By Barney Armstrong, MA, LMHCA, Bellevue Christian Counseling
You can share lot of experiences with your mate, but what can bring you especially close (in the way that ultimately leads to good sex) are your shared emotional experiences. That is — knowing how each other feels, communion over the emotions that you share about your love, and adoration of each other and the life you share together. In this article, I will explore how such emotional experiences can foster intimacy, deepen your bond with your spouse, and ultimately lead to better sex and a more fulfilling marriage.
Shared Experience in Friendship
What is intimacy? What role does shared experience play? A good starting point for thinking about shared experience and intimacy is friendship. What is the substance of friendship, and how do you know if you are experiencing friendship?
One of the best ways of defining true friendship is to say that you experience friendship when you know that the other person knows how you feel …and…. they know that you know how they feel. If you are friends with someone in this sense, you might be walking down the road together and realize that you don’t even have to say anything to feel connected; you are communing, which may or may not include words. A negative example would be fox-hole buddies. Men who have fought in the same fox-hole together are often deeply committed buddies for life. The shared experience they have is the look of terror they may have seen in each other’s eyes — in those moments, they each know very well that the other knows how they feel.
That Mystic Sweet Communion: Shared Experience Unpacked
Shared experience – you’re familiar with that. When you have heard a piece of music that really captivates you and you say to someone, “Hey, you gotta’ listen to this!” What you are hoping for is for them to experience that same captivating feeling you had. And we do it with so many other things — showing pictures of your kids that someone else would share the delight you have; high-fiving someone after just yelling your lungs out together at a spectacular play at a football game; showing someone a thing of beauty like a great piece of art or poetry, or a sunset or waterfall. You have a natural desire to feel the sense of shared experience – for them to feel what you feel. That natural desire to create resonance, to create in an ‘other’ a corresponding set of neural connections whereby an ‘other’ literally becomes more like you, to know that another feels what you feel and vice-versa — that’s friendship, and sitting together in the enjoyment of that shared experience is communion.
Recent brain research has revealed a fascinating effect of this kind of shared experience. The brain of “the other” produces new neural connections almost identical to those of the one who had the original experience and shared it. These are called mirror neurons or resonant neural networks – for a given shared experience there is a resonant (parallel or mirror) set of new connections created in the brain of the receiver of the shared experience mirroring those of the one who shared.* When you commune with someone in this way, you become like one another literally, as these are not just fleeting shared emotions but new neural circuitry created to support them.
Sex Instead of Intimacy:
This idea of biological and emotional communion is a very helpful guiding thought when you are looking to grow in intimacy. Especially it is helpful in thinking about that with your spouse. I say “especially” because we get a lot of vague ideas about intimacy in the marriage relationship. “Intimacy” is typically first thought of as sexual activity. After that it might be a misnomer for melodrama or gushiness. But we can get our thoughts going the right direction if we realize that what you want with your mate is the same kind of thing you want in general – you want communion, and this comes via shared experience.
Clearly, shared experience can be sexual experience; but very often the complaints from couples are that physical encounters have become boring and they suspect there is a lack of intimacy. Wives (more often) commonly complain in some form or another that “something should be happening during the day,” or “you ignore me and then you want sex.” Sex can be a quick way to avoid all of the anxiety that goes with being truly intimate.
Shared experience and intimacy is courageous work. It requires two things: self-disclosure and other-validation. Sharing how you are genuinely feeling is risk-taking. Done right, you will feel anxiety. Why? Because you are vulnerable; you risk being shamed. It reminds me of when, in seventh grade, I went to go ask a girl I had noticed to “go steady” (something we did in those days, roughly equivalent to “will you be my girl?”). I was very nervous because I was revealing my desire and I risked being rejected and put down, i.e. shame.
Remember, in Genesis 3? The errant couple became ashamed and they hid themselves – which became virtually a description for the human race: ashamed and hiding. Coming out of hiding is risky and the safest place to self-reveal is to someone emotionally committed to you. The flip side – validating the other’s feelings, wants and emotions– requires something of you as well. It requires active generosity and a trust that you are not giving up any turf in that imagined tug-of-war that couples so often find themselves in.
Christian Marriage Counseling Can Help Foster Intimacy
This is the intimacy of marriage, the “fox-hole” friendship of two who are emotionally committed. It demands that you grow in handling your own anxiety and your generosity to your spouse. It’s likely that this is what your spouse can’t quite put their finger on when they are wondering why sex lacks intimacy. The shared experience of emotional disclosure and validation in marriage is friendship of the deepest kind. But it is also difficult to achieve, because vulnerability necessitates risk. If you and your partner are struggling to form this kind of connection, Christian marriage counseling is a great way to uncover shared emotional experiences. Please do not hesitate to contact me to find out how I can help you and your partner discover how to foster intimacy by tapping into your shared emotional experiences. I would be delighted to help you discover new depths of communion and closeness with one another that will lead to better sex and a healthier, happier marriage.
*From Being A Brain-Wise Therapist by Bonnie Badenoch, pp. 37-40.
Images cc: iCLIPART – couple taking photograph and Fotolio – Couple laying on grass