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March 6, 2020

How Important is an Intimate Relationship?

Why Intimate Relationships Are Important

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “survival of the fittest” before. We live in a world that can feel like one big competition. Whether you’re competing for a spot on a sports team, at your dream school, or for your dream job, you may find yourself facing emotional, physical, mental, and even spiritual challenges. However, many studies prove that if you are in an intimate relationship, those challenges will be easier to face with the support of an intimate partner.

For example, one study used an MRI to observe how 16 women with and without intimate partners reacted to perceived threats. They were told that if they saw a red X, there was a chance of receiving a small shock to the ankle. If they saw a blue O, there was no chance of receiving a shock. The participants were placed under three separate conditions looking at either red X’s or blue O’s. First, holding the hand of someone they were in an intimate relationship with, while being shown an X or O. The second, while holding the hand of a stranger of the same sex as their partner, while being shown an X or O. The third, not holding anyone’s hand, while being shown an X or O. Once the images of certain brain regions such as the right anterior insula, which responds to perceived threat, were analyzed, it was found that when the women were holding their partner’s hand, their brains were less activated when shown a red X than when holding a stranger’s hand, or no hand at all. It was also found that the happier the women reported they were with their intimate relationships, the less the threat-related regions of their brains activated when they were shown a red X.

Another study observed 188 couples to determine how being in an intimate relationship affected how one partner coped with having congestive heart failure. The research assistants gave standardized questionnaires and interviewed each partner separately. Then, the couples were videotaped talking about something they disagreed on in their intimate relationship. The tapes were analyzed to differentiate the ratio of positive to negative things the partners said to each other. That data made an index of overall relationship quality which broke down the level of intimacy in each relationship. Researchers then followed public records to determine which patients died over the next 4 years. The study found that the happier the couples were with the intimacy in their relationship, according to the data index, the less likely the partner with congestive heart failure was to die in the 4-year period. How we talk to our intimate partners and how happy we are with our intimate relationships is correlated with our life expectancy, especially with a health problem.

Intimate Relationships are Essential to the Human Experience

Intimate relationships are a basic feature of who we are as human beings. We all have a nervous system that responds to and equips us not only for intimate social interaction, but to love and be loved. We are biologically attuned to the person we share an intimate bond with. Just like our capacity for language and logic, our capacity for intimacy is a big factor in how we regulate our emotions, how well we understand our partner’s emotions and our emotional intelligence which allows us to not only survive, but thrive in the world we live in. In order to understand the positive and negative aspects of being human, we must work to understand not only birth and death, but conflicts, emotions and intimate relationships.

Three Intrinsic Properties of Intimate Relationships:

1. They determine the survival of our species
2. They are a universal human experience
3. They expand our range of emotional experience

Three Extrinsic Properties of Intimate Relationships:

1. Intimate relationships affect our mental and physical health
2. They influence the well-being of children
3. They form the fabric of society

Intimate Relationships Determine the Survival of Our Species

The phrase “survival of the fittest” comes from the idea of natural selection in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. According to this theory, sometimes random gene changes result in better fitness. Fitness is the chance that offspring will survive and reproduce. Different factors such as intimate relationships determine whether or not a gene or set of genes will improve fitness. The saying “it takes a tribe” is supported by scientific evidence.

Social interactions, alliances, coalitions, and hierarchies are critical. They can have serious consequences on how successful a family is at surviving and reproducing. The ways we humans attract and select intimate partners, the attachments we make, how willing we are to reproduce, how often we do, and how well we provide for and take care of each other and our children directly and indirectly affect fitness. Interpersonal, and more specifically, intimate relationships play a key role in not only how long we live, but in the quality of the lives we live.

The Biology Behind Fairy Tales and Fantasies

Magical, is often how we describe an intimate sexual encounter that matches and maybe exceeds what we perceive to be ideal. However, there is biology behind the fairy tales and fantasies. Sexual desires and interactions are the result of a mix of neurochemical events which link physical and psychological reactions to spinal reflexes that arouse the limbic system and sensory cortex, which causes the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland to produce hormones that alter the sensitivity and functioning of our sexual organs.

MRI scans prove that being in a happy and healthy intimate relationship helps us get through life. They also prove that love is biologically based. They show that our brains react differently when we see a picture of the person we love and are in an intimate relationship with, than when we see a picture of someone we have a close relationship with, or when we see a picture of a stranger.

MRI scans of participants in a study looking at their intimate partner revealed that the regions of our brain, like the anterior cingulate cortex, medial insula, caudate, and the putamen, which are stimulated when we receive money, and even an intravenous injection of cocaine are also stimulated by the sight of our intimate partners.

These responses motivate us towards closeness with our intimate partners just as they motivate us to make money. On the other hand, deactivation in these same regions of our brain occur when we are sad, depressed, or receiving critical social judgments.

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

Sexual desire and romantic love with an intimate partner seem to function as two different biological systems. They both cause the release of an endorphin called oxytocin during intimate physical contact such as a massage or sexual intercourse. Oxytocin serves as a key ingredient in the neurobiological system that promotes feelings of calmness, sociability, and trust. Part of why this happens is, oxytocin reduces activity in fear-related brain structures such as the amygdala and hypothalamus.

Oxytocin is partly why holding the hand of our intimate partner while facing a perceived threat helps us cope with it, causing our threat-related brain regions to activate less than they would if we faced the perceived threat alone. Biological systems in our bodies respond in systematic ways to what is happening in our intimate relationships.

Intimate Relationships are a Universal Human Experience

Lasting intimate relationships, often formed with the intention of having children, are found in all societies. One study on 100 industrial and agricultural countries found that more than 90% of all men and women have experienced a type of intimate relationship, like marriage, by the time they are in their late 40’s. Some of these intimate relationships are legally sanctioned like marriages, while others are not.

One type of intimate relationship that is not legally sanctioned is cohabitation, where intimate partners live together but are not married. Both of these intimate relationships usually involve two people who have an emotional investment in one another. These types of intimate relationships are often motivated by romantic intimacy, or love, and mutual attraction. Stories about intimacy, some fiction, some non-fiction, are passed down generation to generation all over the world. Clear evidence derived from studies of ethnography, neuroscience, folk tales, and even ethology supports romantic love’s universality.

The need to belong is a fundamental source of motivation for human behavior and this need is commonly met through intimate relationships by stable bonds, frequent contact, and mutual concern. Just because we are designed to love and be loved does not mean that everyone has the same capacity for it.

Historical and Cultural Shifts in Intimate Relationships

Historical and cultural factors affect how we give and receive intimacy. For example, two intimate partners struggling to make ends meet will have different core issues than two intimate partners that have a high socioeconomic status. The way various cultures frame what intimacy looks like is demonstrated in how love songs vary from one culture to another.

Young adults in North America and China self-reported very similarly when interviewed on emotions they felt during common experiences, except when it came to love. Young adults in North America framed love as intensely positive and a big contributor to happiness while young adults in China framed love as often being one sided and a big contributor to sadness. Perhaps this is because North America is individualistic and focuses on an individual’s goals over the goals of a group while China does the opposite. The point is, how intimacy is initiated, maintained, and experienced depends on many factors which vary across cultures.

Individualistic Intimacy vs Collectivist Intimacy

In individualistic cultures, family is not involved in how an intimate partner is selected but it does support the process of finding an intimate partner and gets introduced to the intimate partner by the individual. In collectivist cultures, family often chooses the intimate partner with the goal of improving the family’s financial stability and or social status. Once the family finds a mate they approve of, they introduce the intimate partner to the individual.

Over the years, Western values have spread. Now, many intimate relationships in collectivist cultures are started by individuals, and not their families. Marriages used to primarily be a type of business transaction between two families, now, marriage is about two individuals who want to move the commitment of their intimate relationship to the next level and centered around intimacy. Intimate relationships have a core structure of emotional and sexual interdependence that is relatable. The differences are because of cultural settings and historical periods. Intimacy is a universal human experience, but not every human experiences it the same way universally.

Intimacy Has Changed

• Industrialization and bigger cities decreased the demand for extra hands around the house. People stopped having as many kids as they used to.
• Increased Graphic Mobility decreased the influence parents have on kids.
• Improved opportunities for Women giving them even more control over who they had intimate relationships and why, regardless of family ties.
• It’s easier to get a Divorce. More people marry simply because of an intimate relationship that is bringing them personal satisfaction. It is easier to leave a marriage that is not producing the happiness it was expected to, or that it used to, which makes marriage more fragile.
• Cohabitation is increasing, and the number of people getting married is decreasing.
Contrary to popular belief, cohabitation does not often lead to marriage. Marriage is no longer seen as a prerequisite to having kids.

Intimate Relationships Expand Our Range of Emotional Experience

The quest for intimacy is often seen the same thing as a quest for love. However, not every intimate relationship has love. Intimacy and love are not synonyms. Love can be found in various relationships that are not intimate such as friendships and parent-child relationships. Intimate relationships are fundamentally emotional because of how diverse and sexually charged they are.

Emotional experiences are what we look for when we start an intimate relationship, affect us most during one, and what we reflect on once the intimate relationship ends. Love is not easily defined, but it has essential attributes. Different types of love result from different combinations of these attributes, and a lack of certain attributes.

The Seven Essential Attributes of Love

1. Desire: wanting to be united with a partner, physically and emotionally.
2. Idealization: Believing the partner is unique and special.
3. Joy: experiencing strong, positive emotions.
4. Preoccupation: thinking a lot about the partner and having little control over when.
5. Proximity: working to maintain or restore physical closeness or emotional contact.
6. Prioritizing: giving the relationship more importance than other interests and responsibilities.
7. Caring: experiencing and expressing feelings of empathy and compassion for the partner.

Different Types of Love

There are two main types of love that pull us into intimate relationships. Use the checklist below to understand the love in your intimate relationship more.

1. The type of love that comes to mind when people think of intimacy is passionate love. Passionate love is recognized by:

  • Infatuation
  • Intense preoccupation with the partner
  • Strong sexual longing
  • Throes of ecstasy
  • Feelings of exhilaration that come from being reunited with an intimate partner

2. Compassionate love is recognized by similar feelings, but they’re less intense. They’re also enriched by:

  • Warm feelings of attachment
  • An authentic and enduring bond
  • A sense of mutual commitment
  • The profound knowledge that you are caring for another person who is in turn caring for you
  • Feeling proud of a mate’s accomplishments
  • Satisfaction that comes from sharing goals and perspectives intimately

Intimate Relationships Affect Our Mental and Physical Health

Intimate relationships affect how happy we generally are in life; they affect our subjective well-being. Married people report greater happiness than unmarried people who live together, and unmarried people who live together are happier than people who are divorced, separated, or widowed. This shows that relationship status is related to subjective well-being. The perceived quality of a relationship will affect happiness too. For example, a single person without an intimate relationship will be happier than a person in an unhappy intimate relationship.

Satisfaction with an intimate relationship is a better indicator of subjective well-being than satisfaction with anything else including but not limited to work, money, friends, and health. Getting into or out of an intimate relationship, relationship transitions, is also linked to subjective well-being. When people get married their subjective well-being increases but as they divorce their subjective well-being decreases, and it remains pretty low for the following years.

Sometimes when challenges arise in intimacy, people lean on substance abuse which often creates health challenges which can make it harder to improve intimacy. Experiments can’t be conducted to prove this as it wouldn’t be ethical. However, the best available evidence shows something about the experience of being married itself has protective benefits. Something about marriage seems to give people a type of protection that is not truly available in cohabiting or single people. People who are in happy, healthy, intimate relationships have more money, more sex, better health, and are happier with their lives.

There’s an old joke, “What do married and single people have in common?”
“Each thinks the other is having more sex.”

It turns out, the single people are right, married people have more sex than people who are cohabiting but not married. No one is sure if the chicken or the egg came first, and we are also not sure if general happiness with intimacy or a good sex life comes first, but clearly, there is an undeniable correlation. Happiness with intimacy does not just help people live longer after a heart attack, it decreases the chance of catching a cold after being exposed to an experimentally administered virus. It takes women in distressed relationships longer to recover from breast cancer, the list goes on. Cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune functioning are all affected by levels of conflict and hostility in intimate relationships. Conflict reduces the number of cytokines in the body, which respond to various health treats.

Intimate Relationships Influence the Well-being of Children

Babies are cute, cuddly and enter the world with endless potential but are helpless at first. They’re extremely vulnerable, and as a result, dependent. They depend on caregivers for food, shelter, safety, stimulation, and affection. Just as relationship status, relationship quality, and relationship transitions relate to the subjective well-being of people in an intimate relationship, they relate to the well-being of children. In fact, the relationship status of parents is more influential than their race and their education in determining whether their children will experience severe poverty.

  • Nationally representative data in the U.S shows that 81% of children with unmarried parents experience severe poverty, compared with 69% of black children and 63% of children whose head of household had completed less than 12 years of school.
  • Compared to biological children of married parents, biological children of cohabiting parents are less engaged in schoolwork and display more emotional and behavioral problems.
  • The quality of the intimate relationship parents have is related to children’s emotional security. When there is conflict between parents, children commonly turn to acting out and aggression with their classmates.
  • Parental conflict affects a range of biological systems in developing children, compromising their health by reducing their sleep and causing puberty to start earlier.
  • Contrary to popular belief, a divorce itself does not negatively affect children as much as the number of relationship transitions do. If the parents’ marriage was full of conflict before the divorce, children can benefit from the divorce.
  • The family circumstances children encounter influence how they will manage their own intimate relationships, how much education they will complete, and their parenting.

Intimate Relationships Form the Fabric of Society

It may be hard to see how our intimate relationships affect anyone outside of our social circles, we may try to keep our intimate relationships private. However, social control theory explains the connection between intimate relationships and the broader social impact of individual’s actions. Petty crime, alcohol, marijuana, and other drug use like cocaine is known to fluctuate with changes in relationship status.

Factors such as intelligence, personality, poverty, and even parental crime do not explain findings on how likely men are to reduce or stop crime as happy marriages with quality intimacy do. Interdependence in high-quality intimate relationships can encourage partners to guide each other toward socially acceptable lifestyles.

In conclusion, intimacy ironically is a blessing and a curse. Much of what allows us to enjoy passion and companionship also leave us vulnerable to pain and suffering. Intimacy or the lack thereof brings out the best and worst in us. Love and hate can affect not only our emotional health, but our mental, spiritual, and physical health too. Intimate relationships give the time between dawn and dusk meaning.

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Funding for these programs was provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Grant Number 90FM0063

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