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Dating And Relationships - Overview | May 24, 2021, 4:57 CDT

Less Sex, More Intimacy

Try these affection alternatives when being physically intimate is out of the cards.
Aleck Woogmaster

Intimacy usually falls into one of these four separate categories

  • Physical: Touch, kinetic activity and physical closeness.
  • Emotional: Expressions of love, fear, desires and needs.
  • Mental: Intellectual stimulation and cognitive collaboration.
  • Spiritual: Exploring values, examining belief systems and recognizing poignant moments which resonate strongly or stir intuition.

Each of these dimensions is subject to different interpretations in different people, but all are equally significant in developing healthy relationships built on sturdy foundations.

How do you explore each of these dimensions with a new or long-term partner, especially when physical contact may be limited?

Discuss vulnerability

Discussing topics that evoke feelings of vulnerability is difficult. When it comes to vulnerable subjects stemming from our own history, there's a stark difference between internal and external dialogue.

We've all gone through the process of rehearsing a conversation mentally only to have the topic blocked by a lump in the throat. Sensitive subjects tend to be rooted in experiences that are stress-inducing, nuanced or even traumatic, and there are various reasons we may walk on eggshells when it comes to discussing them with a partner. Often, these conversations are complicated by the fact we don't want to project our past onto the people supporting us in the present. Because of this, we avoid topics that make us feel vulnerable.

In a case like this, you may want to combine emotional and intellectual intimacy. By approaching the issue with open-ended questions about the subject of vulnerability itself, the conversation can follow a natural path to the individual concerns of not one, but both parties.

However, initiating an intellectual discussion about a subject can't take precedence over the real feelings that prompted the topic. If you enter a conversation from an intellectual perspective, you have to understand your emotionally centered reasons for doing so and hold space for those emotions so they come up consciously and non-argumentatively.

Avoiding an argument is key. It can be easy to lose track of objectivity in the interest of emotional concerns or vice versa. When this happens, the conversation takes on a blame-based quality, and personally vulnerable topics become potential target practice for the person who perceives blame being directed at them.

Try this three-step process: Start a conversation with well-meaning questions, move on to honest and self-aware statements and be willing to listen to feedback and observations from your partner. Use this advice to level the conversational playing field as opposed to establishing or giving up leverage regarding sensitive subjects.

Schedule technology breaks, together

One common piece of advice for enhancing physical intimacy between partners is to schedule sex or "touching sessions" such as those involving massage or cuddling. There's nothing wrong with this advice, but doing so in the modern world requires eliminating technology.

Taking regular technology breaks has vast and far-reaching health benefits mentally, physically and spiritually. The individual rewards of a tech recess are well-documented in modern research, and the benefit of such practices for couples may be equally, if not more, significant.

Arranging a date or even simply setting aside a regular hour or two when both partners put away phones and shut off computers opens the door for explorations of intimacy in each of the four dimensions. How difficult is it to discuss emotionally, intellectually or spiritually sensitive subjects when the pings of cell phone notifications keep interrupting? How hard is it to continue holding your partners' hand when you feel a compelling vibration in your pocket, indicating someone, somewhere else would like your attention? It may be easy to overlook the significance of these distractions, but do so at your peril and risk of incalculable damage to the shared sense of intimacy in your relationship.

The idea here is to be present with one another; doing so is next to impossible if you allow the cold, inconsiderate hand of technology to wrap its fingers around your time. Of course, technology is so embedded into everyday life and the responsibilities of adulthood, you might find techless time difficult to arrange. However, people got by for a long time in this world without convenient correspondence at their fingertips 24/7. You certainly can, too.

Plan by agreeing to time frames you can adhere to and make arrangements for potential interruptions. For example, if you agree to go on a date without your phones but you have young children who will be at home with a sitter, pick the restaurant ahead of time and take note of the establishment's phone number.

There are all kinds of workarounds to a tech-free night, and engaging with your partner to develop these experiences for each other is another exercise to enable a greater presence of intimacy in your relationship.

Embrace the written words of your partner

Couples often find they are able to address issues in text easier than in conversation. Text messaging has provided relationships with another tool at each person's disposal, but the convenience of this modern tech often overshadows the intrinsic value of the old-fashioned written word.

Texting comes with its own complications. We can interpret delayed responses as deference or manipulation. Text messages are often written with a tonal quality in mind, which doesn't always translate to the reader. The medium of a texting exchange is also impacted, in both subtle and significant ways, by competing phone platforms and the ever-present aspect of "brain drain" as a consequence of too much time spent staring at a screen.

Counselors and therapists often encourage journaling as an exercise in developing intimacy with oneself. The process of freewriting gives a person an opportunity to indulge, enhance and reflect upon their thoughts and feelings. This exercise can provide a relationship with the same advantages.

You don't need to give each other unfettered access to the most intimately personal chapters in your diary, but there are ways to incorporate aspects of journaling into your relationship. It may be as simple as having a dedicated email thread in which you take the time to address hopes, dreams, fears and worries. Perhaps you share an old-fashioned notebook where you each make entries and take the time to digest the other's handwritten thoughts. Maybe you even use your technology breaks as opportunities to try freewriting sessions.

There's something special about handwriting. If writing, in general, explores the three non-corporeal dimensions of intimacy, handwriting brings a physical aspect into it, as well.

The ball is rolling

Remember these are suggestions, and each is open to interpretations or improvements as you deem necessary. You may read these and feel excitement and inspiration or maybe discouragement if any of these options seem inaccessible in your relationship dynamics.

Do not despair. Try addressing these ideas with your partner and asking them what they think. If they like the sound of one of these practices, try it out! If they have ideas for improving upon or attempting alternatives, engage with them. You've already started the process. Now, carry the momentum forward.

Aleck Woogmaster