Healing•Sexuality • 5 minutes to read
I was driving home from an appointment the other day when a radio ad asked, presumably to men, “Do you want to experience better intimacy?” It then proceeded to advertise an erectile dysfunction medication. They claimed the product would result in better intimacy because the user would have more confidence outside the bedroom. This got me thinking about the implication of this belief.
For decades, we have been led to believe that intimacy is synonymous with sex. In my years as a clinician at Pure Desire, I have witnessed first hand the fallacy of this cultural message.
Intimacy is not sex. It is a physiological aspect of our nervous system that grows throughout our childhood. Our capacity for intimacy is a wired-in experience. Let me explain.
Pia Mellody suggests there are five characteristics of a child: valuable, vulnerable, dependent, imperfect, and immature. This is the very nature of a child. The very thought of being a child in this regard is scary. Experiencing barriers to growth in any one of these characteristics sets us up for walling up our insecurities and flaws. We end up developing ways to protect ourselves from shame.
Intimacy is the result of attaching, trusting, and surrendering. Our capacity for intimacy was woven into us (“knitted together”) in the womb by God. Our caregivers then nurture us throughout our childhood experiences as we mature in our ability to give and receive in our closest relationships. We create intimacy with others the same way our parents wired it into us. It is a process of nurturing.
Our parents or caregivers teach us how to regulate our emotions by containing their own emotions. We come to the conclusion that we are safe when we enter into a relationship. This type of nurturing creates a secure attachment where we are safe to trust, attach, and surrender (or receive their comfort). In this regard, we are being wired for our secure attachment with God as well. As we grow, we experience our parents nurturing and we mature through these five characteristics. When we don’t receive help developing through these characteristics, we learn to protect ourselves in other ways. We learned to seek safety in other ways other than the comfort of a relationship.
Perhaps by now you are seeing why relationships are difficult. For many of us, being vulnerable creates fear. Our alarm button goes off. In fear we most likely developed an adaptive strategy to be free of fear. These adaptive strategies are called by many names: parts, protective personalities, coping behaviors, or addictions. They all serve to protect us from the fear created by insecurity and vulnerability. It is why sex addiction is called an “intimacy disorder.”
As the third child, my growing up years were anything less than nurturing. I was always a step behind my older siblings. I had a lot of imperfections that they loved to tease me about. My mom was overwhelmed with the task of mothering so I never felt protected from harm. I decided I needed to take care of myself. To be comforted from the hurt and chaos I discovered masturbation. This soothed my need for comfort for a while. As I got older, I discovered anger did a pretty good job pushing people away. I was an angry and lonely young woman. Promiscuity became a way to help with my fear of rejection.
Growing up vulnerable without protection, dependent without proper care, imperfect and immature without proper ways to protect myself, I tried to figure it out by myself. It took many years of growth before I was able to feel safe enough to attach, trust, and surrender to the care of another. I am still a work in progress.
How do we grow in intimacy? How do we experience it?
First, if you have acknowledged that you’ve used sex or pornography to feel better, then you have made it over the first roadblock. Acknowledging that you have confused intimacy with sex is the first step.
Second, if you don’t know if you are using sex in place of intimacy, make a choice to take a break from sex, perhaps for one month. Get curious about what feelings come up. Talk with your group members or your counselor about what comes up for you. If you are married, talk with your spouse about this break from sex before making the decision. Again, a counselor can be helpful here.
Third, identify the messages you received about your value and worth. Consider writing down your story of attachment. What strategies have you been using to find safety in this crazy world? For me, I was raised to believe that I couldn’t trust men, and all they wanted was sex. I discovered that I had some control if I gave sex to get relationship. Sex was a strategy to manipulate connection.
Your story will reveal your vulnerabilities and triggers. Own it. Get curious about what triggers you. This is important to your identity. It will reveal the shame messages that keep you from intimacy with God and others.
Fourth, take God with you on this journey. You were uniquely created for intimacy with God. He created you with the capacity to have a secure attachment to him. Let the Holy Spirit renew your mind in this area and bring you comfort.
We may have been miswired, but we can go back and renew our minds with the help of God. It’s no wonder we turn to sex as a replacement for intimacy. Intimacy can be frightening.
Consider this observation: when you made the decision to follow Christ, most likely there was a nurturing process where you came to a place of trust as you surrendered to Jesus’ Lordship. When you believed in Jesus, Father God deposited his own Holy Spirit into you, becoming one with God. This becoming one was subsequent to your trusting, attaching, and surrendering to Jesus. This is the similar process of becoming one with a spouse in our sexuality. An intimate connection comes before a sexual connection.
Fifth and finally, growing in intimacy takes practice. As you risk being vulnerable and experience the fear that has held you back, you will begin to build the tolerance needed to contain your sense of safety. This is the practice of renewing your mind in the area of secure attachment.
Growing in Intimacy is a lifelong journey. Start by reading through the five growth areas above and examine where you need to grow. Plant your first step there and invite God to walk with you through the uncertainty of life. You build up your capacity for intimacy by risking in the areas where you are emotionally vulnerable, all the while trusting God to hold you together.
God bless you on your journey.
Mellody, Pia. Facing Codependence. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2003.