This post has been updated as of September 2020.
A growing trend in our culture is the separation of sex from intimacy. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the “hook up” culture, described by Dr. Lisa Wade in her book The Great American Hookup. Dr. Wade explains that sex has been so divorced from relationship that a sexual experience can actually propel people to be more relationally distant than being a symbol of or vehicle for intimacy. She writes, “The rule is to be less close after the hookup than before, at least for a time. If students were friends, they should act like acquaintances. If they were acquaintances, they should act like strangers. And if they were strangers, they shouldn’t acknowledge each other’s existence at all.”
By contrast, I believe that sex was designed to be inseparable from intimacy. It is an expression of the intimate knowledge that comes within a committed relationship. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for “sexual intimacy” is the word yada. This word means to deeply or intimately know someone. It is the same Hebrew word that is used to describe God’s intimate knowledge of His people and our longing to know God. For example, Psalm 139 is David’s reflection on God’s deep knowledge of Him. This word yada appears five times in Psalm 139, “You have searched me, Lord, and you yada me” (Ps. 139:1). Not only is this truth written in the pages of the Bible, but it is also written within our bodies. Sexual intimacy is more than a physical act. It mysteriously reaches into our relational and spiritual beings.
Has the Hook Up Culture Invaded Your Marriage?
You might think that this trend of separating sex from sexual intimacy is only happening within the “hook up” culture, but I believe it’s also happening in marriages. Most married people know that sex is important to their relationship, so they may find time to share their bodies once or twice a week. But there is far more to sexual intimacy than just getting naked with one another.
A couple can be married for years, even decades, without ever taking steps towards true intimacy and deeply “knowing” each other sexually. This can happen for a variety of reasons. For example, while sharing their bodies, a husband and wife may nurture separate fantasies to become aroused. Or maybe one of them has experienced sexual trauma and learned to manage anxiety through dissociating during sex. Couples can also avoid intimacy because of unresolved conflicts or simply because they don’t have the energy to offer more than their bodies to one another.
The problem with this approach to sex is that what was meant to unite a couple can begin to divide them. When two people have sex without pursuing intimacy, emotional and spiritual conflicts begin to undermine their sex life with no resolution. One person may begin to feel more like a sex object than an intimate partner. Eventually, the couple will begin patterns of coercing, manipulating and avoiding within their sexual relationship.
4 Ways to Pursue Sexual Intimacy, Not Just Sexual Activity
In my experience as a clinical psychologist, the couples who have the best sex are those who truly pursue yada. They understand that sexual intimacy is more than a sensual experience. It is a journey of growth, expression and passion that can forge their hearts in a way that nothing else can.
Here are four things that can help you and your spouse pursue sexual intimacy, not just sexual activity.
1. Remember intimacy is a marathon, not a sprint.
Our culture has trained us to think about “great sex” as a momentary experience. It’s all about compatibility and the passion of the moment. Yet true sexual satisfaction isn’t what happens during a few sexual encounters, but through building and sustaining a long-term sexual relationship.
In 1994, researchers from the University of Chicago conducted one of the most comprehensive and respected studies of sexual patterns and trends. Shockingly they found that the most sexually satisfied people are those within in a long-term committed relationship. Regardless of what you might see on television, sexual satisfaction is built upon trust, commitment and consistency, not beautiful bodies, kinky techniques, and sexual chemistry.
I often tell newlyweds to approach sex as if they are opening up a box of Legos. If they expect to find an assembled product, they will probably be disappointed. The fun of Legos is learning to become an expert builder. The magic is in the making. The same is true of sex. Intimacy results as a couple learns to make great love with each other over time. Even the obstacles you face with your partner can be an invitation to learn and grow together. Couples that have been married for many decades often say their sex life just keeps getting better with time. Why? Because they have become experts at communicating, resolving conflict, and learning each other’s bodies. They have stored up memories of laughter and passion that make their intimate connection meaningful.
2. Commit to growing and learning together.
Sexual intimacy doesn’t just happen but results from investment. The most significant thing you can do to build sexual intimacy is not done between the sheets. It is the commitment to learn and communicate with your partner.
Intimate couples are those who have been in the trenches together. They have addressed problems head-on instead of avoiding them. They talk about sexual temptations, desires, difficulties and wounds. They have built trust to share their most vulnerable thoughts and struggles.
I think of Justin and Shelby who sought healing together for Shelby’s history of sexual trauma. Justin didn’t think of it as “his wife’s problem” but as their challenge as a couple. Together, they learned how to identify triggers and how to make their sexual relationship a safe place.
Or Lynn and Jonathan. In the early years of their marriage, Jonathan hid his porn use from his wife. Eventually, Lynn discovered porn on his computer and confronted him with anger and tears of betrayal. What could have torn this couple apart became a journey of intimacy, including confession, forgiveness, accountability and creating a pattern of honesty about weakness and temptation.
Every barrier you face in your sexuality is an opportunity to build true intimacy, rather than hiding from your spouse. If you are in a season of challenges, get the help you need. If sex is just boring, read a great book together (like Doug Rosenau’s A Celebration of Sex) to reignite your passion.
3. Promise never to use sex as a weapon.
In most relationships, one person has a stronger sex drive than the other. Over time, couples develop patterns of pursuit and rejection, avoidance and resentment. What was meant to build intimacy becomes a powerful weapon to divide.
One of the most damaging elements of this pattern is that one person begins to demand sex from the other. Some may even quote the Bible, coercing through the message that “this is your duty.” In I Corinthians 7, the apostle Paul writes about the importance of sexual intimacy within marriage. However, we must remember that marriage was created to be an expression of God’s covenant love. As Paul writes later in that same letter, “Love is patient, kind, does not seek its own way.” Married couples should make sexual intimacy a priority, not just having sex.
Intimacy requires trust and sensitivity to each other’s needs. As soon as one person uses sex to manipulate or punish the other person, sex is no longer about intimacy or love.
4. Make sexual intimacy a priority.
After a full day of work, parenting, and daily life, you’re exhausted. You fall into bed, excited to sleep only to find that your partner is excited about something else. Inwardly you groan, “Really? Sex is the last thing on my mind.” While this kind of sexual encounter is bound to be part of sex in marriage, it shouldn’t be too frequent. Having sex doesn’t take a ton of energy, but sexual intimacy requires that you be fully present. This is one of the negatives of those who encourage people to always say yes when a spouse asks for sex. You begin to establish a habit of sex around a sexual release rather than a sexual relationship. In fact, building sexual intimacy may mean saying “no” to sexual encounters that undermine relationship and trust.
Building sexual intimacy means you make time to anticipate, to enjoy each other, to communicate and to enter into the passion. It also requires that you work to address harmful patterns and triggers that keep you from feeling safe and valued. This won’t happen unless you proactively set aside time to build intimacy.
The Peril of “No Strings Attached Sex”
It is sadly ironic that our culture talks endlessly about sex, but most people have never experienced the fullness of what it was intended to be. Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy, had his fill of every sexual expression available yet lacked the mystery of yada. Near the end of his life he reflected, “It’s the key to my life, the need to feel loved… I think I’ve been searching to fill that hole that was left there in early childhood. I think that what I’m probably doing is avoiding being hurt again. Safety in numbers.”
The greatest peril within a culture of “no strings attached sex” is that we become splintered people, believing that a physical act can replace the relational and spiritual intimacy we long for… even within marriage.
 Lisa Wade, American Hookup. p 47.