Erickson sets the task for this period as that of learning “intimacy.” If everything has gone well, the relatively indiscriminate eroticism of adolescence has become tempered, because both the newness and the sense of personal uniqueness (as if you alone had discovered sex!) obtain some perspective as the young person passes age 18 and heads into the 20’s. The adolescent’s route toward this point has been somewhat perilous. Relationships with significant others needed to be fashioned and broken; partners and friends need to be sought and cherished without exploitation or relinquishing the self. The relationships that are close and warm must not become forced into premature commitment, ever beckoning temptation because of the intensity and adolescent sexual desire.
Ideally, the adolescent years are useful for exploring personal strengths and traumas in relationships. With experiences, discoveries, joys, and sorrows, there is a gradual decision-making process. The young person becomes aware of liked and disliked characteristics in others, of acceptable and unacceptable values and behaviors. Then the stage becomes set for finding the “most special” one. By this time, the adolescent is likely to be a young adult, ready for intimacy and, perhaps, for forming a marriage.
This ought not to happen too early. In any case, the marriage will have to partake of some of the left-over adolescent conflicts, including separation from parents. The earlier the marriage, the less likely will be the successful sorting out of guilts and anxieties of early sexual experiences and the less likely will the mate be seen as distinct from the childhood fantasy images of mother and father. Levinson points out that a man has an additional task of learning to relate to accommodate the feminine aspects of himself, an assignment for which his childhood and adolescence are unlikely to have prepared him. It is possible to conjecture that women may have similar difficulty in accepting their own self-assertive “masculine” qualities. Women have been taught that they are chiefly responsible for the well-being of a marriage, and for a woman this means a constant attempt to keep her husband happy, often at the expense of her own wishes and desires.
The institution of marriage in all its varying form has long served societies as a means for rearing children, for maintaining a certain stability of sexual relationships and dominicile, and for transferring property according to some socially recognized procedure. Our young people marry for psychological satisfactions; they will wish to achieve sexual and personal intimacy on a continuing basis. They will expect a security in commitment, sustained mutual support, and a place and a person to “come home to.” The demands are high, possibly accounting in some part for the high rate of divorce as expectations go unmet. There are those who say we are making impossible demands on an institution that was not intended to serve them.
Some young people have sought to bypass the formalized and legal bonds in favor of an informal arrangement termed “cohabitation” or, simply, “living together.” This is a phenomenon of the past decade and is far different from the more casual and less respectable “shacking up” of another era. The living-together arrangements of this past decade have involved emotional commitment and tended to last from 1 to 4 years. Interestingly, cohabiting pairs express many of the problems often cited by married couples – such as jealousy, feeling cut off from friends, differing levels of sexual desire, fear of pregnancy, and disagreements about how money should be spent.
In marrying, cohabiting, or participating in any of the less frequent coupling styles (such as commune), the underlying aim is intimacy. There is a general agreement that intimacy is the most profound of relationships. For many young people, the concept has replaced the notion of “true love” because of their disaffection for the commercialization of the latter term. Ask them what intimacy means, and the answers always include such ideas as mutual honesty, sharing of innermost thought and feelings, erasing the facades, caring about each other’s growth, understanding, and acceptance.
It is possible to glimpse the terrible vulnerability that one would bring to a relationship striving for intimacy. The vital importance of having traversed the previous developmental steps successfully is pointed up. Without a solid foundation of basic trust, it would be impossible to so risk one’s inner self. Without having a grasp on autonomy, initiative, and identity, there could be no independent decision to share self and life, since the capacity for decision making, and even the sense of self, would be blighted. Delight-filled, exquisitely perceived, and especial: “Has anyone ever felt like this before?” becomes a genuine question. However, young adults need help to understand that intimate sharing cannot be sustained continuously. It is too intense. It would burn itself out. Intimacy needs ebb and flow. Individuals in an intimate relationship must have breathing room, private space. A full-time intimacy would be a crushing burden and die of its own weight.
Furthermore, true intimacy demands equality. A superior-subordinate status destroys the basic premise, which is that each chooses freely. If one partner is dependent upon the other, there is an inevitable tilt in the direction of the one-most-valued by the one who is less valued. There can be compensatory moves and trade-offs, but these are power games. A struggle for power is not compatible with intimacy. It must be evident that an intimate relationship can never be regarded as finished or completed. It is forever changing with the transforming experiences of the participants.
SEXUAL RELATIONS Sexual union is usually thought of as the ultimate expression of intimacy. Though there is no doubt that intercourse often occurs (perhaps even most of the time) without the mutuality of emotions and sensations that we are describing, it is probably true that most partners are really searching and hoping for that ultimate fulfillment. It is also true that our generation has more actual information about sexual behavior than any other before it. This may not assist in achieving intimacy, but it assuredly can help to counter some of the old myths and tales that have colored sexuality with much unnecessary guilt and shame.
Masters and Johnson identified four “phases” of sexual response. It must immediately be noted, however, that these are not separate and distinct. The phases are experienced as an ongoing, flowing progression. Description of the phases simply makes it easier to communicate about the process. Furthermore, the patterns of response represent a generalization of observations rather than consistent individual reactions. However, there seems to be enough predictability to warrant thinking about the response phases as “typical,” providing the wide range of possible deviations is kept in mind.
For both men and women, the phases of the sexual response cycle, beginning with “effective stimulation” and moving all the way through to climax and back to an aroused state, seem to correspond loosely to the subjective feeling that people report of their sexual experiences. From start to finish, the four phases describe the physiological changes observed by the investigators as the sexual reactions proceed.
Excitement. This phase is characterized by an increase of blood flowing into and remaining in the genitalia (vasocongestion), causing penile erection, enlarging of the testicles, swelling of the labia, and lubrication of the vagina.
Plateau Phase. There is an increase in penile circumference, testicular enlargement, and an initial secretion from the penis (which may contain sperm). The woman shows expansion of the inner two thirds of the vagina and retraction of the clitoris under the clitoral hood (this should not be interpreted as loss of excitement). There is discoloration (frequently) of the “corona” (crown) of the penis and of the labia minora (inner lips); flushing of the chest, breasts, and neck of the woman (“sexual flush,” more common in the fair-skinned; and an increase in the respiratory and heart rates.
Resolution. The man shows rapid loss of pelvic vasocongestion, resulting in relaxation of the penis, scrotum, and testes. The loss seems to be less rapid for some women, which enables them to return readily to an orgasmic phase. For most men, there is a “refractory period” in which new excitement build-up is impossible. For both sexes, the return to the pre-excitement level of functioning is completed by the end of the resolution phase.
INTIMACY AND SEX – ONE LAST THOUGHT Karen Horney, the noted psychoanalyst, described the unhealthy tendency to become enslaved by mental pictures of all the things we think we ought to be doing. She suggested that the anxious worrier is subject to “the tyranny of the “should”, and she pointed out that for each of us, living up to all the “should” accumulated in the course of growing up creates an intolerable burden. It robs us of spontaneity and prevents us from making decisions of our own, for ourselves. There are few areas of life in which this is more apparent than for sexual relationships.
The “sexual revolution” has brought a whole new set of “should” that now trouble sexual relationships as much as the old ones. No one advocates a return to a belief that women should be passive recipients of men’s uncontrollable desires. However, the current emphasis on sexual performance can be as dehumanizing. The old myths about sex said that women did not have orgasms and that “good” women did not enjoy sex. Today, if you were to believe everything you read in the popular press, you would think that every woman wanted to have sex every day in every way and had multiple orgasms on each occasion. Men live with even greater oppression in regard to sexual performance. The image of the man in our society has always been one who aggressively purses sexual adventures. In addition, today a man may fear that he has responsibility for his partner’s orgasm or risks censure as unfeeling and selfish.
There is need now for another look at sexuality and re-evaluation of these new “shoulds” and pressures. The insistence that everyone must be sexy all the time needs to change to a more relaxed acceptance of individual rhythms, inclinations, and disinclinations. “No, thank you” needs to be as legitimate a response as “yes, please.” We will be closer to real sexual freedom when both men and women are free to enjoy sexual activity when and if they want to, when they don’t feel pressured into any form of activity, and when they are not judged by their sexual performance.
The most important thing to remember about the sexual pressures of today is that despite the preoccupation with sex in the society, having physical sex is not really the problem. Sex can be had almost anywhere. It is for sale, and impersonal sex can be had easily for free. But intimacy: that is something else again! Intimacy, as Erickson said long ago, is a relationship that is enabling, enhancing, and enriching. It is recognition of the significance of the person. It is “knowing” each other in the full Biblical sense of the term.
Erickson suggested a “shorthand” formulation of the goals for mature and growing intimacy that would include:
Mutuality of orgasms (note that this not specify “simultaneous”)
2. With a loved partner
3. Of the other sex
4. With whom one is able and willing to share a mutual trust
5. And with whom one is willing and able to regulate cycles of
6. So as to secure to the offspring, too, a satisfactory development.
Erickson originally wrote this definition for the White House Conference on Children and Youth. He did not then deny the possibility for emotional well-being to those who, for one reason or another, do not marry and build families. There are those today who point out that on an overpopulated planet, procreation is not the first aim of sex and therefore offspring are not necessary in order that a relationship be mature, satisfactory, and intimate. However, this formulation seems to represent a grand design, a goal for most of us, representing the innate “life force” tendencies that provide an impetus toward re-creating the families that made our own lives possible. Erickson calls this generativity.