2 minute read


Individual Differences And Intimacy

Given the inevitable balance of pleasures and risks that intimacy offers, it is not surprising that individual differences exist in the strength of people's intimacy needs and in their tolerance for the anxiety associated with its risks. Some people appear to be content with much less openness, emotional support, sexual contact, and/or affectionate expression than others (Prager 1995). Disagreements and unresolvable conflicts about intimacy create thorny problems in couple relationships.

Dan McAdams's (1988) research on intimacy motivation has supported the notion that some people desire and seek out opportunities for intimate interaction more frequently than others. High intimacy motivation may be an advantage, as individuals high in intimacy motivation experience greater satisfaction in their dating and marital relationships, and provide more social support to their partners (Sanderson and Evans 2001).

Partners whose intimacy needs are compatible are more likely to have their needs met and less likely to encounter conflict. Karen J. Prager and Duane Buhrmester (1998) discovered that partners whose needs are met more frequently have more intimate contact and less conflict. Conversely, people whose partners do not meet their expectations or standards (Vangelisti and Daly 1997) report lower levels of relationship satisfaction. Partners who argue about intimacy-related issues, such as how much each should express to the other about his and her private feelings and thoughts, or how often partners should have sexual relations, report higher levels of marital distress than those who have other kinds of incompatibilities

Research on individual differences in working models of attachment suggests that people's expectations for a secure (or insecure) attachment in a romantic relationship are associated with different levels of tolerance for the risks of intimacy. Couple relationships share many of same characteristics as parent-child relationships when it comes to attachment and may serve a similar function for adults, providing them with a home-base within which they feel secure and giving them a stable base from which to explore new environments and opportunities (Ainsworth 1989).

The quality of attachments varies from one relationship to another, and there is evidence that these variations are due, in part, to different expectations, or working models, that adults bring into their romantic relationships. Working models reflect adults' earlier relationship experiences, with the result that most adults have emotionally charged preconceived notions about how their relationships will turn out (e.g., happy, secure, abandoned, or smothered).

Individual differences in working models of attachment are associated with individual differences in intimacy needs and preferences (e.g., Collins and Read 1990). For example, recent research indicates that people with insecure attachment expectations (i.e., dismissing) appear to have little tolerance for intimacy (Brennan and Morris 1997) and are more likely than others to have multiple, nonexclusive relationships thereby keeping their partners at a distance (Stephan and Bachman 1999). In contrast, secure individuals are more sexually exclusive and least likely to engage in behavior destructive to their relationships. This research, combined with evidence from McAdams's earlier research on intimacy motivation, suggests that individual differences in intimacy-related needs and fears do exist and affect people's behavior. Further, it seems that working models of attachment are systematically associated with these individual differences.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationshipsIntimacy - Conceptions Of Intimacy, Intimate Interactions, Openness And Self-disclosure , Partner Responsiveness , Communication Of Positive Regard