It is one of the ironies of modern life that many couples today are living together as complete strangers. Or worse, in great unhappiness. The data on divorce lead us to conclude that intimate relationships have been failing apart for the last 20 years or so. The truth is that couples have never learned reliably how to sustain pleasure in intimate relationships.
The difference is it never mattered so much before. Here at the close of the 20th century we have the luxury of living in splendid isolation. Unlike in more "primitive" cultures, most Americans no longer live as part of a large family or community where we develop a sense of comfort and safety, a network of people to confide in, to feel at home with.
This, I have come to believe, is what has drawn many people into cults--the need to feel part of a bonded community, There is a sense of being at home emotionally as well as physically. Our culture provides for meeting all other needs, especially the need for autonomy, but not for intimacy.
Within this framework, couples today must provide for each other more of the emotional needs that a larger community used to furnish. Compounding the wide-scale deprivation of intimacy we actually experience, our cultural talent for commercialization has separated out sex from intimacy.
In fact, intimacy involves both emotional and physical closeness and openness. But we wind up confusing the two and end up feeling betrayed or used when, as often happens, we fail to satisfy our need for closeness in sex. Shifts in our general views about what makes life worth living have also contributed to a new demand for intimacy. For many generations the answer lay in a productive life of work and service in which the reward of happiness would be ours, in Heaven. That belief has broken down.
People want happiness here and now. And they want it most in their intimate relationships. Here, it's clear, we are unlikely to find it easily. Couples today are struggling with something new--to build relationships based on genuine feelings of equality. As a result, we are without role models for the very relationships we need. And rare were the parents who modeled intimacy for us; most were too busy struggling with survival requirements. Yet the quality of our closest relationships is often what gives life its primary meaning.
Intimacy, I have come to believe, is not just a psychological fad, a rallying cry of contemporary couples. It is based on a deep biological need.
Shortly after I began my career as a family therapist I was working in a residential treatment center where troubled teenage boys were sent by the courts.
Through my work I began to discover what had been missing for these kids: They needed support and affection, the opportunity to express the range and intensity of their emotions. It was remarkable to discover their depth of need, their depth of pain over the lack of empathy from significant people in their lives.
It is only in the last 20 years that we recognize that infants need to be held and touched. We know that they cannot grow--they literally fail to thrive--unless they experience physical and emotional closeness with another human being. What we often don't realize is that that need for connection never goes away.
It goes on throughout life. And in its absence, symptoms develop--from the angry acting out of the adolescent boys I saw, to depression , addiction , and illness.
In fact, researchers are just at the very beginning of understanding the relationship of widespread depression among women to problems in their marriages. When I brought the boys together with their families, through processes I had not learned about in graduate school, it transformed the therapy. For the adolescent boys, their problems were typically rooted in the often-troubled relationships between their parents. They lacked the nurturing environment they needed for healthy growth. What I realized was that to help the children I first had to help their parents.
So I began to shift my focus to adults. From my work in closely observing the interactions of hundreds of couples, I have come to recognize that most of what goes wrong in a relationship stems from hurt feelings.
The disappointment couples experience is based on misunderstanding and misperception. We choose a partner hoping for a source of affection, love, and support, and, more than ever, a best friend. Finding such a partner is a wonderful and ecstatic experience--the stage of illusion in relationships, it has been called. To use this conceit, there then sets in the state of disillusion. We somehow don't get all that we had hoped for. He didn't do it just right.
She didn't welcome you home; she was too busy with something else; maybe she didn't even look up. But we don't have the skills to work out the disappointments that occur. The disappointments big and little then determine the future course of the relationship. If first there is illusion, and then disillusion, what follows is confusion. There is a great deal of unhappiness as each partner struggles to get the relationship to be what each of them needs or wants it to be.
One partner will be telling the other what to do. One may be placating in the expectation that he or she will eventually be rewarded by the other. Each partner uses his or her own familiar personal communication style. Over the disappointment, the partners erect defenses against each other. They become guarded with each other. They stop confiding in each other.
They wall off parts of themselves and withdraw emotionally from the relationship, often into other activities--or other relationships. They can't talk without blaming, so they stop listening. They maybe afraid that the relationship will never change but may not even know what they are afraid of There is so much chaos that there is usually despair and depression.
One partner may actually leave. Both may decide to stay with it but can't function. They live together in an emotional divorce. Over the years of working with couples, I have developed an effective way to help them arrive at a relationship they can both be happy with.
I may not offer them therapy. I find that what couples need is part education in a set of skills and part exploration of experience that aims to resolve the difficulties couples trip over in their private lives. Experience has demonstrated to me that the causes of behavior and human experience a complex and include elements that are biological, psychological, social, contextual, and even spiritual.
No single theory explains the intricate dynamics of two individuals interacting over time to meet all their needs as individuals and as a couple.
So without respect to theoretical coherence I have drawn from almost every perspective in the realm of psychology--from psychodynamics to family systems, communication theory and social learning theory , from behavior therapy to object relations.
It is taught to small groups of couples in a four-month-long course in various parts of the United States and now in 13 countries. There are no specific theories to explain why the course works. In time that will come, as researchers pinpoint exactly which cognitive , behavioral, and experiential elements and when and for whom are most responsible for which types of change.
Nevertheless I, my associates, and increasing numbers of graduate students have gathered, and are gathering, evidence that it powerfully, positively influences marital interaction and satisfaction. Studies of men and women before and after taking the course show that it reduces anger and anxiety, two of the most actively subversive forces in relationships.
Once they have taken the course there is a marked reduction in this state of anger and anxiety. What is most notable is that there is also a reduction in the personality trait of anger, which is ordinarily considered resistant to change. Learning the skills of intimacy--of emotional and physical closeness--has a truly powerful effect on people.
We also see change in measurements of marital happiness, such as the Dyadic Adjustment Scale. Tests administered before the course show that we are seeing a range of couples from the least to the most distressed. And we are getting significant levels of change among every category of couple.
It is no secret that most attempts at therapy produce little or no change among the most distressed couples. Perhaps it's because what we are doing is not in the form of therapy at all, although its effects are therapeutic. In addition to improvement in many dimensions of the relationship, achieving intimacy bolsters the self-worth of both partners.
Love is a feeling. Marriage , on the other hand, is a contract--an invisible contract. Both partners bring to it expectations about what they want and don't want, what they're willing to give and not willing to give.
Most often, those are out of awareness. Most marriage partners don't even know they expected something until they realize that they're not getting it. The past is very much present in all relationships. All expectations in relationships are conditioned by our previous experience. It may simply be the nature of learning, but things that happen in the present are assimilated by means of what has happened in the past.
This is especially true of our emotions: Emotional memory exists outside of time. It is obvious that two partners are conditioned by two different pasts. But inside the relationship it is less obvious.
And that leads to all kinds of misunderstanding, disagreement, disappointment, and anger that things are not going exactly as expected. The upshot is statements like "I can't understand women," "who knows what a woman wants," and "you can never please a man.
To add insult to injury, when one partner is upset, the other often compounds it unintentionally.