Rabbi Manis Friedman is a man on a mission. In his new book, The Joy of Intimacy, co-authored with Ricardo Adler, the long-time champion of marriage seeks to steer couples in the direction of wedded bliss by reacquainting them with the notion of true intimacy. Intimacy, Rabbi Friedman believes, has been forgotten amidst modern obsessions with love and great sex, weakening marriages and leaving many people—even those who are married—feeling alone.
Last week, I spoke with Rabbi Friedman by phone about these and other issues he addresses in the book. He also shared some practical tips for couples interested in strengthening their connection beyond Valentine’s Day. The following transcript of our interview has been edited for length.
Melissa Langsam Braunstein: You write that there is a crisis of intimacy. Could you say more about that?
Rabbi Friedman: We’ve always known that there are problems [in many marriages]—technical problems, financial problems, emotional problems—and they all seem to need a different solution. But what we’re seeing today is that in good marriages —functional, happy marriages—the husband or wife will admit that at moments, they feel completely alone in the world. In fact, aloneness has become a serious health hazard because when you’re completely alone, your whole immune system crashes, and then you get all sorts of health problems.
So, the fact that even in a good marriage, people still feel alone in the world—which really shouldn’t happen once you’re married—tells me that something is missing, something vital, even in a good, functional, and happy marriage, and that could be the element of intimacy. So where did that go, what does that really mean, and how do we get it back?
Melissa Langsam Braunstein: Your book is an ode to marital monogamy. In this day and age, when so many people choose to cohabit, why should people get married?
Rabbi Friedman: If you don’t bother getting married, you’re might have good relationships one after the other, but you’ll always be alone because you’re not really bonding with the person you’re with. Now, it could be that for all practical purposes you are married, you just skipped the ceremony, and if you should ever separate, you will need to get divorced, because it’ll feel like an amputation. And if that’s the case, you might as well have gotten married. Without the permanence of the marriage, you have a roommate, you have a best friend, but that still leaves you by yourself. Alone.
Melissa Langsam Braunstein: Why do you believe that marriage is the best context for intimacy?
Rabbi Friedman: Real intimacy means surrendering to something bigger than yourself. Intimacy is not about taking or getting something from another person. We don’t use people, even if it’s mutually agreeable. Using each other is abusive. So, if I’m using someone for sexual pleasure or for companionship, that’s not nice. That doesn’t need marriage.
To really surrender, to dissolve into each other, you need to be very secure in the relationship. If we’re not married, we’re basically saying, “Let’s not get too involved, because it might not work out. So, let’s keep it a little casual, a little impersonal.”
Well, if it’s a little impersonal, I can’t totally surrender. I can enjoy your company. I can get some benefits from you. But I’m not going to surrender to you and then have you walk away, so I withhold some part of myself because I’m not secure enough in this relationship to give it everything. And holding back a little bit is frustrating. We need to be able to abandon ourselves to the relationship, and not just for the sexual moment, but for the long-haul.
Marriage is supposed to provide that security—that when you come home to your spouse, it should feel like you are where you belong and with the person you belong with. That perfect moment, that’s what makes a marriage, and that produces the security.
Melissa Langsam Braunstein: What is one thing that married readers could do today to strengthen their own marriages?
Rabbi Friedman: Stop looking for love and stop looking for great sex. Focus on the person you’re with. There’s nothing better than being with the person you’re married to. It’s not a performance or an Olympic event.
What you need from your spouse is their love, not generic love. You’re not lacking love, you just want more closeness with your spouse. So, here’s the real definition: Intimacy means connecting to another human being by removing all things that come between you. And love might be that thing. Intimacy is to be connected to each other beyond all things, including this thing called love, including this thing called good sex.
Surprisingly, the two things that are destroying marriage are love and sex. You end up being married to the sex and the love, and the person you’re with is lost in the process. So, if you asked your grandmother what happens in the bedroom, your grandmother would probably say, “nothing,” and that would be the perfect answer. A bedroom is a "No-Thing Zone." What happens in the bedroom? There’s no what, there’s just who. Introducing a what will just interfere with the intimacy.
That’s why, if you want to ruin someone’s marriage, just sit down and say to the wife or the husband, “So, do you really love her? Does she really love you?” Just plant that little doubt, introduce this little thing, and you’ve destroyed this relationship. Plant a little doubt in a person’s mind. “Are you having really good sex with your wife or not so good?” And that’s it. You’ve introduced a thing that’s going to come between them.
Intimacy means having each other beyond all things. Practically speaking, no television in the bedroom. You don’t want somebody else talking, something playing to distract you from each other, even if it’s romantic music. There should be no computer; there should be no desk. In the bedroom, there’s just [us]. And there’s nothing better than just having each other. There’s no anxiety, no frustration, and you don’t end up asking each other, “How was it?” Because there is no “it.” There’s just us, and us is always great.
Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.