Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Intimacy and Emotion Work in Lesbian, Gay, and Heterosexual Relationships

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Intimacy and Emotion Work in Lesbian, Gay, and Heterosexual Relationships

Article excerpt

Long-term committed relationships, and in particular the quality of relationships, are profoundly important to the health and well-being of men and women (Umberson, Williams, Powers, Liu, & Needham, 2006). Intimacy, defined as a sense of mutual closeness and connection, is widely recognized as contributing to relationship quality (Julien, Chartrand, Simard, Bouthillier, & Bégin, 2003; Peplau, 2001). Past research has centered on how men and women view and experience intimate relationships in different ways, but almost everything we know about intimacy in long-term relationships is based on heterosexual (i.e., different-sex) couples. The gender-as-relational perspective emphasizes that how men and women enact gender is influenced by social interactions within relational contexts. In this study, we worked from this perspective to consider the possibility that intimacy is enacted and experienced by men and women in different ways depending on whether they are in a relationship with a man or a woman.

Research has also emphasized that women are more likely than men in heterosexual relationships to view the absence of boundaries autonomy and separation of partners that preclude the sharing of personal thoughts, feelings, and emotions with each other) between partners as central to intimacy (Rubin, 1990). Gerstel and Peiss (1985) suggested that "boundaries are an important place to observe gender relations. ...Boundaries highlight the dynamic quality of the structures of gender relations, as they influence and are shaped by social interactions" (p. 319). Achieving intimacy may involve working to influence boundaries between partners (e.g., to reduce boundaries by encouraging expression of feelings). This boundary work may be a component of emotion work, globally defined as "activities that are concerned with the enhancement of others' emotional well-being and with the provision of emotional support" (Erickson, 2005, p. 338; also see Hochschild, 2003). Emotion work is a common strategy for enhancing intimacy between partners, and, in heterosexual relationships, women are much more likely than men to do this kind of emotion work (Elliott & Umberson, 2008).

Current knowledge about how gender shapes intimacy is dominated by a heteronormative focus on relationships involving a man and a woman (i.e., a focus premised on heterosexuality and conventional ideas about gender; Oswald, Blume, & Marks, 2005). Although research has demonstrated gendered (and unequal) emotion work in heterosexual relationships, we do not know how intimacy and emotion work unfold in relationships involving two women or two men. The present study innovates the extant literature by broadening the scope of research to consider gendered meanings and experiences of intimacy (including emotional intimacy and sexual interactions in relation to intimacy) in same-sex and different-sex relational contexts. Specifically, we drew on the concepts of boundaries and emotion work to better understand how gendered experiences within relational contexts may structure intimacy.

The significance of the present study is both conceptual and analytical. Conceptually, we aim to shift thinking about intimate relationship dynamics from a heteronormative focus on differences between men and women in intimate relationships. We encourage a broader focus on the gendered relational contexts of same-sex and different-sex couples and the influence of such contexts on relationship dynamics. We used this approach to ground the first empirical assessment of how men and women in couples undertake emotion work to achieve intimacy in same-sex and different-sex relationships. Analytically, we relied on in-depth interviews with both partners in 15 lesbian couples, 15 gay couples, and 20 heterosexual couples to highlight overlap and contrast across relational contexts in the meanings and experiences of intimacy. We considered how intimacy is related to boundaries between partners, sexual interactions, and emotion work. …

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