We all go into fledgling relationships with high hopes, one of which is that, as the connection matures, so too will our sense of closeness. When we commit to another person, our hopes stay the same, this time with an eye to the long-term. But many of us discover that love can falter and intimacy disappear in the day-to-day welter, the busyness of life, and the pressures of work and, sometimes, family. It’s not that we want our connections to diminish or fail—we don’t—but sometimes we have trouble seeing not just what’s going on but what needs to be done.
Research on happiness goes a long way, I think, to explaining the inertia that sometimes afflicts long-established relationships and two concepts in particular—hedonic adaptation and intentional activity—seem to me, a layperson who’s not a psychologist, extremely valuable. Humans are an adaptable lot, and get used to their circumstances which is, in the main, a good thing especially when things go south. (Thanks, evolution for cutting down on active suffering!) But when it comes to happiness or the things that are hedonic or pleasurable, that adaptability means the buzz from experiences is short-lived. That’s why the fancy car, the new house, or the enviable promotion that was supposed to make you happy forever doesn’t; eventually, the car is just a vehicle needing maintenance, the house is where you live, and the job is something that eats up fifty hours of your week. And, yes, hedonic adaptation happens with a mate too. Remember how you felt when you first were dating, just seeing each other? Ask yourself if that’s true today.
But hedonic adaptation (or the hedonic treadmill, as it’s also called) can be beaten. Here’s where intentional activity comes in, according to the work of Kennon M. Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky, and it’s a way to keep your good fortune fresh, even if that happens to be your choice of a partners. You can work on actively appreciating the relationship and the person, feel grateful for the advantages the connection has given you and your life, and be active in creating positive experiences, rather than focusing on the negatives. All of this assumes, of course, that you want the intimacy back rather than heading for the door.
So, keeping those intentions in mind—and assuming you want the relationship refreshed—here are some common barriers to intimacy; what follows each is what you can do to counteract each of them.
1. Blaming and disparagement
Yes, things go wrong all the time—your biggest client bailed or your boss screamed at you, a bill’s mislaid and goes unpaid, the car gets dinged at the mall, your clothes are moldering at the drycleaners because someone forgot to pick them up, the roof’s leaking and one of the kids is acting up all over the place. Yes, folks, it’s called life, and since most of us aren’t vying for sainthood, we will end up blowing up either at or in front of our partner. But what’s key here is that while you are free to blame the vagaries of life on the third rock from the Sun, what you can’t do is make blame personal, even if your spouse is at fault. Going global is an intimacy slayer, a surefire way of turning your partner into a defensive fortress.
Stop starting every sentence with “You,” which automatically makes whatever has happened a matter of personal fault. If your partner is responsible, talk about whatever happened and don’t take it global and make it part of a dissertation about his or her character flaws. The experts make it clear: causal attribution is a strategy that will only drive a wedge between you.
2. Lack of Sharing
Have the conversations between you and your spouse become more like a recitation of facts than not, or are you still engaging in the kind of deep dialogue that was once a part of forging your connection to each other? If the silence is deafening when the two of you are alone together or you simply bark monosyllables at each other, your capacity for intimacy is getting whittled away by the moment.
Recently, the 36-question study by Arthur Aron and colleagues has gotten a lot of buzz—it’s the series of queries that made unacquainted people feel a close sense of connection in a lab—and it’s worth keeping in mind that even in an established relationship, continuing to share is a key to maintaining intimacy. There was an article in The New York Times about Alan Alda, the actor, and his wife Arlene, a photographer, who have been happily married for an astounding fifty-eight years. They still both work in separate rooms in their homes, each pursuing different goals, but they keep all the doors open so that they can talk to each other. Are you keeping the doors open? Do you have anything to share?
If you’re not sharing your thoughts, you need to discover why and look at the patterns of behavior on both your parts that get in the way of a continuing dialogue. Remember that this is a dyadic exchange—it’s both about talking and listening—so if you’re cutting your spouse off when he or she begins to share, you need to take responsibility.
Here’s the yang to the yin of number three: When you or your partner tries to share, what does the other do? Does he or she listen thoughtfully and carefully and then respond in kind—that’s the kind of dyadic exchange that builds intimacy—or does your partner say nothing or, even worse, say something dismissive such as “Not that again. You’ve told me about how Helen treats you again and again and it’s getting old” or “I think you’re making a mountain out of a molehill.”
Seff-disclosure is a building block of intimacy, as is each partner’s sense of knowing the other. Verbal put-downs or dismissive behavior when your spouse tries to share is akin to renting a billboard that says “You’re not important to me.”
4. Lack of Touching
This isn’t just about sex, but about communication. Humans, like their simian brethren, communicate and establish connection through touch; famously, the psyches of infants are shaped by the amount of touch they receive. Studies show that we tend to be more generous when touch is involved (in one experiment, a waitress’ tips increased when there was touch), more compassionate, are more helpful, and feel a greater sense of connection. It’s worthwhile saying that these are all positive touches; touch can also be used to intimidate and overpower.
Studies confirm that couples who touch each other more in non-sexual contexts report greater marital satisfaction and greater intimacy; in a similar way, studies also demonstrate that observers are able to “read” how intimate a couple is by looking at whether they make physical contact. Most of us will confirm, having watched strangers in a restaurant or in airport, that touch—or the lack of it—is highly revealing.
So, what’s the touch story at your house? Are you spending more time touching your screen than your spouse?
5. Gatekeeping and Territoriality
These behaviors significantly contribute to the decline of intimacy among couples with children. It’s true enough that chores and duties need to be allocated and split in any household but gatekeeping—claiming a piece of turf as yours—erodes both the sense of being in life together and, by extension, intimacy. Studies show the women are often gatekeepers when it comes to children and home which, unfortunately, doesn’t stop them from complaining that their spouses don’t pull their weight and sometimes extrapolating from that into a more global point of view (“It’s typical of how self-involved you are that you make no effort to help me out.”) Men gatekeep too, though in other areas, and nowhere near as much.
The bottom line is that being territorial cuts down on shared space and sharing is the hallmark of intimacy.
Yes, simply ignoring or paying no attention to your partner is a good way of eroding intimacy because it’s another way of isolating him or her within the relationship. Studies also show that boredom is a robust and significant factor in predicting future marital dissatisfaction and divorce. So, if you’ve disengaged on some basic level—no longer sharing your thoughts, not listening, not touching—you need to find ways of re-engaging with your spouse and getting back into the relationship with your head and heart.
One recent study showed that something as simple as watching movies about love and relationship and then talking about them could actually strengthen marriages and “divorce-proof” them as effectively as therapy. (And it’s not only less invasive but much cheaper too.) These results really underscore how important engagement is to a long-term relationship; among the questions the married participants answered were “What main problem(s) did this couple face? Are any of these similar to the problems that the two of you have faced or might face as a couple?” and “ Did the couple have a strong friendship with each other? Were they able to support each other through bad moods, stressful days, and hard times?”
So think about renting a movie or doing something that engages both of you in dialogue on a level which isn’t superficial. It will bring you closer.
7. Frequency and Patterns of Arguing
It’s true enough that some friction is going to exist between two people, no matter how close they are—whether they are spouses, lovers, siblings or friends. People assume that couples will argue but how often and the way they argue matter a great deal. Research shows that generally it takes five good experiences to outweigh the effects of a bad one so paying attention to the ratio of fights to pleasurable times is key. If you’re fighting more than you’re spending time sharing and enjoying, intimacy is on the decline. Studies also how that how you fight counts too, especially if your arguments fall into the pattern of Demand/Withdraw which is highly predictive of marital dissolution. In this scenario, one partner makes demands on the other—to change his or her behavior in some way—and, in response, the other partner stonewalls or withdraws. What makes this so toxic is that both partners will feel wronged: the person in the demand role will feel ignored, marginalized and unheard, while the other will feel put upon and assume a defensive posture. This pattern has escalation built into it; the demanding partner will feel thwarted and frustrated and inevitably will amp up the volume of complaints which, in turn, evokes greater withdrawal on the part of the other. Each party will feel utterly justified which effectively destroys all possibility of real communication and resolution. Nothing good comes out of Demand/Withdraw unless both members of the couple consciously decide to put a stop to it; stopping it usually involves therapeutic intervention for the couple to move forward.
8. Winner’s Mindset
Repetitive arguments about specific issues—money and spending habits, sex or the lack of it, the handling of the kids, among them—are the hallmark of marriages in potential distress, and it is horrifyingly easy to let yourself lose sight of the prize which is marital happiness and instead get into a “in-it-to-win-it” mindset which simply guarantees that you are laying sticks of dynamite under whatever goodwill and intimacy are left.
Years ago, a therapist told me that when I was in a dispute, I should “Stop. Look. Listen.” Research shows that you can stop the downward spiral by pulling back from it with consciousness.
Marital expert John Gottman suggests four simple strategies to break the cycle of negativity. They are:
1) Calm down. If you have to, call a time-out but do not let yourself get
emotionally flooded because that will only lead to more negative, destructive, and reactive behavior on your part.
2) Speak without being defensive. All of your defensive behaviors, whether they
are aggressive in nature or are part of a pattern of withdrawal, will only add fuel
to the spiral.
3) Use validation. This sounds difficult if you’re in the heat of an argument but
instead of ignoring or attacking your spouse’s perspective, try to validate parts of
4) Keep practicing. Gottman points out that if you’re used to arguing or fighting
in one way, it’s going to take time to unlearn that behavior and not lapse into the
old mode by rote. Stay conscious and hone your skills.
Before everyone starts jumping up and down and telling me I’m a prude—which has happened when I’ve written about porn before—let me just say that if your intimacy is already weak or threatened, watching porn is probably not a good idea unless you are both equally comfortable with it and, more important, watch it together. A number of studies, conducted with younger participants (under 35), showed that those who watched no porn had higher commitment; that said, it was watching porn alone that seemed to degrade the relationship quality and intimacy the most. Another study by Franklin Poulsen and Dean Bushy focused on couples, some 617 of them, who were either married or living together. Interestingly, use of porn differed vastly by gender; some 94% of the female partners used porn rarely, if all. While 27% of the male partners reported no use, 31% used porn once a month, 16% two to three times a week, and 10% three or more days a week. In other words, the male use of porn was solitary, not dyadic.
What the researchers found was that male use of pornography had a consistently negative association with both male and female sexual quality—which seems to confirm that when men watch porn alone, it most damages relationships. As the researchers write, “It is possible, at least for men, that pornography use changes perceptions of female partners, the sexual relationship, or both such that they are less satisfied with the sexual experience in the relationship.”
All of this is worth keeping in mind if increased intimacy is your goal.
10. Lack of empathy
Yes, this seems pretty obvious but if you have lost the ability to feel your partner’s joy and sorrow as if it is your own, there are barriers to intimacy. Enough said. Likely as not, most of the barriers listed above are to blame.
Copyright © Peg Streep 2015
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