Intimacy. Tough term to define, yet a super important relationship word. Intimacy is closeness, connection, and vulnerability. Intimacy can be physical, sexual, or emotional. What is definite though, is that intimacy (no matter what version of it you choose) is essential in a relationship.
I know that it is easy for me to say. I talk about intimacy for a living. But I recognize the very real challenges that people face when talking about these personal issues. On one hand, it can be difficult to address intimacy with a partner because it seems so serious and heavy handed. On the other hand, if you cannot discuss intimacy, then your partnership cannot grow. Think about it this way: if we don’t deal with intimacy, we – or our partners – may not be having our emotional and physical needs met. So what do you do? You can’t make assumptions or jump to conclusions. You have to deal with important and deeply personal issues. (And that’s part of any good relationship. It’s part of friendships, too.)
In my post “Balancing Act,” I talked about the importance of starting a conversation about needs, and I gave an example of how to do so using straightforward language. That’s a great way to get started, but today I want to offer a different way to broach intimacy from a broader perspective.
When I appeared as a sexuality and intimacy expert on a popular TV show about relationships, I was tasked with tackling issues of intimacy in our couples’ marriages. Years ago, I had come up with an idea to create a “fishbowl” activity where couples could ask and answer fun and poignant relationship and sex questions. All of these queries were designed to get partners thinking about who they were, what they wanted, and to give them an opportunity to learn more about the person they were involved with. And because it is a fun activity, it doesn’t require a serious, stressful, sit-down dialogue. It’s supposed to be enjoyable and entertaining.
So grab a vase or an actual fishbowl and print out a list of my favorite questions. You can find them here. Although any couple can use the fishbowl, partners with a chronic health issue can tailor it to suit their needs, too. The fishbowl questions are designed to tackle general issues, but we can (and should!) all add our own personal topics, including questions specific to chronic illness. For example:
- What is one thing you have never shared with a partner about having a chronic illness?
- What is the one thing regarding your chronic illness that you wish a partner would say to you?
- If you could create something to help enhance intimacy for people with chronic illness, what would that be?
"Think about it this way: if we don't deal with intimacy, we - or our partners - may not be having our emotional and physical needs met."
This is an activity that should constantly evolve. And sure, I understand that we may be embarrassed or uncomfortable answering some of these questions. Makes perfect sense. Sometimes we don’t have an answer; sometimes we have never talked about these issues aloud.
That’s okay. Own it. Own the discomfort. Laugh about it. Explain. Sometimes our motivation for avoiding a question can be as telling as the actual answer. I’ve heard from couples that these moments are what can lead to greater intimacy. So what have you always wanted to ask a partner? What have you always wanted to be asked, whether it was about sex or even how your chronic disease impacts intimacy? Write up those questions and throw them into the fishbowl, too.
The fishbowl isn’t meant to be done in one shot. There are at least 100 questions. Take ten or so at a time. They should inspire conversations. And consider this: answers may change over time.
But I should be clear: the fishbowl isn’t just designed for partners. Unpartnered people should be going through these questions, too. Think about it: how can you answer a question for someone else if you’ve never thought about the answer yourself? There is value in this activity for everyone.
So get talking. And listen to what your partner is saying. Don’t jump to conclusions, and try not to make any assumptions. Each of these questions is meant to initiate a conversation. Share stories. Ask follow-up questions. And have fun! There is so much to learn and so much intimacy to build.