November 11, 2014

Artificial Intimacy

Gary Thomas — 

Artificial Intimacy


Why do couples who are convinced they have found “the one” end up divorcing each other just a few years (or sometimes a couple decades) into their marriage? There was a time when they couldn’t imagine being apart for five hours; now they can’t bear the thought of being together for five minutes; what happened?

In many cases, the relationship existed only on what I call “artificial intimacy.” True intimacy—that sense of “oneness” that we all seek—has to be pursued and built rather than simply discovered and felt. Artificial intimacy is sustained by the common events of life, but usually comes to a huge crash as soon as the couple enters the empty nest years if true intimacy hasn’t replaced it.

In the Beginning

Artificial intimacy begins with the onset of infatuation, a “grab your brains with a vengeance” neurochemical reaction that makes us virtually blind to our partner’s faults but is notoriously short lived, with a shelf life of about 12 to 18 months.

In addition to infatuation, early relationship “compatibility” is also enhanced artificially via sexual chemistry. When infatuation and sexual chemistry are strong, compatibility, or incompatibility barely even register. You both feel crazy about each other, you can barely keep your hands to yourself—how could you not be compatible? You don’t even really have to do anything to sustain your desire for each other; just being alive makes you feel compatible. And so, on this basis, and often on this basis alone, the couple decides to get married.

When Spring Turns to Summer

When a couple begins to move toward marriage and set a date for the wedding, even though the initial artificial intimacy may be on the decline, planning the ceremony gives them something in common and keeps them going. They plan it, talk about it, and divide up tasks to make it happen. This is “intimacy” of a sort, but it’s a superficial intimacy, the intimacy of co-workers, not life-mates.

Once the couple gets back from the honeymoon, they will start setting up a house, move into a new apartment or neighborhood, and try to join two lives. That also joins them in a common task and gives them something to talk about.  What color should we paint the bedroom? Do you think we’ll be here long enough to bother with planting trees outside? Where’s our new favorite hangout?

As life moves on, just when things could get boring again, the couple is likely to start raising kids. That’s a big thing to have in common and requires a lot of communication. You go to childbirth classes, you build a nursery, you raise the kids, and then you have to communicate to get the kids to the right places. You share your kids’ failures and successes. Eventually those kids repay you for your faithful service by growing up and leaving the two of you alone together.

That’s when you find out how much intimacy you really have.

At the start of the relationship it was just infatuation and sexual chemistry. Then it was the joint task of planning a ceremony. Then, setting up a home. After that, raising kids. In days past these life events could take marriages to the doorstep of death and eternity, but modern couples can blow through these stages of life in two and a half decades, often leaving another 30 years or more of marriage to follow. That’s a long time to be lonely and to live with a familiar looking stranger.  If you haven’t consciously built true intimacy, the relationship is going to collapse right at this point.

Some couples have to wake up to the reality that they’ve been living relationally on shared tasks, not shared intimacy. They haven’t prayed together. They haven’t shared their dreams. They haven’t carried each other’s burdens and then built that all-important empathy for each other. They’re teammates, not spouses, and now that the season is over, what’s to hold them together?

When couples get divorced and start over with someone else, the second relationship initially feels more fulfilling than the first because, once again, it’s existing on artificial intimacy: infatuation and sexual chemistry retake their place on center stage, the two once again enter the relationship building of sharing past histories, planning a ceremony, setting up a new life together… But the same dynamics will bring this affection to an end as well if the couple doesn’t consciously build true intimacy.

Making a Marriage

One of the main messages of my writing/speaking career on marriage has been this: a good marriage isn’t something you find, it’s something you make, and you have to keep on making it. Just as importantly (and herein lies the hope), you can also begin “re-making” it at any stage.

If you wake up to the sobering reality that you’ve existed on artificial compatibility, that doesn’t mean you can’t begin to build true intimacy. True intimacy can be pursued at any stage of marriage. It would be much better for everyone involved if, instead of seeking a divorce and building yet another relationship on artificial intimacy, the couple chooses to begin building true intimacy, with God as the center of the relationship.

I can tell you this: the level of maturity it will take to rebuild a stale marriage instead of killing it and moving on can lead to some of the most transformative growth of your life. It will require hope, courage, patience, honesty, understanding, and perseverance—all key virtues for a Christ-like life.

How do you start building or rebuilding that intimacy? Well, that’s what A Lifelong Love: What if Marriage is About More than Just Staying Together? is all about. To keep this blog post under 1000 words, all I can offer is this (to some) shocking diagnosis: if your marriage is frustrating or underwhelming, it’s possible that you haven’t even really experienced what true marital intimacy is all about. Doesn’t it make sense to first seek that out instead of just start over with someone else?

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23 responses to Artificial Intimacy

  1. I am feeling so depressed about my 34 year marriage. My husband has a nasty mouth on him and a bad attitude. He is a christian, but he does not understand how insensitive to me he really is. I try to bite my tongue and not respond to him in anger. Hard to do! For the past four weeks I have been having severe lower back pain that has been waking me up at night. My husband treats me like I’m in his way all the time. He lives more like he is still a bachelor, although, he is a bachelor with a wife!! I feel heart-broken and wish the Lord would just come and take me home to Heaven. I am really wounded, frustrated, and tired of it all. I am afraid I have become a bitter wife.

    • I’m so sorry you are physically and emotionally in pain. I pray that God will wrap his loving arms around you and know how much he loves you. Sometimes tough love is best for someone who treats you so harshly. Healthy boundaries of what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. God bless

  2. How do you discover real intimacy when your spouse of 14 years has closed off his heart to you and doesn’t communicate with you? I made a lot of mistakes early on and I had a hard time letting love lead me. I have learned from that and grown a lot in myself. However, my husband decided to give up and stop trying a couple of years ago. I long for a connection with him, but I feel he has shut the door and is not interested in intimacy, just sex. My heart is breaking and I wish I could go back and change things, but I can’t! He is not open to counseling. I have sought therapy alone for myself and to try and fix me. My fear is that he is with me out of sheer obligation and that is not going to last a lifetime, just until
    our kids are grown.

    • You might find some encouragement here: I know it has helped me and many other women. Many of her posts talk about exactly that: how to proceed biblically even when your husband is distant and disinterested.

      • Peaceful is great – look for the post on “what looks disrespectful to men”. It’s a 3 page list (to the point)!! It could look for legalistic- but while reading it, pray for the Holy Spirit to be your resident teacher and teach you about your husband. It’s a very encouraging blog!

  3. i truly want to find true intamacy in my marriage I am running into a couple of problems one is my mother-in-law has come to live with us and requires a lot of care I am the one responsible for her care(I also work).Her Daughters did not want to care for her but call and tell me how to take care of her. The other is that my spouse is constantly looking at other women in a way that he should be looking at me. I feel exhausted,hurt and frustrated.

    • Lisa, I feel part of your pain. I’m on the fence right now in my marriage. This last blow pushed it to brink of “I’m human, my heart can only take so much”. Gary’s message in this book is part of what needs to be taught during pre-marital counseling for those who seek that.
      Many of us jump into the bandwagon of matrimony with the infatuation, and sexual chemistry thinking that it’s love. That’s the danger. Marriage is as intricate as the body. Constant godly counseling on every level, and the willingness to please The Trinity with our thoughts, and turn over sexual needs to Him. It’s nothing but selfishness, and no regards for the title which we carry “Christian”.

    • Lisa – I too am feeling what you experience! I’m so sorry. My husband has participated in porn the entire 27 years for our marage. He hid it for some of the time and told half truths about it the other time. He’s in such denial and blaming anything as to not have to accept this truth. He doesn’t put together that his up-bringing was so dysfunctional it lead him right to the sickening artificial intimacy
      . Unfortunately, I continued to pursue him inspite of him rejecting me time and time again. It’s so sad how deceived he is. No one ever taught him tobe a boy much less a man! His mother could not and doesn’t connect to anyone. So sad!

  4. Man. Jim really laid it out there. Great post!

  5. I like Gary’s main message: a good marriage isn’t something you find, it’s something you make, and you have to keep on making it. Just as importantly (and herein lies the hope), you can also begin “re-making” it at any stage.

    My husband and I have an amazing top-of-the-line marriage, but it wasn’t always this way. I had to learn to go to God with my complaints, rather than dump them on my husband. That made such a huge difference. I also tried to focus on the good things I appreciated about him, and talk about those things on a regular basis.

    Sometimes we have to lead the way in giving, loving, and honoring. It’s hard, but that’s what Christ did for us. And he won many of us over into a deep lasting relationship as a result.

    • How can I lead my wife to God. I have to ask her to pray with me. She does it but something is still not right. It would be nice for her to come to me and ask if I would pray with her. Help me please.

  6. “True intimacy—that sense of ‘oneness’ that we all seek—has to be pursued and built rather than simply discovered and felt.” Spot on, Gary! This principle applies to every single relationship, not just in marriage — and most of all in our relationship with the Lord. Everyone I know wants a better marriage, better relationships with their children, a deeper intimacy with Jesus — but they seem to think it possible to wish intimacy into existence rather than pursue and build it through self denial, sacrifice and service. Lord, make us willing to not only *wish* for deeper intimacy with our spouse and with you, but to put in the effort that allows your spirit to make it a reality in our lives!

  7. Jim,

    I understand your pain, but I think you missed the point of Gary’s message. We are naturally hungry for the first stage of relationships where things were exciting and we couldn’t keep our hands off each other. That’s not true intimacy, that’s lust. (and it’s GREAT!, but unsustainable unless we find true intimacy) Gary is saying that when we finally connect with spiritual intimacy, physical intimacy will follow. I believe what he says is correct. I just wish I knew how to get there.

    • I have just learned that true intimacy is knowing and being known. That means spending time with each other, asking each other questions about hopes, dreams, and thoughts. It’s similar to the way we get to know God and be known by God.

  8. Jim, I wouldn’t call turning down sex ‘controlling when we have sex.’ It’s saying you don’t want to. Sex should be by mutual agreement, so controlling when it happens would mean forcing your partner to have sex whether they want to or not – not using your freedom to say no.

    Maybe your wife could be putting herself out more to meet your needs – I don’t know all the facts – but if so, that’s a different thing from controlling when you have sex.

  9. What do you do if only one of you is interested in building true intimacy? My wife controls when we have sex. It is once a week and only on weekends. Its always been that way. I gave in a long time ago. There is bitterness and disappointment on both sides. I am reading through sacred marriage. I have learned that God uses difficult marriages to build us in Christ likeness. I am a work in progress, but I need hope for more intimacy.

    • Jim- I hope that wasnt a true thought that you believe your marriage is a difficult one because your sex is regulated to a most comfortable time for your spouse? In the game of perspective I think you know this sounds selfish and needy on your part not dismissive on her part. Embrace the positive things in your marriage and remember all seasons of marriage are unique and whats normal now may not be in another season! hang in there! Its worth it

      • Todd, What you told Jim is false. God said in 1st Corinthians 7:4-5 “A wife does not have the right over her own body, but her husband does. In the same way, a husband does not have the right over his own body, but his wife does. Do not deprive one another sexually—except when you agree for a time to devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again; otherwise, Satan may tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”

        She is the one being selfish. Once a week is ridiculous. Moreover, for her to say she only wants her husband’s body once a week is insulting. I’ll be praying for you, Jim.

        • Thank you, Zema. I feel for him as well. I’m not sure why so much blame gets heaped on men…though I do wonder if this instant assumption that the man must not be meeting the (more-important, so some believe) relational needs and that MUST be the reason. Isn’t it ever possible for a woman to be unreasonable and at fault? I know I have been. And I don’t think the average man (at least before a certain age) is happy with sex once a week.

          I hope you guys are able to work this out together, with prayer and maybe the help of a skilled counselor.

        • I agree with you Zema!

        • I agree. My wife never come to me. I have a,ways had to ask her. As a man we too have the need to be wanted by our spouses.

    • True intimacy to a man is physical and to a woman it it mental/emotional. If you began to have sex only when she could fit it into she schedule she probably had a big need at that time & you didnt realize it, you gave in when she needed you to lead/pick up on her need. Prayers to you for healing & moving forward. I have the only desire in my relationship to have true intimacy & he is happy to live on his own.