Abstinence to Make the Heart Grow Fonder?

A colleague of mine recently forwarded a very thought-provoking article; its stated aim was to increase the intimacy in a relationship. Naturally, I embrace such a goal, though having read it, I remain pretty skeptical as to whether its approach could accomplish anything of the sort. The notion was that a period of abstinence will allow a couple to get to know each other without the pressure of sexual intimacy. Now, many will think that is a good idea early on in a relationship but she was proposing this within the context of an established marriage. Now, our friend was actually more interested in what I thought of the idea of levels of intimacy, but this concept of withholding physical affection from a spouse, with a goal of increasing the emotional closeness in the relationship was really disturbing to me.

Admittedly, the author of the other article didn’t drop it on the reader that abruptly, instead she put forth a rather interesting argument that seemed to be her own interpretation of the book The Seven Levels of Intimacy by Matthew Kelly.

The argument went something like this:

Science says that there are 5 levels of intimacy. Science also identifies hormones that foster attachment that are released during sex. God created these hormones to bond the family together. A relationship progresses through these levels of intimacy like a person on a ladder or stairway, moving from one level to the next. When you have sex outside of marriage you have gone against the divine plan that was put in place to help you and so you become stuck at whatever level of intimacy you were in when you had sex together the first time, and you will remain stuck there for the rest of your lives. This is the reason, so the argument claimed, that relationships have problems and people don’t continue to feel connected to their spouse. The only solution therefor is to stop having sex and progress through the levels of intimacy as God wanted you to.

Without any judgment of her, ours, or your spirituality, and what these may entail, there are some fundamental challenges with the above approach.

First, it would seem to be a perversion of the Matthew Kelly’s work. She doesn’t credit Kelly with the idea, and she reworks the levels to fit her definitions and structure (5 instead of 7, etc). This article had an agenda that was plainly stated at the outset, to prevent sex outside of Christian marriage. It is after all the author’s life work, and she has a right to pursue her beliefs. But this is a case of one person’s map being mistaken for the territory.

When a couple has sex is best left for the couple to decide based on their own needs, values, and beliefs. It is much more important that these things be compatible and that the couple is committed to meeting each other’s needs then the timing of their first sexual experience together. The old adage, “When it’s right, it’s right…” seems apt.

It should be noted that abstinence is a method the author herself has used to reconnect in her own marriage, and it’s good to hear she found something that worked for her! As she describes why she felt this was a good option for her, she identifies feeling put-off by sex and loss of desire for sexual contact with her husband because as she believes they had sex too soon. Interestingly, she also identified within herself issues that she had about men and sex. She took a period of time where she and her husband didn’t have sex and addressed her own inability to open up to her husband and heal from these past hurts.

She then did what many people do and mistook her personal map for the territory (that is, “If it is true for me then it is true for everyone”). She is dismissive about the “lower levels of intimacy” saying that she would avoid “true intimacy” by keeping conversations superficial, confined to things like bills and how the kids were doing in school. Further, on her intimacy scale, beliefs and values are mid-level intimacy and personal needs the deepest level of intimacy.

In NLP, we consider beliefs and values to be among the biggest, most powerful motivators for people. These are the things that are huge drivers that influence our entire lives, and these are things that take a great deal of effort to affect. This is identity level stuff, and there isn’t anything more intimate than that. Needs (particularly physical needs) are transitory, based mostly on circumstances that are happening in the moment. They change constantly and can be influenced by a myriad of things. Further, in one of the most important psychological breakthroughs in history (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs) we are told that physical needs are the lowest most basic level of our development and that without that being addressed we cannot progress successfully.

If this seems in any way appropriate to you, I would suggest that it be addressed in conversation very early on in a relationship. The reason for this is that if the person that you are attempting to build a relationship with has conflicting needs, or conflicting values and beliefs, then it is best to discover that as soon as possible. Additionally, it is important to recognize that every intimate relationship cycles through all of the levels of communication on a regular basis. This is important and necessary for the relationship to function and for what we have termed the Relationship Map to be updated.

Deepening levels of intimacy have a direct correlation to deepening levels of commitment. It perhaps isn’t always going to be the popular answer, but it is simply true. The more certain you are that a person is with you no matter what, the more of your authentic self you will expose to them. When and how that happens is unique to the couple. And different parts of you become certain at different points in the relationship. Withholding physical intimacy from a partner rarely will have the effect that this article describes.

The exception is in a situation where one partner has a specific issue with sex (like past abuse) and is actively working on it with a professional. Then in love and with an eye to the long term well being of this person to whom they are committed, the other partner may agree to abstain from sexual relations for a time while the first partner heals. But, in general to use abstinence as a tool to increase intimacy runs counter to everything we know about the way people function and what makes healthy, happy relationships.

Abstinence is unlikely to make the heart grow fonder. It will freeze the organic and loving development of your relationship, robbing it of the hormonal tide that compels us to pull together, to love, to commit, and to face challenges with passion and resolve.

Without it, we are roommates and intimacy vanishes.

Copyright © 2019 Chris Gingolph

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