Intimacy Unstuck

Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, January 18, 2009
By Stephanie Coontz

Husbands do it by gassing up their spouse's car. Wives do it by having a heart-to-heart confessional. Each is expressing intimacy, but in a stereotypical Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus fashion. As Framingham State College sociologist Virginia Rutter notes, "Both men and women value a feeling of closeness with their partner, but they get to that feeling by somewhat different routes." And they often think their partner is taking the wrong route.

Yet these gender differences are not innate. Heterosexual couples can achieve intimacy that satisfies both sexes if they can recognize that their differences come from historical conditioning that started 200 years ago -- and has outlived its usefulness.

Back in Colonial days, marriage in this country was based on practical need rather than love and intimate connection. The ability to provide for her family was as central to a woman's identity as it was to a man's. And males took equal responsibility with females for nurturing social ties with kin and neighbors. Although husbands had authority over their wives in directing the household's work, men and women were not seen as innately different. Harvard University historian Nancy F. Cott notes that 17th-century men and women did not inhabit separate emotional and social spheres. No one thought it "unwomanly" to be hardheaded in business or "unmanly" to weep.

But as economic production moved outside the household, the work activities and emotional responsibilities of men and women began to diverge. Men increasingly labored in impersonal institutions that required that feelings be kept under wraps. And the work that wives did at home focused less on producing goods than on providing a haven for husbands and children. With these changes, love became the cement that could sustain partnerships no longer held together by the constraints of shared labor. Yet with husbands and wives sharing fewer activities and spending more time apart, what would provide the basis for that love?

The 19th-century answer was to exaggerate the differences between men and women and to define those differences as essential to a successful marriage. In this new view, love sprang from the merging of two opposite beings, neither of whom could function without the other. The husband was expected to be strong and self-reliant. He conveyed love by providing for his family and protecting his wife from some chores, experiences, and even knowledge that women were now deemed too delicate to handle. The wife provided domestic comfort and emotional support, anticipating needs her husband did not feel free to express.

Assigned to such different roles, each sex had to develop distinctive emotional resources. Women turned to female friends and kin for the support they needed to sustain their nurturing role. Intimacy, women came to believe, involved self-disclosure, especially of vulnerabilities, and examination of hidden meanings. Men, meanwhile, turned to other men to reinforce the impersonal masculinity that their new roles required. They penalized one another for showing weakness or vulnerability.

Over the past 30 years, however, husbands and wives have become much less likely to specialize exclusively in either breadwinning or nurturing. As men and women try to mix and match the traits that were once parceled out between them, the 19th-century gender differences in emotional orientation hamper a couple's ability to sustain relationships that are now based on equality and friendship. A growing body of research confirms that men and women who hold traditional gender attitudes have lower-quality relationships than couples with more gender-neutral values.

Men, having been taught for generations to see themselves as providers and protectors, find it hard to express feelings to their partners. When a woman presses a man to discuss a relationship problem, he often shuts down in ways that she interprets as lack of commitment to the relationship. On the other hand, sociologist Francesca M. Cancian, retired from the University of California, Irvine, suggests that women cling to a 19th-century definition of intimacy that fails to recognize that closeness can be expressed in practical, nonverbal ways -- that gassing-up-the-car gesture. And women often underestimate the bonds generated by shared activities.

These differences also get in the way of making up after an argument. San Francisco-based psychologist Joshua Coleman notes that men often feel the need to reconnect sexually to renew feelings of intimacy. But most women need to reconnect emotionally first.

As long as we think that one approach is eternally feminine and one way irreducibly masculine, someone has to surrender. But Rutter argues that we can "learn to draw from both the masculine and the feminine tool kits." She points to studies showing that children who combine what are usually thought of as masculine and feminine coping skills have higher academic and social skills than more "traditional" boys and girls. Such flexibility also translates into higher marital quality later in life. This may be why University of Washington researcher John Gottman finds that same-sex couples, who tend to combine "male" and "female" emotional styles, remain calmer and more positive with each other during disagreements than do heterosexual couples.

Men need to get over feeling attacked when they are asked to talk about hurt feelings. They need to recognize that opening up about their own emotions and listening to their partners can make relationships stronger. But women need to learn how to ask for change without putting every emotional issue on the table. Rutter points out that sometimes ruminating about emotions and talking them through in detail does not resolve bad feelings but perpetuates them.

So where men need to learn how to connect with painful feelings, women need to learn when to step back from such feelings to engage in activities that calm both partners down. And sometimes, when deciding whether to use the "female" or the "male" way of making up after an argument, couples might be better off splitting the difference. Instead of talking it out before sex or having sex before talking it out, why not head off to a movie and hold hands in the dark? n

Stephanie Coontz, a historian at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families, wrote Marriage, a History.

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Stephanie Coontz teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and is Director of Research and Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families. Her most recent book is Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage.

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