Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Intimacy lessons from a jar of peanut butter

A couple of nights ago I felt a bit peckish so I went to make myself a PB&J.  As I reached for the peanut butter, I noticed it was a jar from the grocery store.  Normally we buy 20lb pails of all-natural peanut butter and divide it up into smaller jars we keep in the freezer.  I knew we just finished a jar of that, but I didn't know that it was the last one.  I didn't write peanut butter on the shopping list or say anything to my wife about it when she went out to the store earlier that day.

I am the one who is the primary consumer of peanut butter in the family by far, and my wife rarely eats it, so I was very touched that she noticed we were out and took care of it even before I was aware of the need.

In many ways, I think this is a good metaphor for how intimacy in marriage should be handled.  Each spouse has relationship needs and desires that are personal and individual, and usually they must rely on their partner to fulfill those needs. What one spouse needs may be of no interest to their partner just as food preferences are personal, but marriage works best when each spouse is happily committed to ensuring their spouse's needs are well met.

Does your husband like it when you wear lingerie for him?  Does your wife want you to just hold her close and assure her of what she means to you?  Then do it often enough that they never feel the need to ask for it.  Is there some fantasy or intimate act that would blow their mind to receive?  Plan on blowing their mind when they least expect it.  It means a lot more to your spouse when you show them you know them that well and care enough to act without prompting.

But what about when the desires of one spouse collide with the inhibitions or fears of the other?  This is a situation that can lead to conflict, but if handled well it can lead to personal growth and a much stronger bond between husband and wife.  Certainly there are lines that should never be crossed, anything that would land you in jail, endanger your health or make you unworthy of a temple recommend should never be an option, but when not dealing with such extremes there should at least be a willingness to make an honest effort to meet your spouse's needs.

By needs, I'm not talking about the bare bones minimum needed to maintain the existence of the relationship, I'm talking about anything that moves the relationship closer to the complete mutual fulfillment and 'oneness'. There are differing levels of need as well.  Something may be a wish, a curiosity that wants to be satisfied, a fantasy,  while other things may be fundamental requirements to their feeling accepted, desired, appreciated, and loved.  The greater the level of need for something is, the greater the effort that should be made to meet it. 

Some tips for meeting your spouses needs:

1.  Get to really know each other
Do you know what your spouses needs are, and which ones are most important to their happiness?  Have you told your spouse what yours are? 
What would they like to change in the relationship, what would you like to change? 
As much as I would love for my wife to be able to read my mind, she can't.  The responsibility then falls to me to teach her about me, to make sure that she knows me that well.  Needs can change over time, and the level of need for something can fluctuate with circumstances so communication should be ongoing in this area.

You may encounter situations where you and your spouse have conflicting needs.  It is unhealthy in a marriage for one spouse's fulfillment to come at the expense of the other's.  Clarifying needs will help in finding ways to achieve mutual fulfillment.   Sometimes we think we need something when really what we need is what we expect to get from that thing.  For example: saying we need a 1/4 inch drill bit when in reality what we need is a 1/4 inch hole. 

2.  Be accepting and understanding
You can not decide what your spouse's needs are, or how important they are to them.  If they desire something that falls outside the range of what you are comfortable with, do not condemn or judge them or the thing they want.  You might get them to suppress it and let you 'off the hook' that way, but only at the cost having them feel rejected judged, ensuring they won't easily open up their heart to you again.  Instead of increased intimacy you will have a wall of fear and shame.  If you already have built that wall, start to dismantle it with a sincere apology.

A better path would be to accept your spouse in full, including their desires, without judgement or shame, and perhaps try and understand where the need comes from.  Often there are painful events in the past that create deep emotional needs that last our whole life long.  Sometimes needs are biologically driven.  Men typically desire sexual intimacy far more frequently than women do.  A woman who doesn't understand that her husband's need for frequent sex has a large biological component may misjudge his motives as selfish lust and not appreciate the compliment he give her by focusing his desire on only her, and fail to see his pursuit of sexual intimacy with her as evidence of his devotion and love for her.

3.  Be unselfish
Dedicate yourself to meeting the intimacy needs of your spouse rather than focus on making them meet yours.  Intimacy can't be taken by force, only given willingly and marriage is a promise to give yourself to your spouse.  

1 Corinthians 7
Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband.
 The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife.
 Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency.

It is easier to do this of course if your spouse is already doing that, but if that isn't the case somebody has to go first and you are the one reading this, so you just volunteered.  If there are unresolved conflicts or festering resentments that leave you unable to focus on their needs, start by overcoming those barriers.
Don't shy away from the battle of overcoming personal inhibitions or fears.  If you encounter obstacles of that nature, ask yourself if they serve a righteous purpose.  Do those limits make your marriage better?  Are they restrictions that God has set out for mankind, and if not where did you get them from?  What would be so bad about being free of them?  What would be good about being free of them?  If they are rooted in some trauma from the past, they may require professional help to overcome, but making that journey to freedom will be a blessing to you, your spouse and your family.

4.  Take action
After you feel you have a handle on knowing what your spouse's needs are, commit yourself to action.  You don't have to do everything and you don't have to do it all right away, but pick a reasonable starting point and begin your journey.  Take baby steps for those things that are extra challenging and slowly expand your comfort zone.  There may be creative ways of meeting that need that are easier for you to handle.  Find helpful resources and learn more if needed.

Also let your spouse know that you are making this effort.  They should be your partner in this as in all things, and it can be a source of concern if a spouse makes a sudden change for no apparent reason, even if it is a change for the better.  You don't have to promise them any particular outcome, but if you let them know what you are trying to accomplish, why you are doing it, and ask for their help and patience and suggestions, that by itself will be a bonding moment.

5.  Express gratitude
Express your appreciation to your spouse for everything they do to meet your needs, and do it in a whatever way is meaning for them.  Praise, flowers, a card, whatever.  Don't take it for granted or act like it is your right to expect such royal treatment.  Gratitude will encourage them to continue on that path, and it will help you to reciprocate as well.  

Don't forget to thank God for your spouse and whatever growth happens in your marriage.  Nothing wrong with asking God for His help either.

6.  Don't make a martyr of yourself

I want it clear that I am not talking about becoming a doormat and submitting to unrighteous dominion and suppressing your own needs for the sake of your spouse's.   I'm talking about an internal desire to serve your spouse as commanded in scripture (see Ephesians 5).  

If you start feeling resentment, or anger, or feeling used, degraded or repressed, then something is out of alignment and should be repaired.  Perhaps you need to slow down and take more time to overcome an inhibition, perhaps you and your spouse need to explore other options for how to meet each others needs.   If you feel joy, peace, freedom, and a stronger bond with your spouse, then you are getting it right.

While I've discussed this mainly in terms of sexual intimacy, it is certainly not limited to that.  The same principles apply equally for emotional and spiritual intimacy.  That can require just as much personal growth to accomplish, and provide just as much joy when achieved.