Relationships: Cultural contours or biblical mandate?

A positive, monogamous, and intimate relationship makes growth and the integration of identity throughout our lives easier. Here, culture cannot be our ultimate guide, but the biblical mandate of close and loving relationships can be.

Consider the following:

Who is responsible for such attitudes? In one word: culture. Around the world, certain cultures accept that some of these statements as true, while others vehemently deny their truthfulness. It all depends on which part of this vast world one is in. Culture often creates and insists on identities and constructs that differ from place to place.

Meanwhile, the Bible suggests a pattern focused on relationships and cooperation. Identity is formed in relation to other significant persons; thus, it is very important what others think of me, the messages they give me, and what I think other people think of me. Above all, the Bible commands that I live within the perspective of what God expects of me in my relationships with Him and with my fellow humans.

This relational living has shown that couples allow for individual identities to develop. If this is so, sexuality is also a creator of identity. This makes us wonder: How do sexual relations with different persons affect an individual’s identity? Is it possible that one’s identity may be affected negatively by non-monogamous relationships? With the help of the Bible, these questions are not difficult to answer, but is there any way of providing evidence on the basis of scientific stances?

A little theory

Humberto Maturana1 is a Chilean biologist and neuro-philosopher who propounded a general theory of cognition, whereby he suggested that the mind comes to be through human interaction and the use of language. His basic premise is that our minds are not in our brains; on the contrary, he says, our minds are the result of the linguistic interaction established by two human actors. From Maturana’s ideas, we can isolate two very interesting deductions for the purpose of this paper, namely, that (1) conscience is social, not biochemical; and that (2) social relationships are creators of identity.

Michael White,2 an Australian psychologist and founder of narrative therapy, states that people’s lives are shaped by the significance they ascribe to their experiences, the place they have within social structures, and the cultural and linguistic practices from self and its relationships. Out of White’s position, we may come to conclude that, (1) a church is a social structure that takes part in the creation of identity; and that (2) people with a definite set of religious beliefs assign different meanings to their life experiences than people who lack the same set of beliefs.

Thus, our identity is formed as a result of our interactive processes with other people, but at the same time, every individual must learn how to build his or her own identity in the social group where he or she interacts.

Finally, another important theoretical principle to keep in mind is what is called the “attachment theory,” to which we now turn.

Love as creator of identity

Children need to be shown love. When children are not properly cared for, when they are not shown enough display of affection, their identity development is negatively affected, as has been widely shown by the attachment theory in all its forms: disorganized, ambivalent/resistant, avoidant, and secure. It is not the goal of this article to explain in detail each one of these attachment types. However, a definite kind of relationship is needed if we want to develop a secure attachment style, which is characterized by instilling a positive idea of self and others.3

It is important to note that attachment is not something that is only present during childhood, but it is a behavioral pattern that keeps active throughout life.4 One of the first manifestations of attachment is love, which apparently includes three elements in the process of identity development.5 They are: (1) two behavioral components to give and receive affection; (2) two cognitive components to see what is positive and good in the other and to forgive; and (3) an emotional component to ensure intimacy.

The human situation provides the primary place for upholding our identities through the interplay between what we say we are, what other people have told us we are, and what contexts confirm we are. In the case of two people, for example, this identity is upheld by two members through (a) the definition each one gives to himself/herself and the one assigned to the other member; (b) the definition each member has of the other; and (c) the definition each one gets from the other.

The relational construction as a couple is an ongoing interaction between its members, its members’ expectations, original and present contexts, contradictions, confirmation and disproof — all of them being creators of identity.

The couples of postmodernity belong to a changing world where permanent values have faded away. Uncertainty is now the norm. There is less idealization, with more expiring dates and less permanence. Thus, when someone thinks of establishing a steady relationship, fears and doubt appear. People fear feeling tied and losing their identity or freedom. They fear distancing themselves from family, and they are afraid to grow and take on new obligations. All these fears become part of our identity. Who communicates those fears: the fear that a steady relationship is bad or negative; the fear that marriage will inevitably end too fast and too soon?

The answer to these questions is quite clear. Our own society and culture are the generator of these fears, which end up being internalized by people and reflected in behaviors which are contrary to the formation of a stable identity, or at least, to an identity free from fear.

A human couple is a creator of identity. The more stable a couple is, the more consolidated the identity of its members will be within a context of safety. In it, the members of the couple are able to express their vulnerabilities openly. Only in a stable relationship it is possible to develop an emotional link to channel our innate need for safety, protection, and human contact.

Sexuality as a creator of identity

From what has been discussed above, a logical conclusion can be drawn that sexuality is an essential part of the formation of identity. Sex is part of an intimacy that develops between two people. But what is intimacy, after all? And why might having sex just “for fun” end up affecting our identity?

Díaz Morfa6 defines intimacy as the ability to put ourselves in another person’s shoes in order to get in touch with his/her feelings. He points out that intimacy requires that the individual keeps his/her own individuality, and that only someone who trusts in his/her identity is able to get involved effectively in an all-encompassing relationship. According to Morfa, having sexual relations with another person not out of love but to satisfy a physical need is not an intimate act. In fact, he says, intimacy demands that I share myself and my feelings, so that through sex, true intimacy may be achieved.

In other words, having occasional intercourse, without any kind of commitment, or monogamous intercourse with a person without commitment (with the agreement that the relationship can be broken off at any time to start another) affects our identity, among other things, because of the conflict that arises within intimacy.

Once more, sexuality — understood as a safe context of identity creation where I can express myself such as I am, and where I am able to grow — is run over by internalized fears.

There are various fears that prevent intimacy from blossoming, and all of them are related to our own vulnerabilities, needs, and identity. Morfa7 identifies some of these factors as: (1) fear of revealing oneself; (2) fear of being abandoned; (3) fear of an aggressive attack; (4) fear of losing control; (5) fear of our own destructive impulses; (6) fear of losing our own individuality.

In contrast to these negative situations, the attachment theory defines love between adults as an emotional link that channels their inner need for safety, protection, and contact with other significant persons. As couples, we live to give and receive affection; thus, we look for a long-lasting intimate relationship. If I opt for multiple partners, my safety and need for affection will definitely be affected.

Attachment forms a safe base for our identity, a source of protection and intimate contact that relieves tension and allows for positive adaptation and general welfare.8 That “safe base” is characterized by trust in the availability and response of the caregiver, and by the feeling that one is worthy of the care and love received. Is it possible to enjoy this “safe base” in a one-night stand? Don’t we lose that trust when we come to realize the relationship is just based on sex?

Conclusion

The development and keeping of one’s identity is closely related to the attachment process.9 Thus, a safe relationship is the natural arena where it is possible to re-integrate aspects of ourselves that have been neglected or rejected, or not even formulated. The basis of true intimacy is the possibility of sharing our emotional vulnerability.10 A positive, monogamous, and intimate relationship makes growth and the integration of identity throughout our lives easier. Here, culture cannot be our ultimate guide, but the biblical mandate of close and loving relationships can be.

Carlos A. Chimpén (Psy.D., University of Salamanca) teaches psychology at the University of Extremadura, Extremadura, Spain. E-mail: cchimpen@unex.es.

REFERENCES

  1. H.R. Maturana, “Ontologia del converser,” Terapia Psicologica 10 (1988b):15-23.
  2. M. White, Guías Para Una Terapia Familiar Sistémica (Barcelona: Gedisa, 1944).
  3. S. Yárnoz, I. Alonso-Arbiol, M. Plazaola, L.M. Sainz de Murieta, “Apego en adultos y percepción de los otros,” Anales de psicología 17 (2001) 2:159-170.
  4. M.D.S. Ainsworth, “Attachments beyond infancy,” American Psychologist 44 (1989): 709-716; J. Bowlby. Attachment and Loss, vol. I. London: The Hogarth Press, 1969, 1982); Bowlby, “Developmental psychiatry comes of age,” American Journal of Psychiatry, 145 (1988): 1-10.
  5. J. Díaz Morfa, Prevención de Los Conflictos de Pareja, (Bilbao: Desclée de Brouwer, 2003).
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. M.A. Hofer, “Relationships as regulator: A psychobiological perspective on bereavement,” Psychosomatic Medicine, 46 (1984):183-198.
  9. V.F. Guidano, “Affective change events in a cognitive therapy systems approach,” in Safran and Greenberg, ed., Emotion, Psychotherapy and Change (New York: Guilford, 1991), pp. 50-81.
  10. L.N. L´abate and S.A. Sloan, (1984), “A workshop format to facilitate intimacy in married couples,” Family Relations, 33 (1984): 245-250.