Intimacy: Men’s Understandings and Experiences

Atholl James Murray

Abstract

One of the problems faced by researchers of intimacy is that there is no widely shared understanding of how intimacy is defined. Although various definitions agree that intimacy is an experience associated with positive emotions, a smaller number of definitions suggest that intimacy can also be experienced in situations involving relationship conflict and abuse that do not involve positive emotions. Using Kegan’s (1982) constructive-developmental theory of the evolving self, I argue that the diverse experiences described in these various definitions share a common source – the self. In offering an understanding of the self as evolving in predictable ways that are shared across human experience, a constructive-developmental approach also offers a means by which these diverse definitions can unified and understood in relation to one another as different expressions of intimacy.

Through qualitative analyses I examine the experiences of 12 men to identify how these men understood and experienced intimacy. Interviews with these men were analysed using a postqualitative lens, and by applying Kegan’s (1982) constructive developmental stages. Lahey, Souvaine, Kegan, Goodman and Felix’s (2011) Subject Object Interview protocol was used to determine each man’s evolution of self as portrayed in the interview, that is, his current means of constructing meaning. It was identified that these men’s understandings of intimacy were diverse, as had been identified more generally in intimacy research. Further, these understandings could be organised in ways that demonstrated an increasing development of intrapersonal and interpersonal complexity. In terms of men’s experiences of intimacy, analysis revealed that social expectations, expressed through roles and relationship ideals, constrained some experiences of intimacy, often in relation to other men, but facilitated others, often in relation to women. In addition, some men’s experiences revealed ways in which unexpected and life-threatening events created temporary and permanent shifts in ways that men were able to experience intimacy with both men and women.

These findings suggest that a constructive-developmental approach, utilising the concept of subjectivity, provides useful ways in which to examine intimacy, both in terms of how intimacy is understood and in terms of how it is experienced. In addition, these findings suggest that the ways in which men’s experiences of intimacy are limited are also due to factors that reach beyond individual capacities, desires or understandings, pointing to the social construction of intimate experiences. This thesis provides insights regarding the ways in which social expectations create capacities for intimacy, but only in particular ways. In addition, this thesis identifies how social expectations regarding the portrayal of male roles in Australia have had limiting effects on men’s experience of intimacy, particularly in their friendships with other males.

In proposing a new definition and model of intimacy, this thesis also offers some important contributions to an understanding of intimacy. Placing the self at the centre of an understanding of intimacy provides a means to unify diverse experiences and contexts of intimacy involving both positive and negative emotions. In addition, a focus on the self as evolving enables a developmental understanding of intimacy, constructed in qualitatively different ways across the lifespan. This thesis also offers important contributions to an understanding of men’s experiences of intimacy, particularly with other men, by identifying that intra-personal, interpersonal and social factors contribute to the ways in which men’s intimate experiences are constrained. These contributions also have important implications for public health and education, which need to be addressed through changes to the messages communicated to men about themselves and about relationships. At an individual level, these contributions have important implications in relation to therapeutic work involving men and men’s relationships with men and with women. In addition, an understanding of the self as the source of differences in intimacy provides new ways in which to understand the difficulties created in relationships, as a result of those differences. As well as offering insights, this thesis identifies some specific areas for future research in order to extend these insights and examine them across a wider range of men’s experiences.