I thought I was doing okay. We were talking. She knows I love her, because I tell her. Now she says she wants more intimacy.
Intimacy is a sense of closeness or togetherness shared with another person that can take some time and work to establish in a relationship. For men who have experienced child sexual abuse or sexual assault, like many men, becoming comfortable with intimacy can be a challenge. Below is some information about intimacy, details of some of the difficulties a man who has experienced sexual victimization can face, along with suggestions on how to further develop intimacy in relationships.
What is intimacy?
Intimacy is a close personal connection between two people that usually develops over time. Typically, children learn about and develop intimate relationships through interacting with parents and close family members. As we grow older opportunities arise to develop more intimate relationships outside of the home, getting to know people, establishing commitment and trust, building connections through work, play, sexual contact, parenting, etc. The journey towards creating intimate relationships is therefore potentially never ending and everyone’s experience in growing up and learning about intimacy is going to be different:
Men, sexual abuse and intimacy
Cultural beliefs about men, about what a man should stereotypically do and be, influence how men understand and relate to intimacy. When the traditional man’s role of breadwinner, going out to work in order to provide food and shelter, was dominant, there was little expectation that men should learn about or put energy into developing more intimate relationships. Now, however, partners, men and their children are seeking a greater degree of intimacy.
What do you know about intimacy?
What training did you receive in intimacy while you were growing up?
Are you or your partner seeking to invite intimacy into your lives?
A difficulty that men face with regards to developing intimacy in relationships is that there is an expectation that, as men, they should stand on their own two feet and be firmly self-reliant. This expectation can make men reluctant to acknowledge personal struggles or vulnerabilities, yet the disclosure of worries and difficulties can lead to greater intimacy. Further difficulties are created for men by the cultural habit of mixing up sex and intimacy, where intimacy is seen and used in an instrumental way as something you do in order to obtain sex. Although sex is often an important part of a close intimate relationship and can increase feelings of intimacy, sex and intimacy are not one and the same. There can be intimacy without sex and sex without intimacy.
For men who have experienced sexual violence, confusion and uncertainty around intimacy is understandable, if you consider how some people who perpetrate sexual abuse invest considerable time and effort in getting to know a child, to build trust and a sense of intimacy in order to commit sexual abuse. The person committing sexual abuse might even tell themselves that they love a child and that this is a mutual relationship. When sexual abuse involves such a profound betrayal of trust, it is not surprising that closeness in future relationships can evoke discomfort and be difficult to manage. An experience of child sexual abuse can lead to:
- Reluctance to trust someone or let anyone get close
- Perceiving any expression of care or attention as a sign of sexual interest or precursor to sexual activity.
- Wariness about sharing personal information, due to the way it has been manipulated and used in the past
- Uncomfortableness with gentle touch or touch without prior specific agreement.
- Difficulties with any sexual intimacy, due to the fact it can trigger flashbacks.
These difficulties, although not insurmountable, can take some time and patience to sort out. What can make problems related to intimacy extra tricky to work out is that sometimes in order to gain assistance a man might feel pressured to speak about a history of sexual abuse (something he may not have previously told anyone about).
Becoming clear about and developing intimacy
In seeking to develop more intimate caring relationships, it can be useful to explicitly differentiate sexual intimacy from other forms of intimacy. The following list identifies a number of opportunities for enhancing intimacy in relationships:
- Emotional Intimacy – you are able to share a wide range of both positive and negative feelings without fear of judgement or rejection
- Physical Intimacy – The delight in being sensual, playful, and sensitive in sexual intimacy that is joyful and fulfilling for both partners.
- Intellectual Intimacy – Sharing ideas or talking about issues or even hotly debating opinions and still respect each other’s beliefs and views
- Spiritual Intimacy – discussing how spirituality works in our lives, in such a way that we respect each others particular spiritual needs and beliefs
- Conflict Intimacy – the ability to work through our differences in a fair way, and reach solutions that are broadly and mutually satisfactory, recognizing that perfect solutions are not part of human life.
- Work Intimacy – You are able to agree on ways to share the common loads of tasks in maintaining your home, incomes, and pursuing other mutually agreed goals.
- Parenting Intimacy – If you have children, you have developed shared ways of being supportive to each other while enabling our children to grow and become separate individuals.
- Crisis Intimacy – You are able to stand together in times of crisis, both external and internal to our relationship and offer support and understanding.
- Aesthetic Intimacy – Being delighted in beauty, music art, nature and a whole range of aesthetic experiences and each of us is prepared to support the other’s enjoyment of different aesthetic pleasures.
- Play Intimacy – Having fun together, through recreation, relaxation or humor.
The intention of the above list is to help highlight the multiple possibilities and opportunities for intimacy in relationships.
In seeking to make intimacy more a part of your life and relationships, it is important to recognise that intimacy is relational. Intimacy is not something you can do on your own, the degrees of intimacy possible in a relationship is dependent on there being a shared commitment and interest. Negotiating and building intimacy in relationships is, therefore, reliant on a clear knowledge of your own and a partner’s preferences and a willingness to put time and energy into the relationship. You might consider:
- What kind of relationship do you want?
- What brings you closer to people, what pushes you away?
- Are you aware of your friends or partner’s likes or dislikes, what builds connections in your relationship with them?
- How close a relationship do you/they want?
- What time and energy are you willing to put in to developing intimacy in this relationship?
- How might you make them aware of your interest in building greater intimacy on a number of levels?
In posing these questions, it is recognized that there is no prescribed right way of ‘being intimate’ in a relationship. No two relationships are alike. Although what has gone before might provide a guide to a man’s preferences or areas he might want to work on, history does not dictate the future.
Becoming comfortable with intimacy is not easily worked out on your own. Relationships can provide opportunities for learning, healing and change for both parties. As the below partners of men who have experienced sexual abuse highlight:
He’s good at being independent and he knows how to take care of himself. Even though he’s not that good at intimacy, I am. So having learnt off each other I am more ndependent and he is more intimate.
I used to complain saying ‘you haven’t said you love me in ages,’ once I realised that this wasn’t getting what I wanted from him, I started telling him that I need to feel loved sometimes and I explained to him what makes me feel loved.
As indicated earlier, building and maintaining intimacy in relationships is likely to be a life long project. It is not something you do just once. Also, it is useful to recognise that what builds intimacy in relationships changes, as people’s preferences and choices change over time.
Practical tips for building and maintaining intimacy
Some practical tips to help men understand and enhance intimacy and love in a relationship are offered by in the book Five Love Languages Men’s Edition: The Secret to Love That Lasts. This book encourages men to talk with their partners and to learn about and attend to both, their own and their partner’s preferred ways of developing closeness and expressing care. In doing so it demystifies love and intimacy, presenting information in a practical useful way.
If you were asked, could you identify your preferred ‘love language’ and that of your partner from the following list?
- Words of Affirmation – Compliments, words of appreciation, positive feedback about specific things your partner has done.
- Quality Time – Togetherness – giving undivided attention, more than just physical proximity. Quality conversation – talking about your day, keeping each other up-to-date, expressing your feelings, being available to listen with care.
- Receiving Gifts – Putting time and thought into creating/buying gifts. The gift of your ‘self’ – simply being there at crucial times
- Acts of Service – Doing practical tasks for your partner eg. Household chores. Particularly doing these without being asked
- Physical Touch – Loving touch crucial to healthy emotional development for babies and children. Affection is also important for adults, in addition to sexual touch
Possession of knowledge of your own and your partner’s preferred ways of relating is important. Just as important is letting people know and acting on these preferences in ways and at times when it will build intimacy.
Yes, No, Maybe So: A sexual inventory stocklist
A great tool for developing safe intimacy in a sexual relationship can be found at this sex ed website.
The above information is not intended as a comprehensive guide to men and intimacy following an experience of sexual abuse or sexual assault, more an invitation to explore possibilities for developing intimacy in caring supportive relationships. An experience of sexual abuse or sexual assault might mean that extra patience is required in some areas or there is a need to speak to someone in order to gain extra assistance, it does not however define the possibilities for intimacy in relationships.
- Augsburger, D. (1988) Sustaining Love, Regal Publishing.
- Chapman, G. (2004) Five Love Languages Men’s Edition: The Secret to Love That Lasts, Northfield Press.
Comment by sean
sean June 20, 2014 at 3:04 pm
this was very helpful as I am trying to learn what it means to be intimate in our relationship. thanks heaps
Comment by D.D.
D.D. June 20, 2014 at 4:21 pm
Thank you for the information on developing an intimate relationship it is very help and interesting and gives support to me some others and again thank you for helping me.
Comment by Tim
Tim October 15, 2015 at 4:43 pm
Great information, especially the books as guides. I have always felt devoid of giving or knowing how to actually care for the ladies I have dated. My main goal was sex, after sex I felt empty. Growing up my mother wasn’t there very much emotionally and my step dad was an alcoholic. I want closeness with women but never knew how. Thanks.
Comment by Ingred
Ingred June 9, 2016 at 8:46 pm
Sex is important in a relationship. I met a wonderful man about a year ago who takes care of my every need except sex. We do everything together, like cooking, watching movies, going for walks. we both love nature and we even sleep together – but no sex. I find it weird.
Comment by kelsey
kelsey May 10, 2017 at 6:17 am
How do you deal with that? I am dealing with the exact same thing. Except, he doesn’t touch me, he doesn’t french kiss me, he doesn’t want to do anything sexual. Does this bug you? Have you found ways to help ease him into it?
Comment by kelsey
kelsey May 10, 2017 at 6:19 am
Also, we were having sex, but then it stopped when he became “attached” to me, because the person who raped him was a girlfriend he was attached to (that is what he said). This all started happening after his sister got raped this last thanksgiving. I am just hoping that he is just working through it and that this was a trigger for him. I really hope that this means that he will never want to do anything sexual again because we are “attached”.
Comment by Amy
Amy June 16, 2017 at 7:29 am
Thank you for this article.
I have been dating a 40 year old man, who was abused when he was 7, by a 12 year old boy for a year. When we started dating, he told me that he was very attracted to me but he would stop while we were kissing to check unimportant stuff, like “did I take my laptop from the office?”, “I should drink coffee”… So one day I asked him why he would act distant, and he told me the abuse.
It has been 5 years now, and to me, nothing has changed. I admit that I wasn’t very easygoing for him, I am 12 years younger than him, I have a high sex drive and intimacy is important to me. He doesn’t touch me at all, he doesn’t look at me like he is attracted to me, but he says so. He tells me that I should be patient and give him space, but the space never ends. At the end of all, I feel horribly unattractive, unwanted, unworthy, depressed. We broke up before, for like 6 months, he would have sex with girls easily ( he always tells me that he hates one night stands and he has to trust the person ), and that makes me angry.
After we got back together, I convinced him to go see a psychologist, he went for 6 months and then he told me that the doctor said he was fine, he doesn’t need counseling anymore. But nothing changed in bed, got worse. I wanted to break up several times, he definitely doesn’t want that. He wants future plans, marriage. He says our sex life is bad because of me because I am a crazy bitch, not because of his past. If I stop being a crazy bitch, he would start touching me – we had sex occasionally of course, it is all about him getting of, not kissing me, not touching my private parts at all, takes 5 minutes. He says I am very sexy, and he plays with my boobs, touches me like it is a joke, not in a sexy way. Then he tells me that he masturbates thinking of me, while I am waiting for him to feel ready to be intimate with me.
I do not understand this man, I do not understand why he would not touch a woman he says he finds very attractive, I do not understand why he would have sex with other strange women after he told me he can’t just have sex, he needs preparing. He is still a big mystery to me after 5 years, I thought I could help him, but instead he ruined me.
Comment by May
May March 4, 2018 at 1:04 pm
This pretty much sums up me and my husbands relationship. :( I don’t want to give up on him but at the same time I feel like I’ve completely lost myself in this. I don’t even know who I am anymore. I’m curious to know what happened, if you worked things out or moved on. I’m at my whits end at this point. I don’t know what to do anymore.
Comment by Carla
Carla November 19, 2017 at 6:00 pm
I’ve been dating a guy for 6 1/2 years. When we first met things were great. It took him a long time to say I love you, we dated 6 months before he said it, then soon after he started pulling away. On the ninth month he told me he loved me but he wasn’t in love with me. We broke up. A gut feeling told me something had happened so I sent him a long email asking him was there something deeply deeply rooted in his past? and if so would he consider going to counselling? he said yes.
After 8 months he came back, in July 2013, telling me he knew he wanted a relationship with me. He said he never wanted to lose me, but we would have to take baby steps.
We live two and a half hours apart so even before we only saw each other every other weekend. This time around we started out just once a month for the first few months, and then we built back into every other weekend. It took him until January 2015 to tell me he loved me again… then slowly I felt him pulling away again. Now here we are, November 2017. He broke up with me again at the end of October, saying he loved me but he didn’t feel like he was in love with me anymore.
I’ve sent him articles on how when men who have been sexually abused tend to pull away from someone when they getting really close. He says he was upset with himself because he doesn’t know why he feels the way he does. That he knows he will regret losing me.
He was sexually abused by his uncle and physically abused by his dad. His mom left when he was about 9 and he didn’t see her anymore until he went to see her when he was 16. He has been married twice, that’s why I cheated on him. He had never shared this with anyone until he shared it with me and the counsellor he spoke to in 2012.
So all these things tell me that he does love me and he’s very close with me but I don’t know what else to do. He has started counselling again 2 weeks ago, I just pray he gets to the right kind of counsellor this time. The counsellor in 2012 never suggested couples counselling. I told him in order to go forward at some point I thought we needed to go to counselling together. I encouraged him to continue going to counselling when we got back together in 2013, but of course he didn’t listen. Any suggestions and help would be greatly appreciate it. Thank you
Comment by Jess [Living Well Staff]
Jess [Living Well Staff] January 3, 2018 at 4:00 pm
Thanks for sharing your experience here. That takes some bravery.
I think in this situation you have done really well to encourage your partner to obtain support, and to also suggest couples counselling. It sounds like you have been there for him and have made it clear you’re willing to support him and work through the difficulties. You’ve mentioned you “don’t know what else to do,” however it sounds like what you have done already are the best things you can do. Moving forward, the rest is really up to him. It is not your responsibility to fix him. There comes a stage where all you can really do is step back and hope he becomes ready to take a few steps forward himself. I know this can be hard to do and takes a lot of patience. Unfortunately a history of childhood trauma does take time to process and move through, and often giving it time is the only thing we can do.
Please know that you are not alone in your struggles with this situation. We know that it can be very difficult for partners of men who have experienced childhood sexual abuse. Knowing how to respond, and how to best provide support and care, without pressure or judgment, can be a delicate balance.
With this in mind we’ve created a For Partners section on this website. I think for you the articles on common relationship challenges and frequently asked questions from partners of men. I hope you find it helpful.
Comment by Darrell
Darrell January 15, 2018 at 5:18 pm
After 24 years of marriage, and 27 years of being together, my wife told me she no longer was in love with me.
I’m 59 … she’s 49. We have two children whom are now adults, with the youngest being 18.
I was sexually abused when I was 3 … not by a parent / relative. It happened only once … and was not discovered by anyone. I “froze” that moment … then 6 years later I was traumatized again. The effects of both of those events, coupled to an unloving home run by a dictator and supported by my mother’s passiveness, my sexual development was warped and I became very adept at being alone. This lifestyle caused me great shame and guilt and I could never understand why I didn’t fit in – anywhere. So I tried suicide at 23 … and from that failure I ended up getting professional help for the first time – to gain understanding of “why” I was the way I was. This took time, and I was doing ok with the new found insights … and I left therapy thinking I was now ok and that I needed to move on in life. Soon, I reverted back to what I was doing to prior to the attempt to get pleasure. And I continued living this new “lie” – was a real Jekyll and Hyde … until I met my wife – who had / has a heart of kindness I had never experienced before.
I was so glad to finally have someone to love … my first and only love … that I stopped my destructive behaviours and together we were the quintessential happy young couple – we were never great at sex, but for all other aspects of marriage – even communication, we were as happy as could be. And I never told her of my past … until we started to drift apart – sexually – after the birth of our second child, which was 6 years into the marriage. Sex left the building – and life really took over. The issue of lack of intimacy would come up every now and again – always from her, and always as to why “how come we never have sex anymore”. I never understood why I could not commit this last bit of my love for her … and she admits that she has issues of closeness also … so … more time goes by, and we keep “trying” … “working” … yet even after attending marriage counselling together … it never did get resolved. And I knew that deep down inside my pysche I had unresolved issues – or aftereffects – of the early abuse, and the damage to my “self” that had never been repaired, let alone looked at.
Then 2017 came and both of the kids are on their own, and I decided to try and retire, and my wife and I committed to working on the intimacy / sex issue again … and we even planned a vacation for August – which we took and was the first for us together in over 20 years. We had a great time … but never had sex. Then we came home … talked more … and again neither of us made a move towards the other.
I then made the mistake of writing down what had happened to me when I was a child (I had, over the years, told my wife all of this – this was my first time ever writing it down) and from completely out of the blue … my wife’s response was to say that she knows I’m in pain over all of this but that she “no longer loves” me, and that she wants a divorce, and that she does not see us ever getting back together.
That was at the end of September. I took this announcement very badly and as I had already “opened” up all that shit in my mind re the abuse, neglect, etc … I had a breakdown and two days later I woke up to my 3-year old self holding onto an exacto blade knife in one hand and my penis in the other as I was attempting to cut that part off of me. I was so scared … and so alone … and it was all of a sudden.
I realized I needed help, again, and I have since been doing that. I was forced to leave my home as there is no available help there at all – and what help that is available is on a “wait list” and is for a facility outside my territory only (and the wait list is between 6-10 months long).
My wife’s response was a complete shock – I truly believed she still loved me as much as I have always loved her … she was my only love … I have never loved anyone else and I never once fell out of love with her … and in actuality I was the romantic in our marriage. I never had a clue … and so I could not understand her response. In the month it took for me to pull myself together enough to find the help I need and make the arrangements – she moved out of our home – and withdrew from me even more. Granted, I was pretty screwed up … but I found a new place, was diagnosed with PTSD, arranged therapies, and prepared to leave.
And, while cleaning up our home computer, I found a file of pics. It seems that 3 weeks before my writing her my history and my concerns for us, she had an affair. That discovery changed my fragile mind even more – it made me physically ill – and my immediate thought was that I had caused so much angst with this lovely woman that she changed her values … and that … that PAIN … is what really kills me.
I’ve now been in intensive therapy – EMDR is a blessing – for two months and have made great progress with insightful linkages and all fuelled by being as brutally honest with myself as possible. It is good.
What bothers me the most though is the effect this has had on my wife … I really don’t know her anymore – she is that different to me now … and I suspect she has been in pain for a long while and it took her that long while to get up her nerve to leave … and I understand that on an intellectual level. Emotionally, I’m so very lost without her so yeah it’s very hard to hear that she’s already planning a vacation for next month (February – something we had wanted to do ourselves but never did) … and that she is so so quickly leaving me in the dust. This is so hard on me – trying to work on the issues of my early life which is so deeply tied to my present … and my present is imploding.
Too much pain … too alone … and so full of guilt / shame / etc that I let my marriage fail. I had the best and I fucked it up by not dealing with my issues that were born in the childhood abuse … catch-22 at it’s finest.