Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Building Intimate Trust

Happy couple in sunny park.

        Marriages are special because they are uniquely and reciprocally intimate. They are supposed to be affectionate, trusting, enduring, loyal, loving, and also sexual, erotic, passionate, and romantic.

        This wasn’t always the case. In fact, in the middle ages marriage was not at all about romance, it was all about property. Stability was the goal, not passion. Passion and love were known to be fickle, so how could they be the basis of stable marriage? Punch-and-Judy puppet shows at fairs in the middle ages parodied everything from the local farmer to the King. They also parodied the husband who was in love with his wife. No kidding. 

        The word “uxurious” was coined for this fool of the middle ages, the fool husband who was “in love” with his wife. Uxurious sounds like a disease, or a white-collar crime, doesn’t it? So this idea that marriages and other lasting relationships should be loyal and stable as well as romantic, lustfully sexual, and passionate is really a new idea.

        Some writers have argued that these are in fact two distinct forms of love, that “loving” a person in a lasting relationship is antithetical to being “in love” with that person. Helen Fisher, for example, has claimed that these are two separate chemical systems, the first “in love” being about the neurotransmitter dopamine – the chemical of the reward centers of the brain, and the “loving” system being all about oxytocin and vasopressin, the hormones of bonding and trust. Being “in love” has nothing to do with trust, but with the madness of an obsessive and manic state some psychologists like University of Hawaii psychologist Elaine Hatfield have even given a separate name from love, calling it “limmerance.” Perhaps this is, in fact, true.

       Lewis, Amini, and Lannon certainly agreed. They wrote, “Loving is limbically distinct from in love. Loving is mutuality; loving is synchronous attunement and modulation. As such, adult love depends critically upon knowing the other. In love demands only the brief acquaintance necessary to establish an emotional genre but does not demand that the book of the beloved’s soul be perused from preface to epilogue. Loving derives from intimacy, the prolonged and detailed surveillance of a foreign soul.” But, were they right? Isn’t it possible to have romance, passion, and loyal love and trust in a lasting relationship? We say that it can be, and we call it “intimate trust.” 

A happy couple smiles, happily enjoying each other's company.

        It may surprise you that in intimate relationships there seems to be a confusion even among therapists about how to become intimate and how to nurture intimate trust. Some therapists have claimed that intimacy is created by establishing boundaries between partners. Esther Perel’s recent book called Mating in Captivity actually claims that the secret to long-term sexual intimacy is emotional distance. As strange as that may seem, she is actually following in the footsteps of a famous psychiatrist, Murray Bowen, and the sex therapist David Schnarsh. All three of these writers claim that the greatest danger to intimate trust and to great sex is too much connection, which they call by such insulting terms as “fusion,” “merging,” “enmeshment” and “symbiosis.” Too much togetherness kills erotic attraction, they claim.

        Instead, these writers claim that intimacy is established by a process they call “individuation.” The term was initially invented by Murray Bowen, who defined an individuation scale from 1 to 100. People low on the scale were those unable to control their emotions with reason, while people high on the scale were able to control their emotions with reason. The definition has recently been extended to also mean that individuated people in a relationship are those who have very separate identities from one another, and are very clear with one another about their own self-interests.

        These ideas are at odds with what we have been proposing here on the Gottman Sex Blog. The Bowen definition of individuation is typical of an emotion-dismissing philosophy, which creates a scale in which reason is at one end and emotion is at the other end of a continuum. The establishing boundaries part of the individuation definition emphasizes separateness, self-interest, which is antithetical to cooperative methods we have been proposing for building trust. Of course there are always two separate minds in a relationship. That is the basis for attraction and also the basis for regrettable incidents. What is needed to build intimate trust is cooperation, not self-interest.

        Their hypothesis is that boundaries between people and emotional distance creates great sex and intimacy. The alternative hypothesis, which we favor at the Gottman Institute, is that emotional attunement creates intimate trust and makes intimacy personal. 

        Attunement means that one listens non-defensively to the partner’s negative emotions (even if they are about you), and tries to understand these feelings and empathize with them. Attunement also means that one’s partner’s pain is not ignored, dismissed, or overlooked. The communication is, “If you hurt, baby, then the world stops until we figure out how to change things so you don’t hurt. I will listen and try to understand, and help you figure out what you need, and try to meet that need.”

       When intimacy is more personal, lovemaking is much more passionate, intense, and satisfying. Deepen intimate trust with your partner this week by improving the emotional attunement in your relationship. 

The Gottman Institute

1 comment:

  1. “The term (individuation) was initially invented by Murray Bowen, who defined an individuation scale from 1 to 100. People low on the scale were those unable to control their emotions with reason, while people high on the scale were able to control their emotions with reason. . . . The Bowen definition of individuation is typical of an emotion-dismissing philosophy, which creates a scale in which reason is at one end and emotion is at the other end of a continuum.”

    Actually, the “differentiation of self” scale which puts emotional maturity at one end and emotional immaturity at the other; healthy independence and interdependence one end and dependencies that are unhealthy at the other; personal responsibility at one end and personal irresponsibility and scapegoating and blaming at the other.

    People at the low end of the scale are not just “emotional,” they’re emotionally out of control, they’re immature or damaged or ill. They’re ruled by their feelings and emotions. They’re not responsible people, rather they’re irresponsible; amoral or immoral often. They tend to be overly reliant (or dependent) on others’ approval and acceptance. Their capacity to make healthy choices is seriously handicapped. People at this level tend to be very impulsive, reactive, unstable, unable to think long-term, unable to delay gratification. Their lives tend to be chaotic and disorganized. They are very susceptible to stress and anxiety, and have very few to no healthy and adaptive coping mechanisms or skills in their repertoire. Thus they tend to turn to addictions and substance use/abuse to control anxiety and stress. Their lives are marked by drama, chaos, disorder—and much of it self-inflicted. People at the very low end of the spectrum are people who tend to have serious psychological issue and maladies—Borderline Personality disorder, antisocial and narcissistic tendencies, drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, et cetera. The lower a person falls on the spectrum, likely the less mentally healthy the person is.

    As you progress up the continuum, people become more psychologically healthy, more autonomous and self-governing; more respectful and responsible, better able to live interdependently and be part of a community.They’re better able to deal with anxiety and set backs and life’s difficulties. They live less defensively, more openly, more transparently, with much greater integrity. Emotions aren’t “controlled with reason,” they’re controlled by a combination of: other and higher emotions, reason, forethought, insight, self-awareness, mindfulness, perspective, humor, and choice—in other words by having a tangible gap between an emotion and deciding how to respond to or act on that emotion or feeling. It’s what cognitive-behavior therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, schema therapy, Victor Frankl’s “logotherapy,” most forms of meditation, and most forms of therapy are trying to create and encourage—more of a gap between stimulus (emotion, feeling) and response, to lessen the “reactivity,” “impulsivity” and living blindly that gets people in trouble and plants the seeds of self-inflicted future unhappiness,.

    And so your glib and unfair dismissiveness of “differentiation” theory as being an emotion-dismissing philosophy is also paradoxically a glib dismissal of your own work. You want to not just create healthier marriages and committed relationships, but also healthier people in general, healthier meaning more emotionally aware, kind, mature, responsible, generous, appreciative, understanding, patient, et cetera.

    I like your books, Dr. Gottmann, and I have several of them and I have found them to be very useful and insightful and practical. But your attack and dismissal and mischaracterization of differentiation theory seems very misguided, especially for a man of science.


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