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Faking Intimacy in Long Term Relationships

I’m sure we’re all at least vaguely familiar with the idea of faking orgasms or sexual response. This is often parodied on television and in movies, usually portrayed by women faking satisfaction with their male partners. This dishonesty, however, can mean constructing an artificial barrier between oneself and one’s partner at the exact moment when we should be at our most emotionally open and authentic. After all, this brings up the issue of not only faking orgasm but, on a deeper level, the problem of faking intimacy.

It is possible to love others in a number of ways, from the truly devoted and passionate to the superficially infatuated. Intimacy, though, is something else entirely. According to the psychosocialist Erik Erikson and his personality theory, intimacy is a developmental issue which is usually confronted by young adults once they’ve established their sense of identity. As Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, author and professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, states: “True intimacy, in the Eriksonian sense, involves sharing much- but not all- of your identity with your partner. If you think of a Venn diagram, true intimacy would occur when there’s perhaps a 50% overlap between the two circles representing the identity of you and your partner.”

The Three Components of Intimacy

Years ago, Dr. Whitbourne conducted a study with doctoral student Joyce Ebmeyer in which identity and intimacy in married couples were examined. They developed a model based on Erikson’s theory in which they defined intimacy on three “C” dimensions: communication, commitment and closeness. Being high on the communication dimension means that one can talk openly and honestly with their partner. To be high on the commitment dimension means that one has made the decision to stay in a long-term relationship with their partner. High closeness means that one feels closer to their partner than anyone else.

According to Dr. Whitbourne, it is by using these three dimensions that you can “map the intimacy” of any couple. She explains: “ People high on communication and closeness, but not commitment, enjoy each other’s company but don’t feel that they want to (for the moment) decide whether to stick together. Being high on communication and commitment means that you’re in a long-term relationship and find it easy to talk to each other, but you don’t feel particularly close now even though you might have at one time. Finally, being high on closeness and commitment means that you feel that you and your partner are psychologically on the same page, want to stay together, but find it hard to talk to each other at other than a superficial level.”

Can Intimacy be Faked?

It is within this framework that one can begin to see how intimacy could potentially be faked. In relationships which demonstrate high commitment but low levels of closeness and communication, the desire to remain in the relationship may be there, but the relationship itself may feel hollow and empty. Moreover, if communication is high in a committed relationship but closeness is low, the couple may be able to communicate things such as what to have for dinner or who is picking up the kids after work, and even when to schedule sex, but the lack of closeness in the relationship is what ultimately leads to faking intimacy; what Dr. Whitbourne and Ebmeyer called “pseudo-intimacy”.

Why Do We Fear Intimacy?

Trying to define a relationship within these dimensions can be difficult, but it becomes even more so when you consider that individual intimacy levels may vary. Each partner may demonstrate higher characteristics of one dimension versus another, making it difficult to classify the intimacy status of the couple as a whole. But ultimately, this model shows that it is in fact possible to fake intimacy. The next question, however, would be why? Researchers studying the fear of intimacy believe that anxiety is in part responsible for why people avoid closeness.

One reason for this may stem from a fear of losing the self in the process of becoming close. Erikson proposes in his theory that to be truly intimate one must be secure in their own identity. This security in ourselves is what allows us to feel comfortable with merging a portion of our identity with others within a relationship without fearing that we will lose our own identity in the process.

Compatible Fears and Intimate Relationships

Maria Pedro Sobal, a psychologist at the University of Porto, Portugal, and her collaborators divided fear of intimacy into two categories: fear of the loss of the other, or FLO, and fear of the loss of self, or FLS. Using an online sample of 276 heterosexual couples aged 18-55, of whom half were married, Sobal and her team looked at how each partner matched in FLS or FLO to predict relationship satisfaction. This is because, as Dr. Whitbourne explains, “According to similarity theory of relationships, people should be most satisfied if their own fear of intimacy matches that of their partner. Although fear of intimacy should be negatively related to relationship satisfaction, if you and your partner prefer distance rather than closeness, then it should be the match that counts the most in predicting how satisfied you feel with each other.”

But as it turns out, the answer really depends on who you ask. Interestingly, for men, not women, fearing intimacy does not necessarily doom their relationship satisfaction. Men who were high in FLS were well matched with women who were also high in FLS. However, men who were high in loss of FLO were shown to be more satisfied with women who were low in FLS. By analyzing this data in terms of couples, not individuals, Sobal and her collaborators were able to examine fear of intimacy in two forms. In doing so, they discovered that, at least for men, faking intimacy, or being in a relationship without being too close, worked best when their partners were faking as well. But reaching this state takes time, and neither Sobal nor Dr. Whitbourne continued their studies with follow-ups to determine the long-term effects of such behavior. However, Dr. Whitbourne comments that: “It takes effort to work at the closeness within a relationship. If you don’t or can’t, it may be inevitable that the intimacy increasingly becomes faked.”

Faking Intimacy it Doesn’t Work

While one can potentially choose to fake intimacy within their relationship, more evidence on couple satisfaction points to how long-term satisfaction and happiness requires willingness to communicate and take risks with one’s partner, closeness, and, importantly, authenticity. For those of us who may have lost one or more of these connections, rediscovering them will be key to finding fulfillment in our relationships.

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