I like the British. At least, I like the way British people are portrayed in old English novels and movies full of period costumes. Instead of sharing their feelings overtly, or throwing themselves at one another, English characters, who are supposedly in love, exchange meaningful looks and write mysterious letters. I think I like all of this because it’s about emotional intimacy.
That’s the kind of connection that makes physical intimacy more than just mechanics. Emotional intimacy is a closeness in a relationship that makes you feel like you are sharing you heart and mind. It’s someone asking you what’s wrong because they notice a subtle change in your facial expression. It’s sharing a look across a crowded room and smiling because you have an inside joke. It’s someone knowing you so well that they finish your sentence and it’s not annoying. It’s taking care of each other: you fixing his eggs the way he likes them, him making your coffee with the perfect amount of milk. It’s knowing someone and being known by someone—an essential human desire.
When this closeness is missing in a marriage, things feel wrong. Couples complain that they have grown apart. I think that’s a good word choice because closeness can be grown. Just like couples can grow apart because they stop sharing their feelings, their struggles and goals, their successes and happinesses—they can grow together again by opening those things back up to each other. Closeness is in the details. It’s not mind reading; it’s paying attention.
The fact is that sharing all that stuff requires time, and time spent together. Developing mutual interests in important. Listening well to one another is important. For women that usually means that he is hearing your pain and not solving your problems. For men it might mean … Ha! I just got stuck right there. Twenty-five years in and I still find myself perplexed by what men want. Hopefully that’s an encouragement to everyone. We remain mysterious to one another—even in marriage, and even after a long time together.
I think my husband wants to know that I respect and support him. I want to hear about his work, his hobbies, his friendships, whatever. I’m not that great at listening. He’s not that great at talking. So this is tricky. He often comes home carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. I think lots of men do. I’m usually figuring out how to lighten that load for him—emotionally. There is comfort in sharing what’s on your mind and heart, and in knowing that someone is there to support you.
We went backpacking one time when we had been married a few years. Our oldest daughter was about three at the time. So we loaded up the big pack, a small pack, and the kiddo in a backpack. We started up a trail to a beautiful area with a lake and a great camping spot. I don’t know how long the trail was but after a mile or so he looked back at me and offered to take the small pack. So we stopped and rearranged so that I only had our little girl in the backpack and he had the big pack on his back and the small pack on his chest. We walked along like that for another bit of the trail until he kept having to stop and wait more and more. Finally, he offered to take our daughter as well.
My memory is fuzzy on this—likely due to lack of oxygen to the brain at the time—but I know we had her walk by herself for a little ways. But the trail was narrow and steep. I wasn’t sure I would even make it up the trail myself, much less carrying our stuff or our kid. So, my husband ended up carrying everything.
People walking down the trail passed us with incredulous looks and comments about how it wasn’t much further and that the baby girl could probably walk. I didn’t say anything—I could barely breathe. But I felt terrible that he was shouldering the entire load.
This is the image I have of him when he comes home from a particularly difficult day and doesn’t want to talk. He has taken on the problems of the world: his work, the broken appliances, the car trouble, our family stuff, whatever, and is making his way up the trail carrying all of it. That’s him—admirable, saintly, yet slowly being crushed by the weight of everything.
So what does he need from me? How can I support him? He needs words of encouragement. He needs to feel supported. Even small gestures like writing a note, or holding his hand can help. Obviously, he needs help carrying some of that, or hearing from me that he can put some of it down because it doesn’t matter. I don’t know. But maybe emotionally, he needs most of all to know, without a doubt, that I know. I know he’s carrying all that. I see him. He’s not alone. I’m close.
Rebecca Barnes is the director of curriculum for Summit Kids Ministry at Flatirons. She’s been married to Ron Barnes almost 25 years and has three daughters. Her oldest daughter will be getting married this year, so she’s been thinking a lot about marriage lately.