In Absence of Intimacy

In Absence of Intimacy

Years ago, as a graduate student in the Writing Workshop at the University of Arizona, I was advised to “get some emotional distance” on a subject before writing about it. Emotional distance, as I understood the phrase, meant putting some time between yourself and the events you were writing about, especially if you were writing narrative. Blogging is antithetical to this maxim. Blogs demand frequency and immediacy. And true to the form, I’ve characterized this blog as a place where I hope to prompt discussion about what it takes, here and now, day-by-day, to live a truly sober life.

So, in the spirit of blogging and the mission of RealtimeRecovery, I’m going to take on a subject I wouldn’t normally write about unless I were more “emotionally distant” from it. That subject is intimacy—or, more accurately, the truly devastating effect the absence of intimacy can have on a relationship.

Since beginning the blog, I’ve been as open and honest as possible about my own marriage, without going into gory detail. Bottom line: On Valentine’s Day ’09, my wife of (now) seven years informed me she didn’t know if she wanted to be married anymore. I’m not the first male in mankind to face this situation and certainly won’t be the last. The important thing in the context of this blog is to understand how to live a sober life, 24 hours at a time, faced with this revelation.

Really, there is no “good” time to talk about lack of intimacy in a relationship. It’s like trying to have a high-spirited and positive discussion about terminal cancer. In the end, the outcome isn’t likely an outcome anyone wants, no matter what they tell themselves to keep their spirits up along the way. 
And, like a cancer left untreated, the absence of intimacy will grow, consume, and ultimately destroy the host relationship, whether that relationship is a marriage, a friendship, or the forced affiliation of family ties.

So what exactly are we talking about when we talk about the absence of intimacy? First and foremost, I want to make it clear that I’m not talking “just” about sex. But, it is my experience that when a relationship suddenly takes a turn for the worse (whether it’s because one partner doesn’t know if they’re “in love” anymore, or because one partner has “cheated” on the other, or because one partner has somehow abused the other, or because one partner has plainly and simply checked out of the relationship after too many years), no matter the cause, physical intimacy is usually the first type of intimacy to either slowly or very suddenly disappear.

To some, this may not seem like such a big deal. But to many men, and to many recovering men with whom I’ve spoken about the topic, it’s a very big deal. It’s a big deal because, however shallow this makes us, the absence of sex in a marriage or partnership flat-out spells REJECTION. For many of us, the fastest and clearest way to say “I don’t love you anymore” is to lose interest in having sex with us. By no means am I asserting that this is true for everyone under all circumstances. I’m merely saying that for many recovering alcoholic men, the absence of physical intimacy is the first sign that they’re not good enough, a failure not only at love but probably everything else as well … it is, plain and simple, the first sign they’re on their way out the door.

The absence of sexual intimacy also makes it more difficult to engage in other simpler, but possibly much more important, forms of physical intimacy.  Hugging, kissing each other good-bye in the morning or good night before going to sleep, holding hands, you name it, all of these become increasingly difficult to do. The longer the absence persists, the more difficult it becomes to be in each others physical proximity for fear of touching each other, even by accident. Watch how two people who share a bed and bathroom act around each other, and I’ll bet you can tell within minutes whether their relationship does or does not include an active sex life.

Even when physical intimacy is on the wane, or gone, many people can sustain a strong and lasting relationship by nurturing emotional intimacy. By emotional intimacy I mean the ability to be empathetic—or, put more simply, the ability to genuinely “give a shit” about your partner and what’s going on with them. In my case, this is what keeps me hanging on. In the absence of all else, I truly do care about what my wife is going through, partly because she’s my wife and my friend, and partly because she’s the mother of my children, and their “complete” well-being depends as much on her well-being as it does on mine. I empathize also because I’ve gone through what I think she’s going through—that point in your early 30’s when you suddenly feel as though everything fun and glamorous in life is about to pass you by if you don’t act fast. That very ethos cost me my first marriage, and in an ironic fashion, may cost me this one as well. But again, I can’t help but empathize. I’ve been there. I’ve also been in relationships that didn’t pan out, that led me to believe, rightly or wrongly, that I didn’t love and never would love the other person. Again, I empathize. I know what it’s like, whether I like it or not. I also regret, in my own cases, having acted too rashly, leaving my first marriage abruptly and later frivolously ending really good relationships that had far more depth than mere fleeting romance and temporary excitement could have ever provided. But again, I was young and shortsighted, and, as an actively practicing alcoholic, far too immature emotionally to appreciate what I had. I was thrill seeking while my partners were seeking meaningful relationships. Describe for me last time you had a meaningful relationship with a practicing alcoholic, and I’ll quickly and quite easily chart for you all the ways in which you have serious issues around DENIAL.

But again, for many men, myself included, being empathetic and emotionally available isn’t always easy in the absence of physical intimacy. Again, for many (not all, but many) men, the absence of physical intimacy spells REJECTION, and for any man with a decent size ego, this inevitably leads to deep and lingering resentment. In the long run, it’s hard to continue to “give a shit” about someone you recurrently resent. Eventually, it becomes hard to even like them, let alone love or care about them.

Once things get to this point (the point at which my first marriage crumbled), the last form of intimacy to fall is psychological intimacy—that very simple ability to communicate about and agree upon things that matter above and beyond the relationship itself. Whether the issue involves the kids, parents, friends, politics, religion, finances, it becomes next to impossible to discuss any issue rationally and civilly. When resentment and physical distance are running the show it becomes extremely difficult to want to agree with the other person about anything—even when you know they’re right. At this point, DOOM always feels as though it’s right around the corner—and left untreated, it usually is.

So I’m curious. Have others experienced some or all of the “absences” I’ve described at some point in a relationship? Do you advocate certain solutions or abject surrender? I have what I think are potential solutions—my own and those I’ve read about and gathered elsewhere—but I’m much more curious to know other people’s experience because, if I know one thing for sure, my own experience is hardly unique.


6 responses to “In Absence of Intimacy

  1. Hmmm…I debated whether to respond, but then I thought a woman’s point of view might be beneficial.

    I went through something similar in reverse, it was the man who was withdrawn and emotionally distant. We were together for eight years; we had the house, the boat, the cars, a dog but were never “married.” Anyway, towards the end it was a roller coaster to say the least. Although in hindsight it was probably because I was a raging alcoholic, and he was a normal drinker and definitely a potential candidate for alanon.

    We both would give it the old college try, things would appear to be getting better than a month or so would pass and we drifted right back to the lack of intimacy, lack of communication, lack of physical connection, etc. and deep anger and resentment. Eventually it ended very explosively. However on a positive note, after time healed my ego, we became and still are friends (even though I owe him some serious amends).

    I know children add another dimension, but my personal belief, and it is only based on my personal observations of other’s marriages over the years, but children who are from divorced but “happy” parents seem to be far better adjusted than children who are from “unhappy/resentful” married parents.

    I also dated a man who was a decade or so older than I was…at first I think I enjoyed his emotional maturity, his financial stability, etc. Then over time, I really realized we did not have that much in common. We didn’t enjoy the same activities, we argued a lot. Several times I felt like he was attempting to be more of a father-figure than a partner. I began to feel stiffled, bored, angry, resentful. It also didn’t help that he had some ED issues, was in denial about it, and I had an overactive sex-drive. That relationship ended badly as well, but we did not remain friends. Again, I was a raging alcoholic at the time, so you can take these examples with a grain of salt.

    I don’t know the nitty-gritty details of your relationship, but if both partners are not committed to making a relationship work, then I truly believe it is only a matter of time before it fails. Clearly you love your wife and you would like things to improve. You may have tried these things, but for friends of mine who went through some rough patches in their marriages these things worked:
    • A romantic get-away vacation (sans kids) to reconnect both emotionally and physically (I think sometimes women just need to “do-it” even if their not in the mood, because maybe that’s just what they need & they don’t even realize it).
    • Finding a once a week activity you both enjoy and that you did when you were first dating (video games, going out to fancy dinners, dancing, biking, etc.) again sans the kids.
    • Marriage or couples counseling
    Ultimately though there is a single question, which only your wife can answer, does she still want to be with you (and not just for the kids sake, the material comforts, etc.)? If the answer is yes, then you should do whatever it takes to be supportive of her “growth” and her “finding herself” (I’ve heard that a lot of women who have kids tend to lose their identity because everything is focused on being the mom, the housekeeper, etc.). If the answer is no, then take Stings advice and “If You Love Someone Set Them Free.”


  2. Thanks, Greg. Writing this is an example of intimacy. I think we often settle for hardly knowing each other. Thanks.

    When I got divorced in 2001, I read “Coming Apart”.

    It helped me a lot. I was agonizing about ending my marriage. It gave me a list of symptoms, ways to tell if you have a dead relationship on your hands. No sex is one of those indicators. Having the same argument over and over is, too. Screaming I Hate You is, too.

    What I learned was that my marriage had ended at some point in the past. It’s like admitting I’m an alcoholic. Admitting it didn’t make it true. It was already true. Filing for divorce didn’t end my marriage. It was over and divorce is the rational, loving, responsible thing to do in that situation.

    Thanks again for sharing. We’re all in this together. And we need each other.


  3. Greg, I like Kate’s advice up above.

    I think every marraige experiences a time where one or both partners get stuck in their everyday life. Even if that includes an addiction of any kind and it takes a toll on a marraige but may not show up for years. I have only realized this with my current marraige. My husband and I met when we were young and partiers. We loved each others company and physical relationship. I/We thought that was what it was all about. But last couple years proves he just wants to be young and hang out with friends still. Okay fine but I feel the strong commitment to the family (we have 2 kids) just isn’t where I think it should be. Not sure if that is me being so responsible, motherly, and dedicated or if that is really the way things will be forever. I have thought about just walking away with the kids but the vows that I stated on my wedding day are so important to me that it keeps me to just keep trying and I love him so much!

    As far as absences I would have to agree that my relationship has experienced an absence of physical intimacy due to several factors and lack of communication. But my apologies that I do not have any advice or professional recommended advice because my husband refuses to seek counseling as well. I guess my motto is one day at a time but hope for the best in future.


  4. Thanks to all who responded tonight. I thought this topic might elicit some response. It’s a tough one, especially for those of us who are over-sensitive, recovering alcoholics who suddenly have to feel, and now more deeply than ever before. I take all of your thoughts to heart, especially since, over the past 8 months, we’ve done or said or tried many of things you allude to: nights out; two trips sans kids, one to Sarasota and this past weekend Las Vegas; two trips to a counselor, the second of which ended with my wife saying, “I just don’t want to talk about it anymore” (How big a signal do I need? Take a right turn already.); special nights out to dinner.

    There is a significant age difference, as Kate mentions, but my sponsor and counselor refuse to allow me the age excuse. They both insist that if my wife wasn’t in love anymore and truly wanted out, I’d have been divorced long ago. I’m not sure I agree. We have a pretty comfortable lifestyle. And I can’t ignore the elephant in the room, which I talk about at length in my first post, The Path Narrows: we met in AA and my wife now drinks while I still go to regular meetings. She certainly doesn’t drink the way I did, but after initially fearing I wouldn’t love her because she’s drinking again, nights out with the girls are higher on her priority list now than our marriage. And as I say, I empathize. I felt the same way once and I’m sure I’d be out there again if I could be, too. (Actually, it’s hard to imagine valuing long nights in bars ever again after being sober more than 10 years; this life is too good). So, I ‘m working on the advice of a sponsor and counselor and countless divorced friends: don’t give up until you have given it everything you’ve got. Unfortunately, I don’t think any amount of trying will matter if my wife believes she’s fallen out of love and doesn’t want to be here anymore. And that, I believe, despite the good counsel of well-wishing friends, is what has happened.

    It’s a tough call as a male, too. I have no desire to see my kids once a week and every other weekend, but everyone knows that’s exactly where it will end up once placed in the hands of the courts. My mornings and evenings with them are precious, but the moment I believe my wife’s and my behavior is setting a bad example (which it isn’t yet), I’ll forfeit that, too. We’ve always been pretty good as friends, still are, and I’d like to believe we’ll work well together when it comes to the kids even if we’re apart.

    Again, many thanks to all, including my old friend Don. Do know that I’m a firm believer that the answers for people like us are in the Big Book, though it’s too often the last place we look. I also know that the Serenity Prayer and rigorous 11th step work are keeping me sane and my resentments to a minimum. I love my wife, my kids, and my family, but, like Sting, I am willing to set all of them free if it’s for the greater and longer term good.


  5. You’re in spiritual boot camp and you’re doing a great job under tough conditions.

    I was ready to be unfulfilled in my marriage as long as being together was best for my son. I filed when I realized it was the best thing for him, too. I didn’t want to model an empty marriage for him.

    It was a heartache missing mornings and bedtimes, but his mother missed them, too. Everyone had to change, not just me. You can ask for a custody agreement that’s close to 50/50. On my weekends, I pick him up Thursday after school and drop him off at school Monday morning. On her weekends, I get him Friday after school and drop him at Kung Fu Saturday morning at 11. It’s about 55/45. I feel fortunate.

    It turns out his mother also enjoys the time he is at our house. She’s dating and enjoying being a single woman. When she travels, we pick up extra days with our son and she’s grateful he has a place to go.

    Half of all marriages in the US end this way. It’s very doable.

    Thanks for letting us walk a bit with you, Greg.




  6. Thank you for your openness and honesty. This brings all of us closer to you. Love you Greg Kayko.

    By the way, the picture you posted defines intimacy, spirituality, love, meaning, Truth…to name a few. There is nothing like pain to get to the core of the asnwers to the age old questions and what has meaning.

    No masks and no walls in that picture. Only as much pain as is necessary for our growth. There are only two sins, right.

    P.S. Have you thought of Alanon. It saved my life!!!!!

    Again, thank you for sharing.