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Marital Closness and Distance

Marital Closness and Distance

By J. Bailey Molineux, Ph.D.

"We all want more intimacy than we can stand," claimed the well known family therapist, Dr. Carl Whittaker, at a workshop in Bozeman several years ago. It was a statement that has stuck with me ever since because it defines exactly the dynamics which underlie many marital problems.

We humans face an incredibly difficult dilemma that I call the intimacy conflict. It consists of two desires that seem to be at odds with each other. On the one hand, we want to be in relationship, to feel we belong, to give and receive love. On the other, we want to be free, autonomous and not overly controlled by another. We want both closeness and distance, togetherness and separateness, love and independence.

Each desire has its disadvantages. In a relationship, we can be hurt and are responsible to another. In togetherness, we lose our separateness.

But separateness comes at a cost also: loneliness. We have our freedom but may miss the warmth of love.

It is a conflict that goes back to our early childhood years. As infants, we felt totally united with mother and did not realize we were separate selves. Much of our childhood was spent trying to achieve a sense of our independent identities. When things became too scary for us, however, we'd scoot back to Mom for comfort and a shot of security before venturing away from her again.

In marriage, often one spouse wants more closeness, usually the wife, while the husband wants more distance. As she pushes for more intimacy, he becomes uncomfortable and withdraws, which scares her so she seeks more closeness.

Family therapists assume, however, that two people at the same comfort level with intimacy marry each other. Even though they may appear to be in conflict, each helps to maintain a level of intimacy with which both are comfortable. If the wife were to give up and distance, the husband would probably become anxious and seek greater closeness.

We all experience this conflict, but those who have had more emotional pain in previous relationships will experience it to a greater degree. A person who was abused, neglected or abandoned growing up, for example, will want intimacy like anyone else but will have a greater fear of it. In childhood, she learned that to be loved was to be hurt. She might solve this conflict by unconsciously choosing to marry someone with a limited capacity to love. She's married but is not too close to her spouse.

People who have been through the pain of divorce and are considering remarriage struggle with this conflict to a greater degree also. They want marital happiness but are afraid to be hurt in a marriage again.

What's the solution to this universal conflict? That we choose one desire over the other?

Surprisingly, no, according to Whittaker, who says we can have both. Instead of being opposites, these desires are complementary. They enhance rather than diminish each other. The more we have of one, the more we have of the other. Our capacity to be separate depends upon our capacity to be connected. And the more we can be ourselves, the better we can relate to another in a healthy, intimate way.

There are times, then, in a marriage when you or your spouse will want to be close and times when you will want space. Intimacy in a marriage can wax and wane without either of you feeling smothered or abandoned.


About the Author: J. Bailey Molineux, a psychologist with Adult and Child Counseling, has incorporated many of his articles in a book, Loving Isn't Easy, Isbn 1587410419, sold through bookstores everywhere or available directly from Selfhelpbooks.com. Copyright 2002, J. Bailey Molineux and Selfhelpbooks.com, all rights reserved. This article may be reprinted but must include authors copyright and website hyperlinks.

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