“E” Is for Emotional Intimacy: 18 Ways to Cultivate Connection in Your Relationship That Don’t Include Sex
Cancer has a way of disrupting almost every aspect of a person’s life, including sex. If you’re like most young survivors, you may be struggling with a number of things that can affect how sexual you feel, or whether or not you’re interested in or able to engage in sexual activity. This is totally normal. Sometimes, though, altered sexual routines can also impact a couple’s emotional closeness. If you are in a romantic relationship, it’s important to remember that there are lots of ways to share intimacy that don’t include sex.
What is Intimacy?
Intimacy is a deep sense of closeness and connection with another person. It includes feeling seen and understood, valued, and supported, and reciprocating this type of caring and compassion in return. Relationships demonstrating high levels of intimacy are built on mutual empathy, vulnerability, and trust. Intimacy, which takes time to develop, fosters a sense of safety and security in the partnership.
As you may have noticed, this definition of intimacy doesn’t pertain only to romantic or sexual relationships. Further, good sex does not require an intimate connection, and intimacy does not ensure rockstar sex. But . . . when it comes to long-term romantic relationships, intimacy is certainly a key component of success and satisfaction. For example, the ingredients that build emotional intimacy, such as understanding, affection, and trust, can motivate us to seek physical intimacy with someone. On the flip side, sharing a sexual experience together can enrich an emotional connection.
In romantic relationships, intimacy can be expressed physically through affectionate and sexual touch, and emotionally through talking and sharing experiences together. After cancer, it’s common for couples to encounter temporary shifts in their sexual relationship. For some couples, maintaining an emotional connection during disruptions in their sexual connection is challenging, and they may have trouble figuring out how to express love and affection in other ways. Over time, they might become worried about growing or drifting apart.
Fortunately, couples who know how to build and maintain deep reservoirs of emotional intimacy are well-equipped to face and take charge of challenges together. Intimacy is kind of like relationship glue—it helps couples stick together (get it!?!) by creating a bond and reinforcing resiliency. Relationships strengthened by the elements of emotional intimacy can weather upheaval and uncertainty through joint perseverance and problem-solving. Plus, couples who nurture emotional intimacy during times of sexual drought may also find it easier to find their way back to the sexual aspects of their relationship when the time is right.
Cultivating Connection with a Capital “E”
Emotional intimacy doesn’t just happen—it takes intention and a willingness to be real with another human. If you’re in a committed relationship, you have likely decided that this person is worth the effort! Let’s look at some things that you and your honey can do to develop and sustain the emotional foundation of your relationship, one step at a time.
Evaluate your physical and emotional needs. Just because you might not be up for participating in regular sexy-time stuff now doesn’t mean that you don’t crave and desire (and deserve!) your partner’s attention and displays of affection. Spend some time figuring out what might help you to feel loved, supported, celebrated, and wanted during this time. You may find that emotional intimacy is at the top of the list!
Explain your emotional intimacy needs to your partner and make specific suggestions on how they can help to fulfill them. Remember, no one is a mind-reader. Clear communication takes away the stressful guessing game and reduces the chances of misunderstandings, false assumptions, and disappointment.
Engage your partner in conversation. Ever feel like your days are too boring to be worth chatting about? Hardly! There’s always something worth sharing if you take the time to find it. With each new day, notice things that you can report back on. At the end of the day, try taking five minutes to reflect on the following: What was one challenge you faced today and how did you manage it? What’s one thing you learned today? What is something you found beauty in today? Even if you spend most of your day apart, learning about one another’s experiences can create a feeling of togetherness.
Expose yourself. Emotionally, that is! Practice being vulnerable with your partner by opening up and sharing your feelings. Meaningful self-disclosure is a part of emotional intimacy. Being honest gives your partner the opportunity to help you feel heard and understood, and to reinforce their love and acceptance of you, just as you are.
Enjoy the small, hidden moments. Admittedly, trying to scrape together a few free moments among the tasks of adulting (work, school, parenting, paying the bills) is a challenge for any couple, never mind adding cancer to the mix. But you know what they say about quality over quantity. Rather than stressing about the amount of time (or lack thereof) you have to dedicate to each other, make those hidden moments together a little more mindful—because they add up! Try focusing on one another while you’re in the grocery check-out, doing the dishes, or waiting in the, uh, waiting room. Harnessing these small windows of time gives you both a chance to feel connected throughout the day, rather than distracted.
Extend your curiosity. If you have been together for a while, you might erroneously believe that you know each other about as well as you possibly could. Wrong! We are always growing and changing, and this means there is always something new to learn and discover about each other. Staying curious about your partner means wondering and asking about their insights and ideas. What are their worries, fears, or concerns? What are they looking forward to? What fuels their hope, comfort, and peace? What do they find joyful?
Explore a connection ritual or practice. Designating a time and a place for regular conversations, such as over Sunday morning coffee or Saturday night nachos, makes a habit out of prioritizing and creating space for regular emotional check-ins.
Elaborate on what you find enduring and unique about your partner as a person, and why. Remind them of the strengths you see in them, and the qualities you most admire about them. Encourage them to share the same.
Extend a helping hand. Whether it’s raising funds or collecting donations for an organization you both believe in, or volunteering your shared time or skills, finding ways to support a common cause together can build comradery and a shared sense of empowerment.
Examine your growth and triumphs as a couple. Why did you choose each other? How has your relationship changed and strengthened since you have been together? What makes you a dynamite pair?
Embark on an awe-inspiring adventure together. You don’t have to go far, and it doesn’t have to take long or cost a bundle. If you’re up for some physical activity, get out for a short hike in an area you haven’t yet explored (urban or wilderness). If you need to take it easy, find a spot to watch the sunrise or sunset. Seek out a dark sky and stargaze. Visit an art gallery or a museum. Explore and create memories that tie your relationship together.
Express your appreciation for your partner’s support. Illustrate your point with concrete examples of ways and reasons your life is better for having them in it.
Expand your horizons by trying something new together. Maybe a cooking class, or a Paint Nite, or tennis lessons. Whatever it is, the common experience of uncertainty and learning will provide ample opportunity for mutual encouragement and fun. Maybe you will uncover a hidden talent! At the very least, novel activities that help you learn from one another and about each other can keep intimate connections alive.
Establish a common goal or task, and then use your complementary skills to work together to achieve it. Maybe it’s tackling that house project you have been putting off, building a garden in the backyard with the goal of harvesting your favorite veggies, or organizing all the mystery boxes in the basement. Collaborating to accomplish something is a great reason to celebrate!
Elicit laughter. Cancer can seriously suck the fun out of life, but if you look for it, there’s nearly always something you can find humor in. Seek out things that make you both smile, whether it’s sharing giggles while watching a classic comedy, hitting up the local comedy club, or playing a rousing game of “Would you rather….?” (Likely to instigate both laughter and provide you with new insight about how your partner’s mind works!) Bonus points for finding ways to poke fun at yourselves.
Exchange fun and fond memories as a couple. Reminiscing about the ventures you have had together is a great reminder of the joy that you bring one another. Begin with “Remember that time we . . . ?”
Enlist the help and support of a professional. Mental health professionals, such as counselors and therapists, are excellent impartial parties that are skilled at helping couples help themselves. For example, professionals can offer a fresh perspective, provide ideas for developing intimacy and finding new ways to connect, bolster effective communication strategies, and help you learn how to resolve conflicts in a healthy way. Check out your cancer center’s support services or find a sexual health expert in your area at www.aasect.org.
Embrace each other—literally! When sexual routines change or are put on hold, sometimes affectionate touch between couples slows down, too. Your partner might avoid touching you because they don’t want you to feel pressured or guilty about not participating in sexual activity. You may avoid touching your partner out of worry that you will give them the “wrong idea.” But sexual activity aside, affectionate touch is still a very important need for most people. Loving touch promotes feelings of relaxation, connection, and comfort. Holding hands, back rubs, snuggles on the couch or in bed, hugs, kisses, and caresses are all ways to use physical touch as a catalyst for emotional intimacy with your partner.
So don’t be afraid to reach out, or to lean in!
Bibliography and Resources:
“Sexuality and Intimacy,” Cancer Council, 2019. https://www.cancer.org.au/cancer-information/cancer-side-effects/sexuality-and-intimacy. Accessed June 30, 2022.
“Cancer and Relationships,” Macmillan Cancer Support, 2019. Cancer and relationships. https://www.macmillan.org.uk/cancer-information-and-support/stories-and-media/booklets/cancer-and-relationships. Accessed June 30, 2022.
Sex and Relationships: Support for Young People Affected by Cancer, Macmillan Cancer Support, 3rd ed, 2019. https://www.macmillan.org.uk/cancer-information-and-support/stories-and-media/booklets/sex-and-relationships-support-for-young-people-affected-by-cancer. Accessed June 30, 2022.
“Self-image and Sexuality,” National Cancer Institute, February 12, 2021. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/coping/self-image. Accessed June 30, 2022.