5 Ways to Reduce Anxiety Around Intimacy
There are three sources in Sefer Bereishis (Genesis) that give shape, color, and meaning to our understanding of a marital relationship. There is “Al kain yaazov ish es imo v’davak b’ishto,” which instructs man to leave his parents for the purpose of linking to a wife. Man is also given what is arguably the first mitzvah in the Torah of peru u’revu, the commandment of bringing children into this world. And, we also learn that man was created with a tzelem elokim, a piece of Hashem, which ultimately represents man’s mission in this world, the mission of emulating Hashem thereby spreading kedusha into the physical world.
The way man and woman achieve all three mitzvos is through marriage. There is no greater paradigm of our relationship with Hashem than the relationship between a husband and wife. When a man leaves his childhood home to marry his wife, he can then achieve the mitzvah of creation and multiplication. Chazal say that each person is like an entire world, so in essence when we create a human being, it is as if we are creating a world. And just like our world’s creation is perhaps the greatest kindness Hashem has bestowed upon us, when we create life, we are embodying and reenacting Hashem’s greatest kindness. It is this act that is the most holy and profound way to accomplish our mission in this world of following Hashem.
Yet, we don’t always feel the magnitude and significance of these actions in our daily lives and marriages. Just like any mitzvah, we each differ in how we connect to the actions and thoughts that are required of us. And, when it comes to intimacy, the same holds true.
Intimacy, it’s one word that causes such a vast array of thoughts and emotions. Some of us, when we hear the word intimacy, blush or run in the other direction, calling the mere hint of conversation to a complete halt. Others become intrigued, and some get excited about the prospect of discussing such a topic or simply find conversing about it fun.
Not only are there varied individual reactions to the concept of intimacy based on each person’s individual personality and upbringing, there are also communal and religious perspectives that affect how we view intimacy as well. These more macro perspectives seep into our general view of sexuality through the medium of schools, shuls, and our own relationships with poskim. Hence, our relationship with sexuality is complicated and influenced by many factors.
When it comes to our discussion of sexuality in the frum community, we are often met with a lot of stigma and barriers. Mental health in general fights to break stigmatization; add to that sexuality and it’s challenging to have open conversations about individual needs, wants, and goals in this area of life. Particularly within the frum world, we place a premium on modesty and it is hard to seemingly sacrifice that to talk about something so taboo.
The thing is, whether we like it, fear it, acknowledge its existence or not, intimacy exists. It exists in our marriages, it exists in our Torah, and yes, it even exists way before we ever marry as we will discuss. And, because of its existence there is a need and push for talk and guidance. There has been a shift in our community as there is a growing recognition of the need to understand more about this important albeit personal part of our lives.
In the Torah, we call intimacy yediah or knowing, a term that accurately defines intimacy as truly and wholly knowing and being known by another. Quite simply, intimacy is the ability to be vulnerable, be it physically, emotionally, and/or spiritually with another human being. Though in adolescence there are physical manifestations of sexuality’s existence, we actually begin cultivating the ability to create intimacy much earlier in our lives.
As children we are naturally sensitive to our physical presence, which includes the five senses of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. We use all of these senses to explore and learn about our world. When this process is encouraged and celebrated, children grow up with the permission, safety, and confidence to know their inner and outer environments. If this development is interrupted or criticized, children become hesitant, cautious, or fearful to explore and act on their curiosities and miss out on necessary developmental milestones, learning opportunities, and life’s pleasures such as enjoying a hug from a friend or holding their own child’s hand down the line.
The key to developing intimacy is to overcome any fears we may have developed so that we can safely, freely, and curiously explore this important part of our lives and relationships.
Here are five steps we can take to overcome fear and anxiety and achieve greater intimacy.
1. Know Thyself. Before we can know another or open ourselves up to being known by another, we must first know ourselves. Knowing ourselves means we understand and appreciate our strengths as well as qualities in need of improvement in and out of the bedroom. When it comes to sexuality, knowing ourselves includes appreciating the aesthetics of certain parts of our G-d given bodies and the healthy functions of our bodies. It means being aware of how, where, when, and how long we enjoy being touched. Since we as people are always evolving, the process of knowing ourselves constantly evolves; our taste today could differ from our preference tomorrow. Knowing ourselves requires a dedicated practice of giving our wants and needs the attention they deserve.
2. Know Your Spouse. Once we know ourselves, we can then get to know our spouses. Clients have shared with me that they experience anxiety about not knowing what their spouses want and need in the bedroom. They may also experience anxiety about not knowing how their spouses view them or what their spouses’ expectations are of them. Essentially, they fear the unknown.
What distinguishes a person from an animal is the gift of speech.A gift that keeps on giving, speech enables us to create and build connection with each another.So, when Hashem gave us speech, He also gave us the ability to foster connection.Talking to our partners is the secret to a thriving, dynamic intimacy, the deepest form of connection.Through the act of talking, we not only share what we’ve learned about ourselves, we get to learn what our spouses know about themselves.
Our spouses can share with us all kinds of things from preferences and expectations to their own fears and concerns.In fact, they may feel just as anxious as we do.What we learn from our spouses may surprise us and not be anything as we had imagined or feared.Even if we learn in the course of conversation that there are disparities in preference or expectation, the act of knowing our spouses in it of itself creates the intimacy rather than the sexual act.
How we respond to what our spouses share is crucial. Our partners may tell us, for example, that they would like to be intimate more frequently while we ourselves are thinking that that would be too much or too overwhelming.Instead of reacting with panic, we can respond to our spouses by thanking them for sharing their preference and asking them more questions to understand their need or desire better.The simple two-fold process of listening and learning can dispel some of the mysteries, lower anxiety, and generate clarity, understanding, and closeness.
3. Claim the Power of No. One common contributor to anxiety is feeling trapped in our perceptions and expectations of what we think our role should be in intimacy, what our spouse’s preferences might be, and the degree to which we should cater to these preferences. A crucial part of removing anxiety and welcoming connection is knowing and owning our right to say no to anything that does not sit right with us. There does not need to be an explanation accompanied with a no other than “I don’t feel comfortable continuing with this” nor should there be any pressure or guilt from the other party. When we have the freedom to say no, we feel empowered to say yes to the things that we want.
4. Replace shaming thoughts with curious thoughts. There is a concept I introduce to my clients often in therapy called self-talk. Self-talk is the internal dialogue that we all have with ourselves. It is the story we tell ourselves about our reality and experiences. When we look in the mirror, for example, and tell ourselves we are attractive, we will likely go about our day feeling attractive. When it comes to intimacy, we tend to carry with us the kind of self-talk we usually have throughout the day. So, if it’s more negative, we will feel more negative about ourselves in the bedroom. If we engage in positive self-talk, we are more likely to feel positive when it comes to intimacy as well. Simple statements like “I am wanted,” “I am beautiful,” or “I don’t need to know everything, this is a space for me to enjoy and explore” can transform a potentially anxiety-producing experience into a pleasurable one.
5. Understand that sexuality is an experience and a long-term process, not an end game or result. Perhaps one of the most common fears I hear in my office is fear of performance or performance anxiety. We want to know that we are normal and are getting it right, and we fear that we are not quite there. Sexuality is an acquired skill not a natural talent; it is something that with practice and constructive feedback, every human being is capable of excelling in. When we view our intimate lives as something that needs to be done almost like a chore, we will feel pressure with time and performance.
The best physical intimacy is much like a child playing on a playground with a friend. Upon entering the playground, the child just goes to whichever activity speaks to him or his friend in the moment.He sees the slide and goes on the slide, feeling the sides of it as he slides down with joy.He then hears his friend suggest “ooh let’s go on the swings” and the next moment they are trying to see how far they can swing up into the air. There is no end game or goal, there is just presence, enjoyment, and connection.They may not get to go to every part of the playground, so they may have in mind to try the seesaw next time they visit and that’s okay.They are also not thinking “right now I am supposed to bond with my friend,” they are simply having a good time, which after the fact will be what allows them to deepen their friendship.
According to Hilchos Ishus and as written in the kesuva, a man has the mitzvah of onah, which comprises a woman’s conjugal rights and obligates the husband to provide pleasure to his wife.When we view sexuality as something Hashem intended to be pleasing and enjoyable much like playing with not just any person but our “reyim ahuvim,” our most beloved of friends, we take the pressure off ourselves to achieve and instead are present in the experience.We may not get to everything every time, but we can share with our spouses what we would like to explore next time.Ultimately, intimacy is about connecting yet if we focus too much on the goal in the moment, we become distracted and remove ourselves from the present.When we enjoy the moment, we can then achieve our goal of bonding with our spouses.Sexuality is a long-term game where everyone gets to enjoy and each time is a win because it’s simply an experience reserved for discovery, pleasure, and connection.