By Nicole Mitchell
Design by Whitney Young
After spending 15 years as a divorce lawyer—dealing with marriage counselors, understanding affairs, and finalizing relationships—Beth Darling decided it was time to change.
When Darling’s own 20-year relationship ended, she decided her new goal was to help couples stay together and keep their love alive. “Rather than trying to make the journey of separation an amicable one,” Darling shares on her website, “I wanted to help couples stay together. I wanted to see love not only survive but thrive.”
In her new book, The 5 Kinds of Intimacy: How to Keep Your Love Alive, Darling shares a no-bullshit approach to creating a happy and satisfying relationship. Coming from the eyes of a hopeless romantic with a background in law, this book is a must-read for anyone in a relationship—whether you’re struggling to keep the passion alive or you’re still in the honeymoon phase. We did a Q&A with Darling about what she’s been up to.
What interested you in this research?
Very shortly after I began coaching, I was frustrated by clients who claimed they had no intimacy in their relationship just because they weren’t having sex. I found this disconcerting as if all the other connections they did have were trivial. I also knew instinctively that focusing on what was lacking would inevitably take a toll on the overlooked positive aspects of their relationship.
Because my lawyer brain makes me a stickler for specificity and proper word usage, I knew I had to help my clients redefine intimacy. The problem was, before I could teach them, I had to understand it more clearly myself. When my search turned up a glaring lack of consistency regarding the term “intimacy,” I decided that the relationship world needed my logical analysis.
Many people think they understand what intimacy is, but you believe that it is more complex than how it is commonly defined. How do you define intimacy?
I define intimacy as a state that results from a connection, closeness, familiarity, exposure, or proximity that is highly personal—so much so that it is likely to cause a feeling of vulnerability. Specifically, I believe that there are five kinds of intimacy that are fundamental to a happy long-term loving, fulfilling relationship: physical, emotional, sexual, romantic, and spiritual. (The latter has nothing to do with religion by the way).
You also believe that love is not enough to have a successful relationship. What do you mean by that?
Love can be magnificent, even beautiful. But love without intimacy is like cotton candy: sweet and pretty but unfulfilling. No matter how much you have, it doesn’t satisfy your hunger. The same is true for love. That’s why experts talk about love as a verb; without substance, love isn’t compelling enough. Think about all the people who get divorced while claiming, “I love them, but I’m not IN love with them.” I believe that what they actually mean is that their relationship lacked passionate intimacy.
In your experiences, have you found any difference in the way heterosexual and queer couples experience intimacy?
I believe that all of us have an innate desire and drive for each of the five kinds of intimacy, but we have all developed varying degrees of comfort with them. Individuals also prioritize them differently, which can be problematic in any relationship.
What I’ve noticed is that queer couples are often more aligned with each other in their perspective on intimacy, but that doesn’t equate to happiness. Interestingly, what I’ve noticed is that they are more surprised and resistant to the idea that focusing on one or two kinds of intimacy isn’t enough to create the deeply satisfying relationship they imagined and desired. For example, one lesbian couple I worked with almost fired me when I suggested that their lack of sexual and romantic intimacy was leaving a big gap in their relationship. They argued that an emphasis on sexual intimacy was a masculine construct and that romance was simply a means to sex. Neither of which they thought should be a priority in their relationship.
It took a while for them to realize that sexual intimacy would be a big deal even if the world was solely populated by lesbian women from day one. They also had to understand that romance was much more than the foolishness presented on television and in advertisements. Happily, once they wrapped their head around the five intimacies, they learned to joyfully appreciate all of them together.
What is the first step couples should do when addressing the five types of intimacy in their relationship?
I recommend that they each take the State of Your Union assessment (included in the book) privately, and then share the results together. This is the best way to clearly identify what each person thinks is going well for them and where they could use improvement. It’s important to know that couples often have quite different perspectives on the status quo, but that doesn’t mean doom and gloom! In fact, the sharing of assessments in and of itself creates emotional intimacy, which is a win for all concerned. From there, I think couples should focus on creating more of the intimacy that is easiest for them. Their shared success is then likely to motivate them to take some chances in the other categories.
How should one partner broach the subject of feeling intimacy is lacking in their relationship without it coming across as judgmental to the other partner?
I always suggest starting on a positive note and avoiding any blame, shame, guilt, or obligation. So one approach might be, “Honey, you should know I was thinking about you today and realized I feel crazy lucky to have met you and I can’t imagine life without you. Of course, I hope you feel like I do, but I don’t want to take that for granted. I want to make sure that we’re doing everything in our power to make sure we are both happy and fulfilled together. Which is why when I read about this woman who suggests that relationships should have an annual review just like we do at work, I realized we should do it. It feels scary to me, but I need to know what’s working for you and where we should improve, just like you deserve to know the same about me. I don’t want to let our relationship wither because we didn’t pay enough attention to it. It’s too important to me, us, and our family.”
Can you give us a brief run-down on each type of intimacy and why each is important in a relationship?
1. Physical intimacy is important because humans need and crave physical affection. Not only is this good for our emotional state, but it improves our physical health. Research has clearly shown that children fail to thrive when deprived of physical connection with others, It seems obvious that this need doesn’t evaporate with age.
2. Emotional intimacy is what gives us a sense of safety and security in a happy relationship. It’s only then that we can allow ourselves to lower our guard and be fully seen. A lack of positive emotional intimacy creates either a void or a constant state of uncertainty, which causes heightened stress levels that negatively affect our physical health.
3. Sexual intimacy confuses a lot of people because it doesn’t have to include sexual acts. Instead, it’s a recognition of us as sexual beings. An acknowledgment that we are born with primal urges to experience sexual pleasure and orgasmic bliss, whether or not we indulge these urges or not. “Coming out” was so stressful for so many because it was an act of unreciprocated sexual intimacy. A lack of sexual intimacy in relationships can be likened to having to leave part of oneself at the door before entering a room.
4. Romantic intimacy is the most overlooked. However, it provides the excitement, passion, and mystery that keeps love actively growing instead of stagnating.
5. Spiritual intimacy has nothing to do with religion; in fact, it’s what’s missing in many religious households. Spiritual intimacy is what gives us the confidence to be wholehearted about our relationship and the way we express love to our partner. For example, if we have been taught that sexual acts are shameful, we are likely to struggle with sexual intimacy even within the confines of our marriage. The lack of spiritual intimacy in this regard exacts a horrible toll on far too many otherwise loving marriages.
The 5 Kinds of Intimacy: How to Keep Your Love Alive
By Beth Darling
Love just ain’t enough, Darlin’! You gotta have intimacy, too! The 5 Kinds of Intimacy: How to Keep Your Love Alive is a no-bullsh*t, pragmatic and practical approach to creating happy, satisfying relationships.
Nicole Mitchell (she/they) is a writer and social media manager who graduated December 2020 with a degree in strategic communication. A few of her favorite things include cuddling with cats, listening to Bon Iver, making lattes, and running her book club (even though sometimes she forgets to read the books.)
Whitney Young (she/her) is a photographer, graphic designer, and conceptual artist who currently resides in Kansas City, MO. She is passionate about the environment, local communities, and intersectional feminism, and those values often show up in her personal work. She received her BFA in Design with an emphasis in Photo Media from the University of Kansas. When she isn’t working her day job in marketing she can be found playing video games or bouldering at the local Kansas City climbing gyms.