Some thoughts on the collected essays contained in “Recovering Intimacy in Love Relationships; A Clinician’s Guide” Edited by Jon Carlson and Len Sperry
In the past, loss of intimacy in a long-term relationship was often equated with infidelity, but more recently, therapists have acknowledged that it is often a result of “benign neglect”. Couples are so focussed on their jobs, their finances or their kids that they fail to nurture their relationship with each other.
In her essay (Chapter 14), Professor Maureen Duffy examines the interesting metaphor that is the ‘work-life balance’. She says, with a degree of irony, that the “life” part of the metaphor suggests that “outside of employment, there is something other than work”… but when “you eliminate housework, the work of childcare, the work of personal grooming and health maintenance, and the work of maintaining friendships, intimate relationships, and family relationships, there is precious little time left for activities that we do not typically consider ‘work’. In a nutshell, the ‘life’ part of the work-life balance is itself filled with activities that require various forms of effort and work.”
It is a point which will, I am sure, resonate greatly with both men and women, and one which goes some way to explaining why couples who have worked so hard to build a home, pursue careers, and raise happy healthy fulfilled children can find themselves inexplicably dissatisfied with all that they have achieved. Duffy explains this as a kind of cognitive dissonance which is created by the conflict between couples reaching so many goals, and then discovering that sustaining everything is so exhausting that they are too worn out to enjoy any of it.
She mentions Arlie Russell Hochchild’s work on the “taken-for-granted assumption that home is an escape from work”. It is true that some people are happy to ‘get home’ after work and get away from the pressures of the workplace, but for others it is the exact opposite. Walking through the front door every night is an overwhelmingly stressful experience and work gradually becomes a sanctuary from the demands of family life.
The inequity between paid employment and unpaid and domestic labour also causes conflict. While it is not a universal truth, many women who yearn for kids and are only too delighted to take a career break to have children soon find themselves feeling resentful. The realisation that their partners can walk out the door at eight thirty am and pick up a latte on the way to work, while they get left behind to look after two screaming kids and clean the house, feels unfair. As Duffy points out “The continuing nature of the work of home, and its repetitiveness, can present a more unyielding and unsatisfying set of work obligations than those of some workplaces where projects have more finite beginning and endpoints.”
Inevitably, these tensions can lead to bad feeling, and sexual intimacy can suffer as a result, however, an essay by Brent Atkinson Ph.D (Chapter 13) offers one way in which couples might be better able to survive these day-to-day ups and downs. Atkinson, who is the author of “Emotional Intelligence in Couples Therapy: Advances in Neurobiology and the Science of Intimate Relationships” believes that couples who want to maintain emotional closeness “must become more concerned about how they respond to the upsetting things that their partners say or do, than they are about the upsetting things that their partners are saying or doing”. This requires a degree of maturity and restraint, but if you can master the art of thinking before shooting your mouth off, you can avoid untold collateral damage.
“Self-regulation” – being more aware of what you say and do yourself, rather than focussing on your partner’s behaviour – is a learned skill which can give practitioners a greater sense of control over their emotional responses. This is a hugely beneficial technique, largely because it helps to counter the sense that emotions such as anger are something we should be overwhelmed by. We can, and should, be able to take charge of our own feelings.
Atkinson, who translates new scientific findings about the brain into practical methods for improving relationships, also suggest a simple way in which couples can raise a luke warm sexual temperature. He explains that when relationships are going well, feelings of sadness, tenderness, playfulness or lustfulness are contagious, a theory which UCLA researcher Marco Iacoboni believes is explained by mirror neurons in the brain that allow us to feel what another person is experiencing. As Atkinson says “this is why we cry at the movies when we sense the emotions of the characters, even though we don’t know them. Mirror neurons help our brains re-create the feeling inside of ourselves, allowing us to be powerfully affected.”
Atkinson thinks that couples could capitalise on mirror neurons to recover intimacy. If, instead of whinging about all the things that are wrong, individuals focus on projecting the kind of state which they would like their partner to reflect, they will trigger their partners mirror neurons. It is simple, but it is also blindingly obvious. So, try it.
Next time you see your partner, don’t complain… just smile and according to mirror neuron theory, it’s odds on that they will smile right back at you.
Recovering Intimacy in Love Relationships: A Clinician’s Guide
Edited by John Carlson and Len Sperry
Hb: 978-0-415-99253-4: £24.99 / $39.95
Published by Routledge
FREE Sample Chapter here