What Emotional Intimacy Is Not
The term intimacy often brings to mind intimacy of a sexual nature, or intimacy experienced solely in the context of romantic relationships. Though sexual intimacy plays an important role in some relationships, it is believed that emotional intimacy is far more critical to relationship satisfaction than sexual intimacy. In fact, most research has found that when participants are asked to define intimacy, they frequently say that intimacy is “more than sex,” or “does not have to involve sex.” Therefore, in this review, the term emotional intimacy will be used to refer to any reported experience of psychological intimacy within a close relationship, and does not necessarily involve sexual activity or even the possibility of such.
In order to understand what is meant by emotional intimacy as experienced in a close relationship versus a one-time emotional experience with an acquaintance, it is important to recognize that researchers have detected differences in what individuals report about each. To distinguish between what is meant by an intimate experience and an intimate relationship, D.H. Olson described an intimate experience as a feeling of closeness possible with a variety of persons that does not necessarily involve an intimate relationship. On the other hand, an intimate relationship is one in which intimate experiences occur with the expectation that such episodes will continue over time. For the purposes of this paper, intimacy will be discussed within the realm of personal relationships, involving intimate experiences that are expected to recur.
What Emotional Intimacy Is
Emotional intimacy, or what is sometimes labeled psychological intimacy, has been identified as the “glue” of all relationships and is thought to be experienced in all types of close, personal affiliations. According to the 1986 Webster's New World Dictionary, the word intimacy derives its meaning from the Latin intimus, meaning innermost, or “pertaining to the inmost character of a thing; fundamental; essential; most private or personal.” Along these lines, a variety of theorists have studied emotional intimacy and how it is that individuals proceed in the establishment and maintenance of intimate ties. A number of the early theorists in this area used a clinical perspective to study and discuss the role of intimacy within adolescent development, such as Erik Erikson and Harry Stack Sullivan. Others, such as Mary Ainsworth and Harry Harlow, examined intimacy as a feature of attachment theory, and used the laboratory to assess the importance of intimate relationships for early development. A brief history of early research is described below. More recently, scholars have begun to use interview and questionnaire methods to define intimacy and to assess the degree to which intimacy is a part of an individual's relationship experience.
Erik Erikson was one of the first theorists to write about the role of intimacy in human development. A student of Anna Freud who was trained in psychoanalysis, Erikson created a stage theory that has as its focus inner social drives and conflicts. From his work with psychoanalysis, frequently with children and adolescents, Erikson developed a life-span theory consisting of eight psychosocial stages, with each stage characterized by a different type of psychosocial conflict to be resolved. In Erikson's description of the sixth stage of psychosocial development occurring during adolescence, an individual must resolve the conflict of intimacy versus isolation. The young adult struggles to expose and share the innermost self so as to fuse his or her identity with others in a variety of ways, including peer friendships, sexual relations, relationships with teachers, and others. If this fusion is not successfully achieved, the young adult faces social isolation resulting in “self-absorption.” This fusion of the identities of two individuals who have a deep concern for one another is what Erikson called intimacy. Erikson also stated that intimacy is the “capacity to commit [one] self to concrete affiliations and partnerships and to develop the ethical strength to abide by such commitments, even though they may call for significant sacrifices and compromises.” Complete, fulfilling intimacy, however, cannot be achieved outside the context of adult heterosexual relationships.
Another theoretical psychologist, Harry Stack Sullivan, viewed the psychiatrist as an active participant in therapy. As a psychiatrist, Sullivan placed the need for interpersonal intimacy at the beginning of preadolescence. Intimacy is a need that must be fulfilled for individuals to feel validated and worthy. Friends share their innermost thoughts and feelings, while at the same time seeking validation for their beliefs and values. Since friendship groups usually consist of children who share comparable characteristics, it is in these circles that individuals receive confirmation about their beliefs. At this time in development, the preadolescent is most likely to become friends with same-sex peers, who Sullivan believed are best suited to understand one another. Similar to Erikson, Sullivan suggested that heterosexual relationships eventually would be the most fulfilling.
Abraham Maslow was a clinical psychologist who worked to understand the motivational processes of psychologically healthy people. Maslow classified intimacy as a motivational need essential to healthy emotional growth. In order to become a self-actualized person, or psychologically healthy, Maslow held that a person must first meet four hierarchical needs. Though not a basic need in Maslow's hierarchy, such as food, clothing or shelter, having the need for intimacy met is necessary before an individual can meet higher needs, such as those associated with self-actualization, the pinnacle for Maslow. The achievement of intimacy results from the establishment of relationships with others. Though Maslow's approach is similar to Erikson's and Sullivan's in its clinical foundations, it is believed that his theory is somewhat less deterministic.
Whereas Erikson, Sullivan and Maslow were clinical psychologists who based their theory on conversations with clients, John Bowlby, Harry Harlow, and Mary Ainsworth developed their ideas about Attachment theory in the laboratory. Bowlby, a child psychiatrist, identified the importance of the emotional bond between child and caregiver, or what is known as attachment. Bowlby's descriptions of attachment are very similar to what is now considered an intimate relationship. Though his work was primarily with children who had been separated from their parents during World War II, Bowlby's research has had a great influence on the understanding of intimacy as it functions in adult relationships.
Another researcher in the area of attachment, Harry Harlow, studied the effects of maternal deprivation in Rhesus monkeys. Through his research, Harlow and his colleagues demonstrated the critical need for “contact comfort” and intimacy in the early stages of life. In the same vein, Mary Ainsworth and others systematically studied the value of intimacy in early development using her laboratory observation technique called the strange situation, developed to assess the degree to which children have established an intimate attachment with their caregiver. Identifying three primary attachment styles, Ainsworth continued the dialogue concerning how caregiver response can affect an infant's attachment bond.
Later Conceptualizations of Emotional Intimacy
Contemporary research on intimacy has its roots in the early theories described above. For instance, J.L. Orlofsky, J.E. Marcia & I.M. Lesser used Erikson's concept of ego identity and theory of psychosocial development to create a structured interview to determine what they called the intimacy status. According to this theory, intimacy can be classified into four categories: (a) Intimate, which is characterized by the establishment of mutual relationships (including a romantic partner) where self-disclosure takes place. This person is characterized by self-awareness, a genuine interest in others, and a lack of defensiveness in interactions with others; (b) Preintimate, sharing some characteristics with the Intimate individual, this person is different in that he or she has not yet experienced a love relationship, but has had experience with dating and close friendships, and may be unsure about commitment, but possesses qualifies that predispose one to intimacy; (c) Stereotyped Relationship, where a person has relationships somewhat lacking in depth. A person with this status may treat others as objects, seeming to be more interested in what can be gained from them, than in having close, mutual relationships. Characteristics of this status include shallowness, and lack of self-awareness. Pseudointimacy is considered to be a subtype of the stereotyped relationship status. An individual who is in the Pseudointimate status may seem similar to the intimate individual in that a romantic relationship is often maintained; however, this relationship is superficial. At times, the Pseudointimate person seems only to be “going through the motions” of a romantic relationship. Erikson called this relationship a “‘folie a' deux,’ or a mutual isolation in the guise of intimacy;” (d) Isolate, generally lacking in genuine personal relationships. Since this person has difficulty establishing long-term relationships, withdrawal and isolation from others usually results. Characteristics of the Isolate also include anxiety, a lack of assertiveness and social skills, and a general appearance of being “self-satisfied” or “smug.”
Another theorist in this area, D.H. Olson described seven types of intimacy: (a) Emotional Intimacy (experiencing a closeness of feelings), (b) Social Intimacy (the experience of having common friendship and similarities in social networks), (c) Intellectual Intimacy (the experience of sharing ideas), (d) Sexual Intimacy (the experience of sharing general affection and/or sexual activity), (e) Recreational Intimacy (shared experiences of interest in hobbies or mutual participation in sporting events), (f) Spiritual Intimacy (the experience of showing ultimate concerns, a similar sense of meaning in life, and/or religious faiths), and (g) Aesthetic Intimacy (the closeness that results from the experience of sharing beauty).
Other definitions that have been used in the study of intimacy include that of Clyde and Susan Hendrick, who stated that intimacy is “the degree of closeness two people achieve.” R. A. Lewis stated that emotional intimacy is “defined in behavioral terms as mutual self-disclosure and other kinds of verbal sharing, as declarations of liking and loving the other, and as demonstrations of affections.” Categorizing intimacy as a process, Elaine Hatfield described it to be when we “attempt to get close to another; to explore similarities (and differences) in the ways we think, feel, and behave.”
From a review of literature, it is apparent that some early theories centered on understanding intimacy as a developmental process or as a feature of attachment, whereas other theories addressed the assessment and categorization of individual levels of achieved intimacy. Still others developed definitions of intimacy and its subtypes. More recently though, a relatively different approach to the study of emotional intimacy has emerged. Researchers in the area of social psychology have begun to center on the role of emotional intimacy specifically within adult relationship processes. In fact, research has indicated that people today may consider emotional intimacy more important in their lives than individuals did 30 years ago. This may have resulted from events such as changing gender roles, increased geographic mobility, greater awareness about sexuality, and also the fact that men and women tend to experience relationships in different settings than historically has been the case. As a result, individuals find themselves having to adapt to changing social norms and expectations regarding intimate relationships.
Towards a Social Psychology of Emotional Intimacy
S.B. Levine suggested that emotional intimacy first necessitates self-awareness and begins with a self-disclosure of an individual's inner experience. At least two people are required for the establishment of intimacy, thereby setting the stage for a situation in which an individual's disclosure may be followed by a response from another. This understanding of intimacy as resulting from an interaction between people led to its examination in the context of relationships from a social psychological perspective. Initially, social psychological investigations centered on intimacy and its determinants, including eye contact, distance, and other nonverbal behavior, often employing the tenets of equilibrium and equity theories. Soon, however, the focus of research shifted from specifics of nonverbal behavior to a broader perspective, including various features of the intimate experience (e.g., self-disclosure, touching, emotion, etc.). It became clear that the social psychological approach to the study of emotional intimacy fortified early psychological research in two distinct ways, one regarding the focus of current research and the other concerning methodology: (a) Since many early theorists examined the role of intimacy in human development with a primary focus on the individual, and contemporary social psychological theorists seek to understand intimacy primarily in the context of interpersonal relationships, the modern study of emotional intimacy can benefit from both perspectives. For instance, intimacy can be viewed as a product of the person and/or the situation, as has been suggested, rather than one-dimensional; and (b) The use of new qualitative data collection methods used in the field by social psychologists (e.g., narrative, interviews) adds to the previous research using clinical samples and laboratory methods. These methods have been especially fruitful in identifying how laypersons define and experience intimacy in their relationships. Not only do these methods afford an additional perspective as has been recommended, but also produce rich, contextualized material that can be derived from a variety of populations.
Taking advantage of a multi-dimensional perspective and a variety of methodologies, several new developments regarding the definition and assessment of intimacy have surfaced. These innovations can be categorized into two primary divisions: (a) Developments specifically involving theoretical models and assessment, and (b) Empirical investigations that center on identifying specific qualities or characteristics of intimacy, often using open-ended questions or narrative format.
- Gaia, Celeste; Understanding emotional intimacy: a review of conceptualization, assessment, and the role of gender; International Social Science Review; 2002; Vol. 77; Issue 3/4.
Reflection Exercise Explanation
Goal of this Home Study Course is to create a learning experience that enhances
your clinical skills. We encourage you to discuss the Personal Reflection
Journaling Activities, found at the end of each Section, with your colleagues.
Thus, you are provided with an opportunity for a Group Discussion experience.
Case Study examples might include: family background, socio-economic status, education,
occupation, social/emotional issues, legal/financial issues, death/dying/health,
home management, parenting, etc. as you deem appropriate. A Case Study is to be
approximately 225 words in length. However, since the content of these Personal
Reflection Journaling Exercises is intended for your future reference, they
may contain confidential information and are to be applied as a work in
progress. You will not
be required to provide us with these Journaling Activities.
Reflection Exercise #1
The preceding section contained information about understanding emotional intimacy. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section of the Manual in your practice. Affix extra paper for your Journaling entries to the end of this Manual.
What are the four categories of the intimacy status theory? Record the letter of the correct answer