Psychodynamic Approaches

Anxiety About Sex and Women. Initial attempts to account for variations in patterns of marital interaction across cultures focused in particular on marital aloofness. The goal was to explain why husbands and wives in some societies tended to avoid one another and to devalue the importance of their relationship. The most influential explanations of marital aloofness, in turn, relied on a prior commitment to psychodynamic theory, which assumes that human motivation is influenced by unconscious mechanisms meant to minimize anxiety. With regard to marital interaction, the assumption was that aloof marriages prevail in societies where men are anxious about sex and/or women. To deal with their anxiety, men simply avoid their wives. As is characteristic of psycho-dynamic theory, the source of male anxiety was traced to childhood.

Slater and Slater (1965) and Stephens (1963) proposed in particular that males who ultimately opt for aloof marriages have been raised by mothers who are seductive and/or hostile toward their sons. Maternal behavior was itself explained by marital aloofness. Thus, where women have little opportunity to form an intimate attachment with their husbands, they turn to their sons for emotional and sexual satisfaction, but also exhibit hostility toward their male children because their sons unconsciously symbolize their husbands, whom they resent. In turn, boys who are raised in such a climate become unconsciously anxious about sex and women. As a consequence, their own marriages are aloof, resulting in the tendency of their wives to turn toward their sons for emotional and sexual satisfaction. The cycle is thus perpetuated.

Cross-Sex Identification. Whiting and Whiting (1975) proposed an alternative psychodynamic explanation for marital aloofness. Their focus was on the need for male warriors with accumulated wealth. In such societies, males guard the family property, which means that husbands and wives often eat and sleep apart. The Whitings reasoned that, in such circumstances, little boys, raised largely by their mothers, would come to view women as the source of power and form an initial identification with females. When, later in their development, boys came to recognize that it is the men who have the power, they would unconsciously turn away from their original identification with females. Further, as a way of compensating for their initial cross-sex identification, males would begin to exhibit extremely masculine behavior, for instance in the form of aggression and pursuit of military glory, and also avoid women, especially their wives.

Researchers attempting to test psychodynamic theories of the origins of marital aloofness have used partial or indirect measures as indices of marital interaction. These included polygyny, exclusive mother-child sleeping arrangements with fathers sleeping elsewhere, a long post-partum sex taboo, wife-beating, and eating arrangements in which spouses do not share meals. Each index has been used as a separate measure of aloofness between spouses. Using this methodology, researchers did report significant relationships between marital aloofness and other measures that they took to represent male fear of sex, male fear of women, cross-sex identification, and hypermasculinity (Slater & Slater, 1965; Stephens, 1963; Whiting & Whiting, 1975). However, Broude (1987) constructed a composite measure of marital intimacy and aloofness, which allowed marriages to be coded as intimate or aloof on the basis of a number of variables considered simultaneously. These included whether or not husbands ate, slept, worked alongside of, and spent their leisure time with their wives, and whether or not they attended the birth of their children. This composite scale failed to correlate with individual measures of aloofness used in other studies, suggesting that earlier research on the antecedents of marital aloofness were not really coding for overall marital interaction. Further, the same composite measure of marital interaction failed to correlate significantly with measures of male fear of sex or women, cross-sex identification, or hypermasculinity, suggesting that marital aloofness is not caused by the intrapsychic dynamics suggested by psychodynamic theories.

Attachment Theory. Adult interpersonal relationships have also been explained as an outcome of childhood experiences with attachment. The idea here is that babies construct working models of what they can expect from other people based upon their experiences with their first attachment figure, who is usually the mother (Ainsworth, 1967; Bowlby, 1973; Erikson, 1963). A mother who is consistent, available, and indulgent teaches her baby that people are trustworthy and relationships are gratifying. Such a baby will grow up to be a person who embraces the opportunity for an intimate relationship in marriage. By contrast, a caretaker who is inconsistent, unavailable, and cold teaches her child that people are untrustworthy and relationships disappointing. Such a person will avoid marital intimacy in adulthood.

However, cross-cultural evidence, does not support the theory that patterns of marital interaction originate in experiences with childhood attachment. The composite scale of marital intimacy and aloofness constructed by Broude (1987) is not significantly related to caretaker availability or to the degree to which caretakers are indulgent toward babies.

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