validated by a spouse’s most important supporter, no matter how small the positive news.    

Forgiveness

When people engage in intimate relationships, they get to experience the connection and closeness of shared vulnerability with one another.  However, this also means that they will be impacted by human mistakes and hurtful experiences.  These hurtful experiences can come in many forms, such as betrayals, offensive and hurtful comments, or being disappointed, to name the obvious.  When a person experiences a hurt or betrayal, they must process through stages of confusion, sadness, fear, and anger.  These core emotions are natural to experience, but will need to be resolved in order to prevent more damage to the individuals, as well as the marriage.  Unforgiveness breeds resentment, bitterness, and a desire for retaliation.  These feelings build walls that block a couple from growing in their connection and closeness.  The process of reconciliation and forgiveness helps to repair the break, restore, and deepen intimate connection in the marriage.  

There are numerous messages in the Bible, describing the importance of forgiveness for our relationships.  Ephesians 4:32 states, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as Christ forgave you.”  while Romans 12:19-21 shares about God’s desire for us to trust that He will resolve and care for the situation as long as we repay evil with good, rather than matching it with more retaliation.  While forgiveness is primarily a gift to free the mind and heart of the wounded person, it can take intentional work, an openness, reflection towards growth, and prayer.  There are four factors that researchers have found that make forgiveness easier to give for the injured party in a relationship:

  1. Relatively minor offenses are less complex and usually forgiven with more ease.
  2. Partners that have an agreeable temperament, are more emotionally stable, and high in empathy are more inclined to forgive their spouse.
  3. It is helpful for the offender to display genuine remorse and verbal apologies, as this increases the injured’s desire to forgive.  
  4. Lastly, when there is already a high level of commitment and high satisfaction between the wounded and the offender, the likelihood of forgiveness is greater.  

Sexual Satisfaction

The fifth key to maintaining connection in your relationship is through physical and sexual intimacy.  This sexual interaction is a defining feature of a romantic relationship, as it sets it apart from just having a close friendship.  Physical intimacy is also vital for a successful intimate marriage, because it is a sacred bond unlike any other, one that is shared only with one’s spouse.  Psychologists have studied and found that sexual satisfaction is highly correlated with overall relationship fulfillment.  It makes so much sense to consider that sharing a private physical bond would also foster closeness and shared vulnerability.  Because these go hand-in-hand, it can be determined that when a husband and wife are attuned to one another’s needs, then a natural result of that is a good sex life.  And a fulfilling sex life, in turn, also promotes things like connection, communication, general intimacy and an all-around satisfying relationship.  This dynamic encourages deep and personal conversations as a team, that require a husband and wife to keep one another’s needs and experiences as a valued priority.  As mentioned previously, feeling mutually valued and intimately cared for leads a couple to feel cherished and more connected for all of the changing seasons of their lifetime.  

Now that we have listed and discussed these five strategies for maintaining an intimate relationship, you can tuck these away in your metaphorical “tool belt”.  The level of effectiveness will, of course, depend on one’s ability to authentically integrate and implement these into their relationship.  God designed each relationship to be unique, with its own intricacies, so utilizing these strategies consistently along with counseling, mentorship, and spiritual supports, as needed, will be sure to foster the intimacy and connection we all long for in our marriage.  


References

A. (2016, January 19). Self-Expansion Theory in Social Psychology – iResearchNet. Psychology. http://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/social-psychology-theories/self-expansion-theory/

Ephesians 4:32 (NIV). (n.d.). Bible Gateway. Retrieved August 5, 2021, from https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians%204%3A32&version=NIV

Santrock, J. (2014). Life-Span Development (15th ed.). McGraw-Hill Education.

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