Physical and emotional intimacy are intrinsically linked. Here’s how to better understand how they’re at play in your relationship.

It’s a Saturday evening. You and your partner have just finished up a nice dinner and movie night. As he drives you home, you reach out your hand to his, but he doesn't follow suit. And so, the cycle begins. 

This isn't the first or the last time you and he will be on a different page about physical touch. Maybe you're hoping for a big bear hug at the end of the night—a real moment of prolonged connection—and instead get a peck on the cheek. Perhaps you grab his hand while strolling in the park only to have him unlatch at the first easy opportunity. 

Your mind jumps to conclusions: Maybe he doesn't really love me? Why doesn't he appreciate my gestures? Good news is, you're not alone in this experience. Some may explain this situation as your man being culturally averse to intimacy or you being clingy. But the real reason you always feel like you have to ask your man for physical touch is much more than just a matter of cultural norms or the gender divide.

Those of us in the mental health field understand that physical intimacy is never just about physicality. Instead, issues with physical intimacy have a lot more to do with how your man was raised and your ability to communicate as a couple than him being “your typical guy” or you being a “typical woman.” Let me explain.

What does his past experience have to do with it?

An aversion to physical intimacy usually begins with observing negative relationships, and/or being in one during your developmental years. When such an experience happens, a man internalizes the script that relationships tend to be dangerous and physical intimacy only increases such danger. If your man grew up watching a relationship where physical intimacy was used as a weapon, then he would naturally become averse to physical intimacy. 

For example, perhaps his mother used to withhold physical affection from his father unless his father took out the trash. Your guy could then develop an aversion to physical intimacy. Even if he recognized his parents' behavior as something he didn't want for himself, he could still fall into the trap of rejecting physical intimacy altogether in a desperate attempt to defend himself against that possibility. The point here is not to make excuses for him; instead it is so you can understand his point of view, just as he needs to understand yours.

Within your relationship, it is vital that you discover, understand, and remember your partner's own experience of relationships since (as previously mentioned) that encounter shapes his view of intimacy. In order to do this, you need to master good communication skills, which brings us to our next point.

What does communication have to do with it?

Within a dating relationship or a marriage, if the emotional intimacy is low then the physical intimacy will feel unnatural. But, contrary to popular belief, the best way to build emotional intimacy is not through more physical intimacy. Good communication is the key to deeper emotional intimacy and, from there, more hand holding and more fulfilling physical intimacy will prosper.

Understanding and empathy are two of the main building blocks for proper communication and the most vital skills to a relationship’s success. The purpose of communication should always center on education, understanding, and discussing each other’s needs. Keep in mind, that proper communication never centers on winning or domination. When a person begins to focus on “winning an argument,” they have already lost the opportunity to deepen their emotional intimacy with the other person.

The elements of a proper conversation are 1.) accurate empathy and 2.) effective expression. Empathy means seeing the worldview of the other without allowing ours to cloud our vision. An example of empathy would be for your partner to acknowledge: “You feel unloved when I don’t hold your hand in the car.” As you can see, empathy is rather simple when you focus on the other person’s feelings instead of facts, or what “really happened.” Let me be clear, though, empathy is not about agreeing with someone. Instead, it is showing them that you understand their point of view.

Proper expression should be subjectively stated, be about a specific behavior, and should conclude by conveying a positive need. An example of a proper expression with our current predicament could be you saying to him: “I feel unloved when you won’t hold my hand. I really want to hold yours so often because I love you so much, and I want you to know how much I want to be with you.” Do you see how this expression is subjectively stated (I feel), is about a specific behavior (hand holding), and ends with talking about the positive desire (I love you and want to show my love)?

It has been both my professional and personal experience that when couples use these communication skills they are able to effectively dialogue with physical intimacy problems. In doing so, they both grow in emotional intimacy and develop the relational skills necessary to help them thrive within their relationships. If you and your partner are struggling with agreeing on physical intimacy, then I encourage you to practice these communication skills.

No matter what, couples should understand that physical intimacy is just one component of a healthy relationship and, in my clinical experience, it’s not even the most vital component of a relationship. Instead, friendship, trust, fondness, admiration, and commitment are the most important elements in a flourishing romantic relationship. When these essential qualities of a healthy relationship are in place, physical intimacy falls into place, too.

Photo Credit: Brittni Willie