Marital Intimacy Skills, Research Paper Example
Words: 5491Research Paper
While what constitutes true marital intimacy has evolved over time, the reality remains that a variety of issues, ranging from cultural backgrounds to innate differences in gender perceptions and communication skills, render the subject both difficult to precisely define and demanding to achieve. Real marital intimacy, and on all levels of the relationship, is too typically viewed as a state of being obtained organically as the relationship develops, and this further exacerbates the difficulties. Ultimately, marital intimacy relies on communication behaviors and, provided both partners are desirous of attaining it, as well as actually able to modify their own behaviors, the skills involved may be successfully instilled, or trained.
It could be reasonably stated that marital intimacy is the elusive “blue rose” of modern life. Men and women do not merely strive to attain it within a marriage; they will marry in order to seek, and consequently enjoy the rewards of, it. It translates in the minds of ordinary men and women as a state of perfect, often tacit, mutual understanding. It incorporates the heightened pleasures of physical intimacy, as it provides the profound understanding that can only be had when each partner is thoroughly known to the other. Moreover, it relies on an anticipated, virtually effortless circumstance wherein the desire to be so intimately acquainted with the spouse somehow accomplishes the process.
The reality is, as many couples discover, somewhat different. Men and women do indeed come together in marriages, but these unions cannot eviscerate the unique and extraordinary approaches to communication, and life itself, that each gender ordinarily manifests. Then, a host of other considerations frequently complicate the process of achieving intimacy, and all too often impede it. Personal histories of how intimacy has been understood by each man and woman must have an enormous impact on how each may attempt a progress toward it, and this component rests upon the wider foundations of varying cultural backgrounds. Modern life, as well, presents challenges, in that access to temptations and distractions, sexual, romantic, or merely social, may easily turn a partner away from the necessary effort inherent in any commitment to real intimacy. Lastly, more recent senses of personal entitlement render the work intrinsic to marital intimacy off-putting to many; the acceptance of the marital state as a lifelong bond, and one requiring mutual commitment and directions of energies, has in modern life been largely diffused, if not altogether abandoned. More precisely, unlike ages past when such intimacy was restricted to little more than sexual cooperation on the part of the wife, there appears to be a prevalent conviction that, if true spousal intimacy does not simply “occur”, the union itself is not right.
This is a regrettable point of view, for no single process by which human beings attain fulfillment is not had without effort and commitment. It is pleasing to think of love as a force which generates intimacy, but the greater reality is that intimacy is essentially a complex mode of communication, and communication demands attention, skills, and overt willingness. It does not, ever, just “happen”. Fortunately, it can be developed, when men and women acknowledge that it is a manifestation of their togetherness to which they must apply themselves. Ultimately, marital intimacy relies on communication behaviors and, provided both partners are desirous of attaining it, as well as actually able to modify their own behaviors, the skills involved may be successfully instilled, or trained.
Defining Spousal Intimacy, Then and Now
As noted, men and women typically have rather different ideas as to what comprises marital intimacy. This is hardly surprising, as increasing research tends to support the most traditionally maintained ideas as to innate differences in gender perceptions and behaviors, as will be shortly examined. Then, the myriad factors of cultures evolving over time, as well as the shifting and individual characteristics of each in regard to accepted models of intimacy, must drastically shape the notions of the husband or wife considering, or dealing with, the issue. Also, and unfailingly, each individual, comes to the marriage with some sense of what he or she believes intimacy is. This of itself is a distillation of all other factors, and is as distinct as anything else reflecting individuality.
These considerations notwithstanding, there are certain parameters or conceptions that generally define marital intimacy for most people, and all of these rely upon a willing level of understanding and reciprocal regard: “When an individual perceives that his or her personally-relevant disclosures have been responded to with concern and support from a partner, he or she may feel understood, validated, and cared for, and therefore more intimate with the partner” (Marshall, 2008, p. 146). This is essentially how intimacy is viewed, as well as why it is so consistently sought after, for it serves to affirm self regard as it enhances the enjoyment of being with the loved spouse.
So attractive, if not to say idyllic, a view of marital intimacy has by no means been reflected in cultures and societies of the past. It may, in fact, be reasonably asserted that intimacy as defined above is a relatively new concept. That is, the crucial component to be regarded here is that marital intimacy is under examination, and the institution of marriage has rarely been supported by societies, and consequently inculcated within individuals, as necessarily embodying such emotional and/or ephemeral components. Simply, past eras promoted marriage as an essential tool of the state, by which stability and legitimate issue would be produced for the good of the existing culture. This is of itself an enormously complex arena, for predominantly patriarchal cultures have based ideas on marital relations which actually deny any real “relationship” aspect in the modern sense. In a patriarchy, the woman was/is essentially expected to be somewhat subsumed in the union, and adopt her husband’s faith as her role was/is to support his standing in the community. As regards Christian cultures in past eras, the issue was fundamentally clear: “Canon law recognized a single, juridical entity, the marriage, but the subordination of the wife made it clear that the union was represented by the husband” (Thatcher, 1999, p. 212). Such a statement does not precisely go to intimacy issues, but the implications are nonetheless clear; in such scenarios, the reciprocity intrinsic to marital intimacy could not have been of any real import.
The historical reality is both inescapable and consistent, in that marital intimacy was typically held to reflect only sexual relations between couples. Marriage had, so to speak, a job to do, and concerns over even this element of the relationship were usually deemed too personal to be delved into, an unquestioned privilege for the husband, and ultimately unimportant to the union’s basic reason for existence: “Marriage traditionally was an institution for child rearing, economic support, and proper fulfillment of marital duties defined in terms of masculine and feminine roles” (Cox, 2008, p. 529). The not especially subtle meaning inherent in this is that male sexual needs were then accommodated by wives. This factor of sexuality as both necessitating marriage and composing the core of its intimacy was not, however, restricted to catering to masculine desires. For long centuries, it was considered essential that women marry, for a lack of sexual activity was deemed something near to dangerous; women deprived of sexual relations as permitted by marriage were, certainly in the European cultures of the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, looked upon as freakish and unnatural. The woman of the Renaissance unable to enjoy the pleasures of marriage was invariably expected to suffer from a wide variety of sicknesses, both mental and physical (Hodgkin, 2010, p.68). For long centuries, then, it may be seen that, for the prominent societies of the West, “marital intimacy” was both a masculine prerogative and something of a euphemism for the sexual relationship.
As the world has changed, so too have ideas regarding what precisely comprises marital intimacy. Some of this, at least, must be due to the effects of the women’s movements, and in every major nation; as women achieved greater standing in terms of individual identity, it was inevitable that marriage would consequently undergo shifts in definition and approach. It would be specious and unrealistic to assert that feminism alone has generated the vast, new appraisals of marital intimacy. Ironically, research conducted in the 1970s, when the women’s movement in the United States was most active, indicates that the majority of wives still felt chiefly responsible for maintaining whatever degrees of intimacy existed in their marriages (Brammer, 2012, p. 327). It may well be that feminism, initially more focused on the external issues of parity in the workplace, had not yet become so ingrained in the culture as to impact on marital relations. Nonetheless, and however it occurred, it happened that two courses were simultaneously occurring, each greatly influencing the other. Women were uniformly more assertive in commanding a previously denied status as full individuals, and both men and women were paying more intent attention on the mechanics of intimacy in their marriages. Most importantly, “intimacy” took on new meaning; it was no longer confined to an expression of the sexual life of the couple, but expressive of full and vitally needed understanding.
The women’s movement, nonetheless, most certainly influenced marital intimacy development, because the rise of the two-income family brought with it a subsequent leveling between the roles of husband and wife absent in prior economies and societies. As noted, in ages past, marriage was more an instrumental, rather than romantic, institution. It served specific, cultural purposes and, in eras wherein the husband was the provider, it was inevitable that whatever intimacy existed would be based around, predominantly, that husband’s needs and/or how he alone perceived intimacy (Van de Putte, Poppel, Vanassche, Sanchez, Eeckhaut, Oris, & Matthus, 2009). Changing conditions, in part induced by feminist advances as well as arising from greatly shifting economies, changed the very nature of the marital relationship.Quite simply, in a world where even the most energetic male provider cannot typically support a family alone, what husbands and wives then do apart from their intimate relationship is radically affecting it. Men are increasingly assuming home duties once the domain of the wife, as women today often are the primary providers. In such an arena, marital intimacy itself has not been so much redefined, but placed in a state of flux. It very much is, today, what each couple may make of it, as they focus on issues of togetherness and reciprocity of affection.
Issues of Gender Regarding Intimacy
Interestingly, some modern studies reflect that the inherent differences in the ways men and women approach intimacy are not as influential as might be supposed, certainly with regard to couples within relationships of longstanding. The data seems to indicate that, after a number of years of intimate involvement, innate variations in perception typically attributed to gender are subsumed in the context of the relationship itself (Karantzas, Goncalves, Feeney, McCabe, 2011, p. 9). This pattern, however, is deceptive; upon closer examination, it does not so much eviscerate inherent gender differences as it validates the potentials within lasting marriages. More exactly, only a union of long commitment could effectively negate and overcome the obstacles placed to intimacy by gender-specific behaviors.
That men and women are fundamentally at variance with one another in the ways in which they function, behave, and perceive the world is a precept as old as humanity. Untold volumes have been written on the subject, and most point to a single circumstance which is, in regard to marital intimacy skills, simultaneously encouraging and of dubious value: “Women are generally more emotionally expressive than men and, with the exception of anger, experience emotions more intensely and frequently compared with men” (Kashdan, Mishra, Breen, & Froh, 2009, p. 693). Linked to this greater freedom of emotional expression is a stronger talent, generally speaking, for communication. Women are better at it, more precisely, because their brains are designed to better appreciate it. Virtually all research assessments of how this pivotal intimacy component operates within the genders confirms the reality: “Women tend to be more emotionally in tune and self-disclosing than are men” (MacLeod, 2011, p. 45).
As noted, this higher level of communicative skill from women, or wives, presents both opportunities and disadvantages. Obviously, intimacy may be more easily achieved or enhanced when at least one of the partners is highly skilled at imparting and receiving information. This seeming advantage, however, also indicates the likely potential for a scenario not unlike the traditional one explored earlier, in that older cultures expected the wife to bear the burden of the union’s intimate relationship. Clearly, intimacy issues may arise simply because only one partner – the man – evinces a lower level of communicative skills and/or effort in establishing a close connection. That understood, studies tend to further reflect that such disparities may in fact be generated by expectations held both before and during the life of the relationship, and these expectations usually go to the woman’s role as being chiefly responsible for sustaining intimacy (Weinberger, Hofstein, Whitbourne, 2008, p. 556). In plain terms, as both men and women view women as the more talented communicators, wives are predominantly counted upon to establish and maintain intimacy. As will be explored, the skills required to build marital intimacy demand far more in the way of communicative reciprocity.
Other Obstacles and Issues
Marriage, omnipresent institution that it is, has never suffered from a dearth of hindrances, either stemming from external forces or as deriving from internal problems. Regrettably, one of the greatest causes for severe intimacy issues within marriages is due to nothing more than timing. Married couples begin to experience difficulties in their intimate relations, yet do nothing about them. There are common perceptions, and from both husbands and wives, that such issues are relatively unimportant, may resolves themselves if left alone, and/or that addressing these issues may well place undue burdens on a relationship already unsteady. This latter rationale is particularly in place when it comes to professional counseling, for the step is frequently deemed radical, and even indicative of a “lost cause” situation. As regards seeking third-party help in resolving intimacy issues, this self-defeating aspect is commonly evident, in that couples do not commit to such aid until a great deal of damage is done, and/or the domestic situation has become intolerable, or unlivable (Worthington, 2005, p. 35). The conundrum is, again, unfortunate, and largely due to an unwillingness to confront what are mistakenly perceived as failures within the marriage, when any true marital intimacy must involves conscious application from both partners.
Cultural considerations also come into play, as influencing how and when couples even conceive of the intimacy as being troubled or unsatisfactory. For example, in broad terms, certain European and Latin American cultures place a significant value on emotional expressiveness, and from both men and women. While this kind of factor may be moot in regard to marriages wherein both partners share the cultural background, it is likely that issues must arise from conflict when one partner’s entire frame of reference regarding intimacy is different.
Virtually every facet of social behavior, which most certainly includes that of romantic natures, is in some sense derived from cultural expectations and nurturing, and intimacy problems are essentially guaranteed when the basic ideas of what intimacy is are dissimilar. For example, “A person raised in a non-Latino culture will define as seductive behavior the same behavior (that a Latino) defines as socially neutral” (Strong, DeVault, Cohen, 2010, p. 226). Very simply, communication, which is the key to marital intimacy, is then drastically blocked by what are, essentially, contrary vocabularies.
Such intimacy issues are not, of course, restricted couples from varied Western cultures. The fundamental differences in approach, and in how a romantic connection is actually perceived, are more striking in cases where one spouse reflects an Asian background, for Eastern cultures tend to promote more tacit styles of marital intimacy. There is far less of an emphasis on personal expression of emotion within couples: “Chinese research participants have reported that they disclose less to close relationship partners than do Western participants” (Marshall, 2008, p. 148). As with European or Latin American models, it is usually only when the marriages are “mixed” that problems in intimacy reflect these foundational elements of the partners.
Lastly, before moving onto specific skill strategies, the vast impact of what may be termed modern living must be assessed, for today’s societies function in ways both new and uniquely influential on marital intimacy. It may appear facile to examine the role of media in so inherently basic and personal a structure, but there is no refuting the enormous impact of today’s media on shaping individual perceptions, which must then go to the relationships each individual seeks and/or maintains. If the 20th century saw a change in romantic views as promulgated by the single medium of the movies, the array of entertainment venues accessible to the modern man and woman exerts an incalculable influence. The last few generations have, in fact, grown up with omnipresent sources of cultural information, most of which is fictional, idealized, and simplified to appeal to the widest range of tastes. Studies support this extraordinary and impactful fact: “The research thus far has found that individuals who report high levels of ‘romantic media’ exposure….have more dysfunctional beliefs about relationships” (Trotter, 2010, p. 72). Consequently, as romance traditionally captures consumer interest, immeasurable numbers of “romantic” films and television shows have generated unrealistic conceptions of what intimacy is, and how it may be achieved.
Added to this pervasive and damaging influence is the further component of Internet accessibility to virtual representations of each person’s community. It is commonly known that dating websites attract ever larger numbers of subscribers, as Internet sources widely make available “personal” ads reflecting ambitions for everything from deep, emotional attachments to utterly anonymous sexual encounters. This is an unprecedented and vast arena, and it serves to effectively offer enticements to the husband and wife already reluctant to resolve marital intimacy issues. More succinctly, it offers options; rather than work on the existing relationship, the discontented spouse may either investigate completely new directions in establishing another relationship, or merely employ willing individuals to act as panaceas for the unhappiness generated by the marriage in place.
Another factor influential on intimate relationships between married couples, and one also increasingly evident due to global Internet access, is the impact of pornography. No matter the gradation of import attached to the sexual relationship within the marriage, it is nonetheless a key element in any couple’s intimate relations, and modern sources of pornography have had a vast impact on how men in particular may seek to “escape” from the responsibilities of intimacy. Since the 1990s and the extraordinary rise of Internet accessibility, a wide range of studies have uniformly concluded that predominantly men, in and out of spousal relationships, turn to pornography as something of an avoidance mechanism (Wongsurawat, 2006, p. 212). That is, sex is for women typically more an expression of feeling and commitment, whereas men have more pragmatic associations with it. This commonly-held perception is, in fact, validated by evidence: “For the most part, men are sexually aroused by objectified, visual stimuli” (Crawford, Krebs, 2008, p. 284). Women tend to rely more on emotional association, in order to achieve physical gratification, and this impulse, as it were, must serve to bring her partner within the realm of intimacy. With pornography to turn to, however, the husband is absented from a connection which offers potentials for deeper closeness.
As has been explored, marital intimacy faces extraordinary challenges, both from circumstances relating to modern life and to cultural factors as old as humanity. It is ironic that this facet of life, so integral to human happiness and so intrinsically personal, is subject to considerations and influences far-reaching and often ostensibly removed from it. With so many impressive obstacles before it, it would appear that marital intimacy on the most meaningful level is at best enormously difficult to attain. The reality, however, is that it is a pursuit relentlessly made by men and women today, as it has been in some fashion in all ages past. It is never easy, but all the evidence suggests that the rewards of such intimacy more than justify the efforts made to secure it. In the following pages, the most sensible and effective strategies toward bringing about this level of connection will be explored.
Strategies to Developing Intimacy Skills
As is obvious, intimacy between a husband and wife is an intensely and intrinsically personal and individual thing. No two examples of it are the same because no two couples share exactly similar degrees of commitment, interaction, sympathy, knowledge, and personalities. The logic is inescapable; if each individual is unique, then the pairing of two individuals must be that much more exponentially unique. Then, any aspect of a relationship is an evolving process, as husband and wife develop major and minor capacities in their increasing awareness of the other’s, also evolving, states of being. This being the case, it would seem that no set of skills may be devised to accommodate so varied a terrain. Such skills do exist, however, and they may be learned, or trained. What renders them effective, in fact, is the inherent mutability of each, for all the skills required to foster marital intimacy are thoroughly adaptable to every type of personality and marriage.
The first and most crucial skill vital for the success of marital intimacy is not a skill at all. It is no technique, nor is it a talent. It is willingness. No matter the state of a couple’s intimacy, there can be no improvement to it, nor in fact any such real closeness to begin with, without a full compliance from each partner to developing it. This is, again, true whether issues are apparent or otherwise, for it translates to an essential acknowledgment by both husband and wife of the importance of the intimacy. As has been noted, the world has radically changed in regard to why people commit to marriage: “Socioeconomic change around the world is moving marriage toward being a voluntary union between partners, rather than a social arrangement shaped by circumstances” (Halford, 2011, p. 9). This being true, men and women are then more constrained than ever to approach such a commitment with a complete understanding that only an innate inclination to make the efforts required to promote intimacy may produce this universally desired result.
Once it is established that both partners are desirous of participating in the process of fostering intimacy, the next skill to be discussed is that which, in effect, incorporates a variety of others: communication. Men and women tend to communicate differently, as noted, because women attach a higher value to the act, yet even the most obdurate husband will assuredly admit to the need for enhanced interaction in promoting intimacy. The reality is unassailable: intimacy cannot be achieved without a full understanding of what the partner feels and requires, and this may only be known through the processes of communication. With many couples, this may occur in unspoken forms, for length of intimate association frequently creates a talent for “reading” the other’s moods and emotional states. Unfortunately, and as may happen in marriages of some duration, assumptions are made along these lines that are inaccurate, but in place simply because there has been no opportunity to correct them, as in a meaningful dialogue. This type of tacit presumption, moreover, is by no means restricted to husbands; either partner may easily construe silence as an affirmation of sorts, in keeping with the expectations of the partner so presuming.
What is extremely fortunate in this scenario is that communication may be learned. It also consistently provides noted increases of marital intimacy, as recent studies clearly indicate: “High levels of disclosure and disclosure reciprocity….are associated with greater relationship satisfaction among marital partners” (Newman, Newman, 2011, p. 447). This general awareness, even among non-communicative men and women, of the benefits of communication serves as incentive, which in turn fuels abilities to acquire or improve the skill. While counseling may be helpful in guiding a couple through exercises in reciprocal disclosure, it is by no means necessary, for most married couples may engage in distinct efforts to better communicate simply by entering into the process itself. It may be advisable, particularly for couples with tendencies to move rapidly into argument from even genial discussions, to set out a few ground rules, and the most basic of these is the observance of mutual regard. The husband and wife, commencing a conversation about intimacy issues between them, must both be highly sensitive to feelings and responses from the other not necessarily expected, or even immediately comprehensible, to the partner. What matters is taking the time to allow the partner to express himself or herself, and what is produced is an effect far beyond the perception of communication as an essentially passive process. This is most certainly a behavior that may be learned, and/or more effectively practiced.
Furthermore, the benefits are by no means limited to the “intimacy” of the relationship. If “no man is an island”:, neither is any marriage, and spouses turn to one another for validation regarding aspects of their lives outside of the marriage. A wide variety of research points to spousal interest, as expressed through listening and response, as both providing this vital validation and as an acquirable skill: “Providing social support to one’s spouse means learning how to verbally and non-verbally communicate messages of, and expressing them in a way that a spouse receives the message and feels support” (Norvell, 2009, p. 6). This relatively simple exercise, wherein a focus of attention is mutually exchanged, must have an immeasurable impact on reinforcing a couple’s level of true intimacy.
In regard to other strategies, it should be noted that all the evidence suggests that married couples who share a faith, or respectfully adhere to different faiths, are far better poised to succeed in developing intimacy (Sullivan, Davila, 2010). There is an apparent logic behind this pattern, for the man or woman committed to a mode of worship is typically inclined to set aside personal gratifications for the sake of a greater good, and this is precisely what working towards marital intimacy entails. Faith invariably translates to some degree of abnegation of self, and nothing is more effective when attending to a spouse’s needs and/or emotional state is dictated. Moreover, the adherent to a faith is also more ordinarily accepting of the cycles of discipline and reward, and understands from personal experience that a measure of self-denial will frequently result in more profound gratifications. All of this is, again, distinctly akin to the efforts necessary to promote marital intimacy.
This reliance upon faith as assisting in intimacy is usually associated with Christianity, and with some reason. The tenets of Christianity expansively reflect an insistence on giving of the self to secure the happiness of another. Consequently, the marriage composed of the Christian man and woman is well-positioned to take on the skills for improving intimacy. This need not, however, be the case; as most creeds encourage a looking beyond the self to evolve as a human being and/or serve a higher authority, the Christian model is not essential for faith to work as an impetus to fostering marital intimacy (Sells, Yarhouse, 2011, p. 82). As long as that devotion and regard for an existence outside of temporal life is manifested, all the mechanisms are in place for the spouse to work towards increased closeness in the marriage. This is, for the religious, a skill already in their possession.
Lastly, another ability or talent is demanded in regard to the subject, and it is one which, like the finer points of communication, may be learned: perseverance. More exactly, given the inherent nature of marital intimacy, this may be better termed as, “commitment”. This “skill”, as it were, goes very much to the willingness to make an effort discussed earlier, and is essentially that effort in a sustained mode. Husbands and wives most certainly have some sense of what commitment is, whether or not the marriages achieve any substantial duration; it is the desired road selected, one chosen to secure a future together. In this scenario, however, the commitment must be of a somewhat less ephemeral nature. It must acknowledge that achieving satisfactory intimacy in the marriage may be a perpetual process, or at least one not quickly completed. Both partners must fully comprehend, as a part of the skill acquisition they themselves are creating, that the efforts called for may be both unanticipated by them and, at least in part, disagreeable. It is usually undesirable to change one’s established ways of doing anything, for most people, and attention to marital intimacy issues translates to adjusting behaviors often long in place. With, however, basic levels of mutual trust and regard in place, this “skill”, or component to the process, can only serve to ease the attainment of greater marital intimacy.
It is a curious thing, that marital intimacy, so consistently sought after by men and women through the ages, remains an elusive and sometimes troubling subject. This is somewhat due to the ironic fact that the subject, while of necessity “removed” from the marriage in order to be addressed, is inextricably one with it. Marital intimacy is not a construct apart from a union; it is the living, breathing core of it, and its primary reason for being.
Most importantly, marital intimacy is not an object that may only be had by those couple possessing certain, innate qualities. Basic skills, chiefly reflecting communication, mutual regard, and commitment, may be acquired through the basic act of employing them. Counseling is no panacea, nor even recommended save for those couples facing extreme issues. The actual data regarding couples who substantially benefit from counseling is not encouraging: only half report success, and even this achievement is measured over the relatively brief span of three years (Worthington, 2005, p.19). Essentially, the husband and wife committed to each other in marriage are simultaneously capable of exercising the strategies needed to reestablish, reinforce, or simply enhance their marital intimacy. The formula is as mutable as couples are individual, and each marriage must pursue its own, unique road to the profound closeness desired. The road, however, is not concealed, nor particularly arduous, as it must present advantages along the way. Ultimately, marital intimacy relies on communication behaviors and, provided both partners are desirous of attaining it, as well as actually able to modify their own behaviors, the skills involved may be successfully instilled, or trained.
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