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Treating Men in Search of Intimacy & Connection
Male intimacy continuing education Psychologist CEU

Section 23
Understanding Emotional Intimacy

Question 23 | Answer Booklet | Table of Contents | Couples
Social Worker CEU, Psychologist CE, Counselor CEU, MFT CEU

Marital therapists and family researchers have been interested in how stress affects the quality of the marital experience for wives and husbands (Clayson, & Frost, 1984; Elliott, Bingham, Nielsen, & Warner, 1986; Houser, Konstam, & Ham, 1990; Jenner, 1988; Meeks, Ainkoff, Glass, & Notarius, 1986; Morokoff & Gilliland, 1993; Webster-Stratton, 1989). Marital partners experience two kinds of stress: a reaction to the recent accumulation of life events (Holmes & Rahe, 1967) and a response to the hassles of daily living. Empirical studies have focused primarily on life-event stress and its relationship to marital experience, and no studies could be found which examine the relationship between daily stress and marital experience for any age group, let alone aging marriages.

Of particular interest are marital process variables that might have potential to buffer the effect of stress on a husband's and wife's experience in their marital relationship. One such variable is intimacy. Many researchers have shown that intimacy is related to marital quality (Harper & Elliott, 1988; Tolstedt & Stokes, 1983; Waring, 1988). Along that same line, there have been a few studies that show some relationship between intimacy and stress (Cobb, 1976; Hobfoll & Leiberman 1987). However, only one study could be found that focused specifically on intimacy as a buffer between stress and marital quality (Elliott, 1982). In Elliot's study, only life event stress was measured, and the sample consisted of relatively young married couples.

Traditionally, stress has been described in terms of emotional disturbances, unexpected changes, or disruptive events (Dohrenwend, 1973). Most of the research on stress, whether individual or family, has focused on the impact of significant life changes on a given person or set of persons (Lavee, McCubbin, & Olson, 1987). The demands placed upon individuals by these life changes are referred to in the literature as life-event stressors (Dohrenwend, 1973; Frederickson, 1977).

Much of the current research on life-event stress has its base in the work of Hohnes and Rahe (1967). It was Holmes and Rahe (1967) who introduced the concept of readjustment into the definition of stress. They began to measure stress based on the amount of required readjustments or coping behavior demanded by a specific event during a period of time in a person's life (Dohrenwend, 1973). In reaction to the concept of life-event stress, Lazarus and Folkman (1984) and others offer a contrasting view of stress as daily hassles.

Lazarus & Folkman (1989) were interested in assessing "the daily occurrences in people's lives, whether seemingly minor or major events, that can be sources of harm, loss, threat, or challenge" (p. 3). These ongoing strains and stressors of daily living are referred to as hassles (DeLongis, Coyne, Dakof, Folkman, & Lazarus, 1982; Gruen, Folkman, & Lazarus, 1988). Two studies comparing daily hassles and life-event measures of stress found the daily hassles instrument to be a valid measure of the effects of stress on individuals, and in a number of ways superior to the life-events measure (Kanner, Coyne, Schaefer, & Lazarus, 1981; DeLongis et al., 1982).

Stress and Marriage

In one of the first papers to study the hypothesis that stress leads to marital problems, Frederickson, (1977) reported that "couples in which one or both partners were receiving marital counseling had experienced a greater amount of life-stress events during the previous 12-month period than had couples who were not experiencing marital dysfunction" (p. 41). Although other studies have since investigated these two variables, it is interesting to note that these studies often focus on a specific aspect of life stress and marital quality. For example, a number of studies have focused on stress in and from the workplace and marital quality (Meeks et al., 1986; Jenner, 1988; McLaughlin, Cornier, & Cornier, 1988), while others have focused also on stress and sexuality (Morokoff & Gillilland, 1993) or stress and life-stage transitions (Suitor & Pillemer, 1987) and marital quality. Similarly, many of the studies that focus on stress and marital quality in older marriages also focus on specific life events, like the presence of adult children in the home (Aquilino & Supple, 1991) and the division of household labor in later life (Suitor, 1991).

Besides the Frederickson (1977) article, there is very little empirical, data-based research that focuses on life stress and marital quality. Once again, what little research there is has utilized the life-event concepts of stress, focusing only on a particular event and its effect on marital quality. Clearly, there is a need for more research focusing on daily living stressors and their influence on the marital relationship.

The belief that intimacy is a vital element of interpersonal relationships is now widely accepted (McAdams & Bryant, 1987). Even though researchers agree as to the importance of intimacy, they do not always agree on the conceptualization of intimacy (Harper & Elliott, 1988). Waring (1988) offered an operational definition of intimacy as "a multifaceted interpersonal dimension which describes the quality of a marriage relationship at a point in time" (p. 23). Specifically, he lists eight factors as central to the make-up of intimacy: affection, expressiveness, compatibility, cohesion, sexuality, conflict resolution, autonomy, and identity. Dandeneau and Johnson (1994) defined intimacy in their work "as a relational event in which trusting self-disclosure is responded to with communicated empathy" (p. 18). Other authors describe intimacy in terms of sharing hurt feelings and resolving conflict (Frey III, Holley, & L'Abate, 1979).

Schaefer & Olson (1981) described intimacy as a process of sharing intimate experiences (feelings of closeness and sharing) in five main areas: emotional, social, sexual, intellectual, and recreational.

Intimacy and Marriage

It is rarely disputed that intimacy is a key element of marital quality (Dandeneau & Johnson, 1994; Merves-Okin, Amidon, & Brent, 1991; Waring, 1988). Tolstedt and Stokes (1983) conducted a study in which intimacy was divided into three subtypes--verbal, affective, and physical. All three variables, defined as self-disclosure, closeness and bonding, and sexual interaction or other physical bonding, were found to predict marital satisfaction (Tolstedt & Stokes, 1983; Dreyer, 1990). Other studies, though perhaps conceptualizing intimacy in a slightly different manner, have reported similar findings (Harper & Elliott, 1988; Merves-Okin et al., 1991; Waring, McElrath, Lefcoe, & Weisz, 1981).

Unfortunately, marital intimacy for older couples has been largely ignored in the literature. This oversight may be due to the heavy focus on other developmental strains facing retirement-aged couples, such as the division of household labor or interpersonal relations with other family members (Essex, Klein, Lohr, & Benjamin, 1985; Lee, 1988; Traupmann, Eckels, & Hatfield, 1982). Whatever the reason, marital processes, especially intimacy, may buffer the effects that stressors such as deteriorating health and role redefinition have on the marital quality of husbands and wives.

Intimacy as a Stress Mediator

Few empirical studies have focused on intimacy as a mediator of life-event stress. In one such study, Weiss (1979) surveyed 171 single and married men, ages 21 to 72, in an attempt to understand if intimacy could mediate stress across the lifecycle. Weiss (1979) found that intimacy did serve as a buffer for stress in the lives of the older subjects; however, he was quick to point out that there is a limit or ceiling to the amount of stress that can be mediated. Two other studies (Gabbard, Menninger, & Coyne, 1987; Yandoli, 1989), both of which studied the marriages of medical doctors, found that the main sources of conflicts in these marriages revolve around needs for intimacy. Both studies reported that the demands of being a doctor, for example, long hours, were not as aggravating to the marriage as the differing needs for intimacy. Unfortunately, neither study investigated the possibility of stress mediation through intimacy enhancement.

Three other studies, one as early as 1976, have investigated the possibility of caring/helping behavior acting as a stress mediator (Cobb, 1976; Crandall, 1984; Burke & Weir, 1977). Cobb (1976) hypothesized and later confirmed that social support or "information leading the subject to believe he is cared for and loved, esteemed, and a member of a network of mutual obligations ... can protect people in crisis from a wide variety of pathological states" (p. 300; see also Hobfoll, Nadler, & Lieberman, 1986; Hobfoll & Leiberman, 1987). Similarly, Crandall (1984) found that social interest or "interest in and concern for others" can also benefit an individual who is coping with stress (p. 164). Finally, Burke and Weir (1977) reported that a helping relationship between spouses contributes to well being and stress reduction. After surveying 189 husband and wife pairs, Burke and Weir (1977) "concluded that the husband-wife helping relationship is an important moderator between experienced stress and individual well-being" (p. 121). According to these three studies, caring and helping relationships can benefit people in coping with stress.

A similar pattern is found among the research on stress and intimacy in the lives of older couples. Krause and Borawski-Clark (1994) studied the influence of social support in later life as it relates to stress. They concluded that emotional support does seem to help mature individuals in dealing with some types of stress, depending on the stressor and feelings of control and esteem in the individual. As with the other research on other stages along the lifecycle, the Borawski-Clark study does not focus on marital intimacy or daily hassles.

After reviewing the literature on stress and intimacy, it is clear that though these topics have been broadly treated, no empirical research has investigated the relationship between daily hassles as stressors, intimacy, and marital quality. If intimacy does buffer the effects of daily stressors on marriage, what is the relationship?

Marital Quality
Marital quality, adjustment, and satisfaction are often used interchangeably; however, researchers often disagree about definitions (White, Stahmann, & Furrow, 1994). According to Locke and Wallace (1959) "marital adjustment is accommodation of a husband and wife to each other at a given time" (p. 251). Others have argued that marital quality is often confused with other pertinent variables like communication (Crane, Allgood, Larson, & Griffin, 1990). Spanier and Cole (1976) describe marital quality as the success and functioning of a marriage. Jeong, Bollman, and Schumm (1992) describe marital quality in terms of satisfaction with one's marital relationship and one's spouse.

Whatever the definition, marital quality has been the subject of volumes of research projects (Glenn, 1990). Despite the great number of studies in this area, researchers are quick to point out the need for more studies that will help family-focused workers understand what factors lead to increased marital quality. Specifically, Glenn (1990), in his comprehensive review of the articles published on marital quality in the 1980's, calls for more studies that are not based on small convenience samples. He also calls for more methodologically sound quantitative studies that clarify the issues relating to the explanation of and influences on marital quality. Clearly, studies that can identify and describe the key variables of marital quality are welcome and needed.

One area of marital quality research that has lacked sufficient attention in the empirical research is the study of long-term marriages (Lauer, Lauer, & Kerr, 1990). Valliant and Valliant (1993) have called for more studies which investigate the "factors of long-term marital satisfaction and adjustment" (p. 230). Gilford (1986) likewise has mentioned that there are "special strengths and strains" in older marriages (p. 16). Further research in this area may be of particular importance to clinicians as the baby boomers reach their golden years of marriage (Gilford, 1986).
- Harper, James, Shaalie, Bruce & Jonathan Sandberg; Daily hassles, intimacy, and marital quality in later life marriages; American Journal of Family Therapy; Jan-Mar 2000; Vol. 28; Issue 1.


Personal Reflection Exercise #9
The preceding section contained information about daily hassles, intimacy, and marital quality in later life marriages.  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.

According to Waring, what are eight factors central to the make-up of intimacy? Record the letter of the correct answer the Answer Booklet.

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