What is imagined by “intimacy” as a quality of relationships is often associated with particular ways of behaving (Davis 1973). Intimacy is sometimes defined narrowly to mean the familiarity resulting from close association. In this sense, domestic life across much of the life course in all societies is intimate. Living arrangements that involve sharing domestic space, a ”hearth and home,” the caring activities associated with bearing and raising children, and other forms of routinely giving or receiving physical care necessarily provide familiarity and privileged knowledge. Sometimes the term ”intimacy” is also used even more narrowly to refer to sexual familiarity with another person. In everyday current usage, intimacy is often presumed to involve more than close association and familiarity, for example, also involving strong emotional attachments such as love. However, in both popular and academic commentaries, intimacy is increasingly understood as representing a very particular form of ”closeness” and being ”special” to another person founded on self-disclosure. This self-disclosing or self-expressing intimacy is characterized by knowledge and understanding of inner selves.
Privileged knowledge gained through close physical association is not a sufficient condition to ensure this type of intimacy. People living side by side can feel trapped together as strangers who know nothing of each other’s inner worlds.
Studying how people generate and sustain intimacy leaves open the issue of what types of intimate relationships (sexual relationships, couple, kin, specific family relationships, friend ship) are significant to people in different times and places. Popular and academic commentators of trends in affluent “western” societies make a range of claims and counterclaims about the nature of intimacy, its meaning and significance in everyday lives, and patterns of social change. These include claims that a focus on private intimacy has helped displace civic and community engagement, that individualized forms of intimacy have undermined conventional ”family values,” and counterclaims of heightened equality and democracy spreading from personal life to other domains.
”Self disclosing intimacy” as an element of ”good” couple, family, and, ultimately, friendship relationships has had widespread endorsement among the growing ranks of relationship experts, psychologists, psychiatrists, psycho therapists, and sexual counselors. This view point was increasingly marketed and advertised in the late twentieth century through a range of cultural products advocating talking and listening, sharing your thoughts, showing your feelings to achieve and maintain a ”good relationship,” often privileging self-expression over more practical forms of ”love and care.” Advocates of ”self-disclosing intimacy” claim participants in conversations of mutual self-revelation create a quality of relationship more intense than the knowing and understanding that can be gathered without such dialogue. Sexual intimacy may play a part, but for some advocates of this type of intimacy it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition, as an intimacy of inner selves is conceived as possible without an intimacy of bodies. However, if, as some theorists have argued, sexuality has come to be seen in western cultures as expressive of the very essence of the self, then sexual familiarity inevitably enhances the intimacy generated by verbal self-disclosures.
Academics across a range of disciplines have provided metacommentary on this cultural turn to ”self-disclosing intimacy,” generating both pessimistic and optimistic analysis of changes in intimate relationships. An influential optimistic analysis was produced by British sociologist Anthony Giddens in The Transformation of Intimacy (1992). Giddens argued that a qualitative shift in intimacy began to occur in the late twentieth century. In this period, the faster pace of social change and heightened awareness of risk and uncertainty meant that conventional ways of doing things, including ”being a family” and constructing gender and sexual identities, were increasingly open to reworking, as people became more self-conscious of being makers of their own ”narrative of the self.” In this climate, Giddens argued, people increasingly sought ”self-disclosing intimacy” to anchor themselves in one or more particularly intense personal relationships. Relationships became more fragile, only lasting as long as they provided mutual satisfaction, but they were also potentially more satisfactory, equal, and democratic. Sex was no longer harnessed to set scripts; instead couples negotiated their own rules of sexual conduct on a ”what we enjoy” basis. Although people continued to choose long term intimate relationships, including marriage-like relationships and parenting relationships, diversity in styles of personal life inevitably also blossomed.
There has been continued discussion of whether and why women’s relationships appear to involve more ”self-disclosing intimacy” than men’s (Duncombe & Marsden 1995). Some psychological and psychoanalytic accounts map this to the function of mothering and mother-child relationships. Historically produced gendered cultural discourses, together with inequalities in social constraints and opportunities, are also widely cited in the literature. Similarly, there are discussions of differences by social class, ethnicity, age, and life course stage in patterns of intimacy. Giddens suggested that women, and particularly lesbians and young women, were at the vanguard of his alleged transformation of intimacy: women because previous conventions and social conditions have made them more skilled at ”doing intimacy”; women in same sex relationships because they are less con strained by any prior script that suggests a particular division of labor; and young women because they have the most to gain in more equal and democratic relationships. The work of some feminist commentators has suggested that Giddens has underestimated the persistence of gender inequality (Jamieson 1999) and the ideological strength of a conventional heterosexual culture (Berlant 1997). Berlant argued in her analysis of US culture that the ideologies and institutions of heterosexual intimacy have provided support to a reactionary status quo by encouraging citizens to take refuge from the confusions of capitalism and politics. However, Giddens’s argument also finds support among those who believe they are identifying a growing number of instances of people constructing inti mate relationships outside of the “heteronorm” (Roseneil & Budgeon 2004).
Whereas Giddens’s account suggested that cultural emphasis on ”disclosing intimacy” is matched by positive social change in the everyday lives of men and women, there are many more pessimistic visions of what is happening to intimacy in this period of ”postmodernity.” According to a number of academic commentators, either intimacy has become attenuated (rather than more intense) or its intensity is of little social worth. Unrestrained market forces and mass consumer cultures are accused of promoting a self-obsessive, self-isolating, or competitive individualism which renders people incapable of sustaining meaningful intimate relationships. As one commentator puts it, concern to be sincere and responsible is replaced with worry about being true to one’s self (Misztal 2000). Social scientists from a range of contexts have developed variations of this argument, sometimes in tandem with debate about ”social capital” and concern that private intimacy supplants or undermines ”community.” Well known examples include Bauman (2003) and Sennett (1998). This is also a longstanding subtheme in the work of Hochschild (2003; see also Bellah et al. 1985).
High rates of relationship breakdown, the associated disruption of wider social networks, and concerns, particularly in Europe and North America, about juggling family and work clearly do indicate strains in intimate life. However, detailed research on how people conduct specific intimate relationships commonly identifies strenuous efforts to create ”good relationships” and to put children and ”family” first, although generally it is women who continue to play the larger part in sustaining these intimate relationships. Much of the empirical research demonstrates neither self-obsession nor the primacy of ”self-disclosing intimacy.” In a review of research on couple relationships, sexual relationships, parent-child relationships, and friendship relationships, Jamieson (1998) concluded that the evidence demonstrated a wider repertoire of intimacy than ”disclosing intimacy.” The relationships people described as ”good” relationships were often neither equal nor democratic. Moreover, equal relationships were sustained by more than ”disclosing intimacy.” For example, couples who had worked hard to have fair divisions of labor typically negotiated mutual practical care that did more to sustain their sense of intimacy than self-disclosure. As Vogler asserts, perhaps ”not all intimacies are affairs of the self” (2000: 48; see also Holland et al. 2003). This is not, however, to deny the significance of ”self-disclosing intimacy” in popular culture, or its discursive power to influence everyday perceptions of how to do intimacy.
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