When it comes to healthy relationships, issues pertaining to physical intimacy are just the tip of the iceberg. In other words, they're usually symptoms of a deeper-rooted emotional troubles, which are submerged beneath the surface. Yes, even the most common physical intimacy issues can be traced back to past experiences and/or issues that need to be addressed — just ask the therapists who've heard it all.
Tina Konkin, relationship counselor and founder and director of the counseling program Relationship Lifeline, makes a comparison. "A doctor likes to find the cause of the illness," she says. "They strive to get to root of the problem in order to properly diagnose and treat the patient. I do the same thing." In this case, the "illness" is within the relationship.
From less snuggling, hugging, and kissing to less frequent (or nonexistent) sex, physical and emotional issues often go hand in hand. And barring medical issues, of course, the prevalence of physical intimacy is often related to the health of the relationship. "I often see a symbiotic relationship between pleasure, emotional intimacy, and relationship satisfaction," says Dr. Hernando Chaves, a licensed marriage and family therapist. "Each of these interacts with the other to affect our desire and arousal."
Every couple is different and some people crave physical touch more than others. But if you're starting to feel a distance grow between you and your S.O. — or you want to avoid this relationship pitfall, altogether — read on. Ahead, Konkin and Dr. Chaves share three of the most common physical intimacy issues they've encountered as well as how to remedy them.
Loss of Physical Intimacy
"Loss of physical intimacy more often than not starts in the heart," Konkin clarifies. Perhaps more surprisingly, she says that physical or emotional withdrawal is oftentimes a coping mechanism that developed years before. "I’ve found that the root [of this behavior] usually goes back to even before the couple was a couple. Looking at the two individuals, watching how they cope when hurt or offended, is key to properly diagnosing and treating the issue." Oftentimes, this is why one partner will skirt an issue or try to avoid confrontation. The problem is, it allows resentment to fester and can deepen the relationship rift.
Konkin also points out that the reasons men and women withdraw may differ, so it's important to understand both sides of the coin. "To a man, the physical [act of intimacy] is usually attached directly to his ego, so when this area of a relationship is in trouble, it starts to degrade the emotional connection within the relationship," Konkin explains. "Women, on the other hand, more often seek the emotional connection, and without it, they will withdraw physically. In general, a woman needs to vent, talk and emotionally connect outside the bedroom first."
Different Sexual Styles & Lack Of Communication
They say that opposites attract, and it's important for each partner to bring something different to the table (or the bed). However, these differences can also lead to a lack of communication. Dr. Chaves explains that some of the most common issues he sees starts with couples not being on the same page. This can include differences in libido, desires, fantasies, and arousal challenges. "People often have difficulty communicating their needs and having open dialogues about pleasure and sexual communication," he says.
Dr. Chaves points out that it's helpful to first understand your own needs, and of course, communicating them is key. "For many people, gaining awareness and insight into their own obstacles and origins of physical intimacy difficulties is important," he says. "In addition, communicating these issues with partners is also valuable and can greatly reduce anxiety."
Of course, nothing can shatter a relationship quite like an indiscretion. With over three decades of experience working with couples, Konkin shares some insights as to why cheating happens (hint: it's not just about sex).
"Men are more visual and rate their sex life as a huge way to connect with their partners," she begins. "When that is absent or rare in a relationship, issues of desire, competency, and interest come up. These issues can lead a man to 'test' his attraction level with other women, whether that be at work or even as silly as someplace like the grocery store or the local mall."
On the flip side, women are more apt to cheat when they're seeking emotional gratification. "Emotional affairs and the number of married women having affairs is on the rise because they seek that validation, and not just in the bedroom," she says.
Overcoming Physical Intimacy Issues
Tina Konkin's R3 Principles
When it comes to overcoming physical intimacy issues — and, by default, emotional intimacy issues — Konkin shares the R3 principles that she uses to help clients and workshop participants get back on track:
Reveal: "Acknowledge first that what [you're doing] isn’t working. Accept that you cannot heal or change what you do not reveal to yourself first. See that your anger and unresolved issues, when not resolved, grow roots. It may start with something as minor as a hurt feeling, but then blossom into defensive behavior or even full withdrawal from your spouse."
Rewrite: "You obviously can’t rewrite your past but you can rewrite how you feel about your past. The act of rewriting is done by forgiveness. Simply put, a relationship cannot be healthy or intimate if forgiveness is not present daily for the vast majority of us non-perfect human beings. Unresolved issues without forgiveness will kill your relationships."
Renew: "To keep a relationship vibrant and exciting, even with the butterflies of newfound love, each person must make every day a brand new day. To renew is to make life better today than it was yesterday. Even in the midst of hardships, love for each other should grow and should never be something taken for granted."
She offers one final piece of advice to couples trying to reconnect: "Get help. Don’t let the best thing this life has to offer — love between two people — go, simply because you can’t see past the problem."