How Communication Problems Lead to a Lack of Intimacy

Lack of Intimacy

No one can deny the incredible gifts an intimate relationship offers…that is, when the relationship is working. When it’s not going smoothly, it might feel like more challenge than gift. All too often, couples report being dismayed by a lack of intimacy in marriage or long-term relationships, especially when the relationship matures past the initial euphoria stage. However, a little education can go a long way toward strengthening your relationship and teaching you ways to spice up your relationship. And, as with most issues affecting a union of two people, communication is key.

In her book You Just Don’t Understand, Deborah Tannen describes how gender determines conversational styles that can negatively impact a couple. Men commonly engage in what she calls “report talk”: they share facts about events and practical information. Many of the men I see in counseling are very solution-focused while communicating (rather than engaging in active listening—even if that’s what their partners need).

Women, on the other hand, excel at what Tannen calls “rapport talk.” A core feature of rapport talk has to do with creating and maintaining an emotional bond and a clear connection with the other person—in essence, creating a safe place for the other person to land when they’re baring their souls or making themselves emotionally vulnerable in some way. Rapport talk does not focus on solutions (though at times, when needed, it may). Instead, it focuses on being there for the person in need, staying in connection and waiting for the other’s needs to become apparent. Sometimes the major need is—solely and most importantly—active listening.

I’m sure you can see how this could place men and women at odds at times, even men and women who deeply love each other and have made a lifetime commitment to each other. Sexual intimacy and emotional intimacy—the cornerstones of an intimate relationship—rely on effective communication before you enter the bedroom. And not coincidentally, a deep emotional connection is often a precursor for enhancing sexual desire in women.

A Lack of Intimacy in Marriage: How Communication Impacts Intimacy

Gloria and Ken have been married for 27 years. “And they haven’t all been easy years,” she says, glancing over at Ken. “But I have never felt our relationship wasn’t worth working on.” According to Gloria, she decided to stop being so complacent about her intimate life with Ken. “I woke up one day and thought, ‘Why should I settle for unsatisfying sex? Just because Ken and I have been together for much longer than anyone else I personally know doesn’t mean we should just be going through the motions.’”

When Gloria approached Ken with this, though, at first he took offense. “Yeah,” he said sheepishly, “I thought she was criticizing me as a lover.” He shook his head. “It didn’t go over well with me.” But Gloria, committed to the marriage and determined not to go down the path of a lack of intimacy in marriage (a path she reported a few different friends heading down), made Ken see that she wasn’t evaluating Ken’s performance in bed, but rather was looking for ways to spice up the relationship from both of them. Once Ken understood that, he moved to a common male perspective: he looked at the issue through a hurry-up-and-fix-it lens. “I felt uncomfortable with talking about it, just wanted to do something. But Gloria seemed perfectly content to continue talking. I tried to tug her to the bedroom and she accused me of not listening. We ended up getting in a big fight, when all I wanted to do was show her we could come up with some new tricks together.”

Gloria reported that that was a pivotal moment for her, the point when she realized they had lived a pattern she had taken for granted and hadn’t examined: She needed to process things at times, and Ken interpreted her need as a signal for him to rush in and cure the problem. “Some things aren’t meant to be ‘solved,’” she said, “especially by another person. Sometimes the best thing is an interested, understanding ear.”

And what surprised the couple most of all was how much this gender-driven pattern had infiltrated all aspects of their relationship, including their sex life. “Even when the conversation didn’t have a thing to do with sex,” Gloria said, “I discovered that I didn’t feel much in the mood after a discussion where Ken shut me down by offering ‘solutions.’ Now I realize he wasn’t actually shutting me down; I just perceived it that way. He was doing what came naturally to him, trying to fix something he identified as a problem. But in reality, my venting, my talking about things, was the solution for me.”

And a similar dynamic held true for Ken. “I felt frustrated by the fact that I was trying to help by offering possible remedies—for instance, when she was complaining about something her boss was doing—and here she was, accusing me of not letting her have her ‘emotional reaction space.’” He scoffed. “To be honest, it was kind of crazy-making.”

The point here is not to have Ken morph into Gloria and Gloria morph into Ken. Part of what makes intimate relationships exciting and rewarding (and yes, sometimes maddening) is the fact that our partners are not us, that we can’t predict our partner’s every move. Ultimately, the take-away from Tannen’s research and what we know about the difference in communication styles across the genders is that understanding is key—not changing the other person or contorting yourself to be someone you’re not, but rather, learning why you each have your own communication preferences and discovering how you can compromise and grow as a couple with the goal of deepening intimacy and emotional closeness.

How do your and your partner’s communication styles differ? How do these differences enhance or interfere with intimacy (emotional and sexual intimacy)?

(Featured [top] image Speech Bubbles” by Stuart Miles/