Maintaining Intimacy

John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth developed the theory that attachment to another person is our primary motive in life. Between 6 months and one year of age, human infants who are “securely attached” to mommy (or a caretaker) begin to explore the world in brief excursions, starting the process of gaining self-confidence and independence. If a child of that age is taken away from his/her mom, however, they usually respond with crying, reaching out, and other protests. When mom is brought back, they want to be close–they hug, cling, look at her with hurt eyes, and then they turn on the charm, cooing and smiling. The point? We need attachments (intimacy). We don’t all respond that way to detachment, however. About 40% of infants are very upset when separated but when re-united with mom, they approach and reject her, presumable because she is sometimes attentive and affectionate and sometimes not. They are considered “insecurely attached” and have trouble exploring the world.

These attachment styles supposedly last a lifetime. So, perhaps 40% of us adults respond with anger when we feel rejected.

Marriage therapists (Johnson, 1994), following the attachment theory, consider anger expressed by a spouse to be an effort to restore closeness and intimacy to the relationship (although the attacked spouse is likely to see it and feel it as tearing the marriage apart). Anger is considered a natural protest to loosing security or love. So, if both partners can re-interpret or “reframe” the spouse’s anger into being a cry for regaining lost love and attachment, then the angry partner can become aware of the loneliness behind the anger and the criticized partner can be more sympathetic, a better listener, and more open about his/her own insecurities. Thus, the cycle of attack, building resentment, and counter-attack is broken. If both spouses can disclose their tender underlying feelings, such as the fear behind silent withdrawal, the couple is well on the way to a “secure attachment” and a good marriage.

There are lots of detachments in life. In a mobile society, we often leave our families of origin at 18, never to return. With marriage, we often lose contact with our college and casual friends. We never get over our need for intimacy, however, and in today’s culture, we seem to be looking more than ever for continuing intimacy with our spouse. Ordinarily lots of disclosing occurs early in a relationship, but within a few years it fades away. In the past, there were many barriers to intimacy in marriage: gender inequality (e.g. men more educated), false or unreasonable expectations of the opposite sex, dependent ties with families of origin, “unfinished business” from family or previous relationships, women involved with children, men obsessed with work, few examples of intimate parents, etc. Several of these barriers are declining and, as that happens, the emphasis on obtaining true intimacy in marriage is increasing (Gordon & Frandsen, 1993; Young-Eisendrath, 1993; Barbach & Geisinger, 1992; Campbell, 1980, 1984; Emmons & Alberti, 1991).

Young-Eisendrath (1993) sees old gender stereotypes as engendering false expectations of the opposite sex. She feels a spouse can find out what the other is really like by talking. Research by Bradbury and Fincham (1990) supports this notion, except they say that it is the way we have learned to explain our spouse’s behaviour that must be changed first. As discussed above, unhappy spouses see their spouse as having bad intentions, selfishness, and permanent negative traits that cause problems. With this attitude, it is hard to give any praise or to be nice. In fact, faking it by “talking” and feigning being “understanding” or pretending to make efforts to reconciliate usually make things worse, until in your own mind your views of the spouse’s motivations become more positive. This cognitive aspect–viewing the partner positively–is part of all these efforts to increase intimacy. Barbach and Geisinger (1992) concentrate on understanding how our previous relationships, such as an absent father or a critical former wife, influence our current love. They emphasize friendship, respect, trust, and sexual satisfaction.

Firestone and Catlett (1999) operate on a very different theory, namely, that the fear of intimacy stems from early childhood when we develop a primative “fantasy bond” with Mom as a defense against separation anxiety. The parent’s negative qualities or anything seen as rejection are responded to with anger, fear, and maybe guilt. Later on, with the idea of death, the child strengthens the fantasy bond (for safety), the idealization of one or both parents, the withdrawal of feelings from the world, and the depreciation of his/her own self. In the ongoing attempt to defend ourselves from hurts, we develop an internal “voice” that talks to us mostly about grave dangers and painful feelings. It is our earliest self-concept; it tells us what we should do and controls us with criticism, commands, and warnings. The result is a lot of fear and guilt. Later in life, after we fall in love, the voice is still very alive–telling us we are unloveable, inadequate, stupid, etc. and often trying to get our partner to treat us like our parent(s) did. To further defend ourselves we become insensitive, numbed and withdrawn. Firestone’s “Voice Therapy” helps you become aware of the cruel, nasty, intense things the voice says about you, your partner, and others. Awareness of the voice sometimes brings back memories of childhood that explain our current feelings. The task then is to plan ways to change one’s harmful behaviour, expectations, fears, and prejudices, so the relationship can grow positively. It is not an easy therapy and may require a therapist but the book is easily read and understood.

Lori Gordon (Gordon & Frandsen, 1993) has developed a 120-hour class for teaching intimacy skills to people who haven’t gotten what they wanted from marriage and, subsequently, stopped confiding, walled themselves off, found other ways to spend their time, etc. The course has been shown to reduce anxiety and anger, increase marital satisfaction, and improve self-esteem. Her approach is to encourage confiding to each other, and from this comes self-understanding, insight into the history of the expectancies or emotional baggage we bring into a marriage, mellowing of one’s negative feelings towards the partner, feelings of security, and intimacy. The course teaches the skills of open, honest communication, listening, empathy, and forgiveness (see chapters 7 and 13). Much of the confiding is about their personality and emotional development in the context of their family’s emotional history, i.e. what were we taught about ourselves, love, sex, morals, unspoken family rules, confiding, trust, intimacy, etc. Eventually, we find that the source of our marital misunderstandings and negative expectations is our history, not our spouse. Here are some exercises Gordon recommends:

Daily Temperature Reading –at the same time every day, hold hands and (a) express appreciation for something your spouse has done, (b) share some information about your mood or activities, (c) ask about something you don’t understand (“Wonder why I got so upset about the phone bill?” or “Why were you quiet last night?”), (d) request some change without blaming the spouse (“Please call if you won’t be home by 5” or “Please don’t wear the pants with the rip in the crotch any more”), and (e) express some hope (“I hope we can go hiking this weekend”).
Bonding exercise –when you are upset with your spouse, ask for some bonding. (a) Lie down and hold each other. (b) Describe what is bothering you (your partner just listens), be specific. (c) Share your memories of the past that seem connected with your emotional reaction to the spouse (“Your having lunch with ____. made me think of my first wife’s/husband’s affair…”). (d) Tell your spouse what you needed to have happen in your history that would have reduced your being upset now. (Maybe your spouse can say or do, at this time, what you needed long ago.) (e) Discuss how the past–the inner child, old hurts, Papa’s rules, unfinished business, etc.–has a powerful effect on you today. (f) Plan ways both of you can help avoid the unwanted emotional reaction in the future.

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Play dead –Arrange for an hour in a private place. One person lies on the floor and pretends to be dead. The other person imagines his/her spouse is dead. The purpose is not to emotionally grieve so much but rather to talk about things you appreciated about the partner, what you will miss about the partner, and what you wish you had done while he/she was alive. The “dead” person can’t talk, just listen. When finished, then the other person plays dead. This can be a powerful experience. Use what you learn to improve the relationship in the future.

Gottman (1994) reminds us that for a good relationship our negative emotions (criticism, contempt, emotional withdrawal, boredom, loneliness) must be out numbered by positive emotions (interesting activities, conversation, affection, appreciation, concern, fun, sex) by 5 to 1. We all need love and respect. It is important that spouses don’t dismiss their partners’ complaints nor let their complaints become personally insulting or expressions of contempt. Make your requested changes very behaviourally specific. It is crucial to keep love relationships positive. How? Call “time out” in any fight as soon as it starts to get out of control. Do this by taking a break for 15-20 minutes and calming down; you can’t be irate and rational at the same time. Be sure to replace your hate-generating thoughts with more positive or tolerant thoughts about your spouse. Express your unhappiness, gently, but curb the vitriolic attacks on his/her character. Belligerent or domineering talk has no place in a marriage. In fact, attempt to frequently communicate some praise and admiration to your spouse (even during a confrontation). Remember the good times. Be optimistic. Be an empathic listener, don’t shut out your partner. Let them know you understand their feelings and desires. All this self-control when being criticized is not easy, it takes skill (chapter 13) and lots of practice.

One Response to Intimacy

  1. Ruby says:

    I really enjoyed this article it helped explain why I am how I am. I have horrible abandonment problems and it’s so hard to truly let people in and I never know how much someone cares or loves me

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