A Sexologist's Take on Intimacy: An Interview With Cyndi Darnell

04/26/2016 04:01 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Sexologist Cyndi Darnell suggests thinking of a relationship as its own entity. Give it the attention, nourishment, and love it needs to thrive.

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Omega: What do you think it takes for couples to create true intimacy?

Cyndi: The first thing is there has to be willingness on both sides. If one or both partners are a little bit meh about it, it's not impossible, but it will be hard. There also has to be the recognition that you might not get it right, that it most definitely won't be perfect, and that it is a process in constant movement. You don't approach a relationship like it's a static thing. Imagine the relationship is something that is cocreated between you. It's like a third entity. I often use a Venn diagram to illustrate it--there's partner A, partner B, and then there's the relationship in the middle. That third thing, that relationship, needs nourishment like a pet, a plant, or a child.

Omega: How might a couple identify what it takes to nourish that third entity, their relationship?

Cyndi: I often give couples homework. I ask them to think objectively about what kind of nourishment relationships need in general. I ask them to think more generally, not about their specific relationship, but about what they see in other relationships. Once they have that information, I use that as a scaffold to help them establish a blueprint of what their specific relationship needs.

Once they have a list of things they have determined would nourish their relationship, they can then make those things a priority, like sending the kids off to grandma's house every other weekend so they can go bowling, or have sex, or watch Netflix with a bottle of wine, or whatever they need to do. It doesn't matter what, it just matters that they do it to nourish the relationship.

Making the relationship a priority is where intimacy can come from because there's a shared discussion, a shared vision of what's important to both people. It eliminates the me-versus-you feeling. It's not, "Am I getting my needs met?" It's, "What does the relationship need?"

Omega: How long does it take to do this process?

Cyndi: If a couple is dedicated, we can get really good traction within about six sessions. And it can be fun. It's not a scary approach like a "tell me about your childhood" conversation. It's more about discovering what you want from life, what brings you buoyance, what gives you sparkle and spunk. And it's okay if you make a mistake or drop the ball. If you observe yourself and the relationship with compassion and objectivity, you can own it and move on. It's not about one-upping or accusing each other, it's about the shared vision and goal of continuing to nourish the relationship.

Omega: How can a couple keep the spark in their relationship alive in the face of life's challenges, like parenting, aging, and illness?

Cyndi: On a practical level, keeping the spark alive is a question of priorities. It's about finding ways to get down time where you prioritize the relationship.

If you're dealing with a long-term interruption, like illness or having to care for an elderly parent, it's helpful to go back to a willingness to think more laterally about what's going on. The richness of sexuality may not be what it was when you first got together, but understanding that intimacy and erotic connection doesn't have to be about intercourse is important. People can enjoy robust, erotic connections through breathwork, bathing together, or many other ways. For people with spinal cord injuries or lost limbs they can slow sex down and focus on where there is sensation. Science is now telling us that the brain rewires itself to different parts of the body. There's documented evidence of people having orgasms in their thumbs or other body parts. I'm not saying this will be the case for everyone, but we don't really understand the extent of what the human body is capable of. There is a richness of possibility there that gives me goose bumps.

No matter your situation, you can say, "This is what we have, now what can we do; how can we focus on and enhance what we have?" When we focus on what we don't have, we get caught up in attachment and suffering. But you still have each other, you're still alive, the connection is there. Take the time to discover what you enjoy together and what feels good for you.

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