Relationships and Intimacy in the Modern World

Following the Industrial Revolution, the household has been displaced as a centre of collaborative production and economic activity. Business has largely migrated away from the context of the home to the workplace. Family businesses and trades are less common nowadays: the child is less likely to be the apprentice of their parents, being trained to work with them and like them. Education has also largely left the home. Not only is the child less likely to learn their trade from their parents, much of the task of their more general education falls on the shoulders of professionals outside of the home environment.

With both partners in relationships now frequently working in full time jobs outside of the home, the space of the home becomes a place for retreat into private domesticity. Without a partner staying at home, the home also becomes less of a zone where the cycle of daily community and neighbourhood life occurs.

At the same time, technological developments have profoundly changed the character of daily family life. Where once shared routines of family life were essential for life together, and for the provision of heat, food, and resources, modern technology has freed us from many of these previously shared tasks. Where once the entire family could have different contributing tasks to the keeping of the hearth and the tending and feeding of its fire, for instance, now we just turn up the thermostat. The onerous and skilled character of tasks such as washing also led to the family becoming a place of differentiated roles in community.

The centripetal force of certain zones of the home has also been considerably diminished. The family meal table no longer possesses the same centrality for many homes. The ‘hearth’ means much less when every room in the house has warmth. Even the TV has been displaced, as children and parents increasingly have TVs and computers in their own rooms. In stark contrast to previous ages, when all members of a house would spend much of their time in the same room, we can go for hours without seeing other members of our households. The common places of the house have languished, while the private places have been filled out.

Even besides the essential shared routines of family life, the shared rituals of family life also seem to have fallen by the wayside for many. Daily family meal times and their rituals are easier to avoid in an age of microwaves and ready meals. More channels, means of recording, and TVs decrease the likelihood of shared family TV watching.

Alongside these developments, the last few centuries have also witnessed a weakening of our connection to place and to neighbourhood. Increased mobility and communications infrastructure enable us to move further away from the areas where our relatives live, and even live at some distance from our workplaces, while maintaining a form of contact. It enables us to travel for many miles to reach a church of our choice, rather than attend one in our locality.

A movement into cities has uprooted people from communities to which their families had belonged for generations. This loss of an enduring place within a particular community has hastened the privatization and concentration of family life in the nuclear family, and weakened the place of the family as a stronger presence in a community. The loss of connection to a particular place and community has also encouraged a ‘voluntarization’ of our relationships, as ‘given’ relationships play less of a role in our lives. Few of us will live in the same community as many of those with whom we studied in primary school for most of the rest of our lives. The uprooted nature of modern existence makes deep and lifelong friendship a rarer flower. The Internet accelerates these developments in several respects.

How might all of these developments affect our concepts of relationships and community? One of immediate effects has been the sentimentalization of family life, and the romanticization of marriage. When the family home is primarily a private realm of domesticity, detached from the economic, communal, and political spheres, the relationship between husband and wife is increasingly focused upon their romantic bond, and their relationship with their children upon their sentimental bond with them. As most people’s primary activity leaves the context of the home, routines and rituals of family life diminish, the space of the home becomes progressively more clearly apportioned into private rooms, and common spaces exert less of a pull, family life will start to focus on something called ‘quality time’.

Likewise, when one no longer works in the same place as one lives, or encounters one’s neighbours on a daily basis, when generational attachments to particular localities are left behind, and when our communities are almost all voluntary ones, the concept of ‘community’ is radically transformed, and few relationships are ‘given’ any longer.

In many Christian circles today, a lot is said about ‘community’, ‘intimacy’, and ‘relationship’. However, I wonder how powerfully such concepts are being mediated by our historical and social context and situation. In particular, I wonder whether these are often for us akin to the category of ‘quality time’ within the family. No longer having the unavoidable day to day reality of time lived with family and in community, we must create such time, a time which becomes charged with great sentimental significance, coming to bear the mean of the institution.

One of the interesting things about the category of ‘relationship’ as we are apt to employ it, for instance, is just how generic and formless it is. In the past, the bonds between parents and children would have a far more determined character, shaped by countless shared day to day activities, rituals, and routines. The child would also bear a much closer relationship to the trade and work of their parents, and to their position and status in the community. This bond between parent and child extended far beyond our modern sentimental focus to forge one’s identity, place in the world, and destiny.

While we believe that ‘intimacy’ is the most intense form of relationship that there is, it seems to me that in many respects it is a rather anaemic one, losing sight of the way in which some of the most meaningful and important bonds that have shaped people’s lives are drastically reduced by the imposition of such a concept. However, lacking a rich experience of the field of relationships, and investing most of the relational meaning of our lives in a very limited range of relationships of an increasingly undifferentiated form, we have lost the terms and concepts with which to explore the rich and multifaceted relational realm.

Perhaps excessive levels of talk about ‘community’ result from the concept coming into clearer focus as the reality departs. ‘Community’ for many denotes a feeling of togetherness, irrespective of a shared place, way of life, rituals, customs, norms, politics, and identity. As in the case of ‘quality time’ in the family, we feel a vacuum, which must be filled up in some manner. Where a common life no longer really exists as a historical fact, a feeling of togetherness must somehow serve as a substitute reality.

When talking about the relationships that characterize the Christian life, I wonder whether both our language and concepts of relationship have been weakened in a manner that makes it hard to appreciate what these things mean any longer. God’s revelation of his presence in and through a community that shares a deep and strong common life is not the same thing as that presence experienced in the ersatz ‘community’, where feelings of mutual belonging are often substituted for the fact. Similarly, the gravitational pull towards forms of religious expression focused upon intimacy, sentimentality, and romantic attachment may be a result of the fact that our relational palette has been considerably reduced by the character of modern life, as all close relationships start to become subsumed under the generic category of ‘intimacy’, and we no longer can relate to the forms of worship and piety that were meaningful in societies with a richer and finely differentiated relational matrix.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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14 Responses to Relationships and Intimacy in the Modern World

  1. Kathryn Rose says:

    Interesting reflections.

    You write of the relationship between parent and child specifically but much less of that between aunts/uncles and nieces/nephews, siblings, cousins. In the “richer and finely differentiated relational matrix” of earlier societies, I think these familial relationships would be more important than they often are today, and, crucially, would take some of the pressure off of the parent and child relationship. I substantially agree that increased communications allow us to choose our relationships differently than we might otherwise. Certainly I have close and meaningful relationships that wouldn’t have been able to develop without countless e-mails back and forth; perhaps these friendships fill a role for me that previously might have been related to an aunt or cousin.

    I tend to think of the changes in mobility, manual labour etc as being less about technology and more about energy availability and efficiency, though of course some technology is required to effect this efficiency. Some things are more efficient done in larger groups. I’m thinking here of towns that had one bread oven and people would bring their loaves from home to bake, and also of communal events like barn-raisings in pioneer times in North America. It will be very interesting to see what happens to our modern Western lifestyle as energy becomes more expensive.

    I think our experience of a common life does change but that we can’t really say a common life doesn’t exist as a historical fact. It is meditated differently than it once was, but it does exist. Everything that I do, from buying a chocolate bar to watering my plants to writing this comment, does affect others: what is different is how far away those others may be, and whether the effect on them is immediately obvious. I try to take some steps to ensure that my actions affect others in positive ways. For example, I only buy FairTrade chocolate, or occasionally chocolate from other sources if I am convinced that it does not use child slavery in its production; I boycott shops that I think have poor labour policies in favour of smaller local shops or co-operative companies, and I try to take my own livelihood from actions which help or at least do not harm others (not too strenuous a task as a freelance musician and music teacher). But this giant global community in which we live is incredibly complex, and can seem very abstract. There are times when, in order to stick to my rule about FairTrade chocolate, I have to play a mental game with myself: I imagine the children I teach and try to “choose” which one of them should be a slave on a cocoa plantation in order that I can have a chocolate bar. That reframing of the conflict between what I think I want in the short term and what I actually should do for the common good is drastic, but it does work. The problem is more that there are countless things I do that have unknown or unforeseen negative effects, and to research every action would land me in analysis paralysis.

    • Thanks for your helpful comments, Kathryn.

      Your comments on the extended family are very important. I had actually planned to comment more directly on that subject in the paragraph speaking of the concentration of family life into the nuclear family, but forgot to do so. It definitely represents a significant area of change. The nuclear family not only represents the gradual attenuation of bonds with extended family, but also the focusing of family life upon the concerns and desires of the merely living, rather than viewing the family in significant measure in terms of the living out of duties to past and future generations, locating our lives in an intergenerational project that can stretch out for centuries, in which each successive couple must take their place. The reduced (although definitely not completely eclipsed) role of the wider family in the accumulation, distribution, and passing on of social capital is probably also an important part of this picture.

      I think that you are right in highlighting the importance of energy. I suspect that over the next century our lives and forms of society will have to change considerably in order to relate to a new situation in this respect. For instance, in an oil poor world, the suburbs and the forms of 20th century town and city planning in which they exist will probably start to become a thing of the past.

      If anything, our lives are immensely more interconnected than they ever were in the past. As you observe, our most casual actions can have effects that cross the globe. The problem is that all of this ‘connectedness’ doesn’t amount to relationship – as you remark, it takes quite a conscious effort to think of this connectedness in personal terms – and it displaces a former social fabric in which relationship was far more powerfully operative.

      I regard this contemporary interconnectedness as quite distinct from what I refer to as a common life. A genuinely common life is characterized by the shared of ‘goods’ and ‘ends’. However, in our late capitalist society, despite our interconnectedness, the overwhelming majority of our ends are private and self-interested. The marketplace doesn’t truly represent a place where certain common goods and a shared life can be pursued, but a realm to pursue our private ends in competition with or detachment from each other. Now while the formation of a common life in the marketplace has never been a straightforward or easy endeavour, modern society has tended to present sympathy and love as extrinsic to contract and exchange to an unprecedented degree. Hence we fail to recognize the degree to which, for instance, the butcher can be driven by a desire to have a respected place in a community as a servant of their needs, and not just about gaining money. Participating in the life of the marketplace can be as much or even more about belonging as it is about accumulating personal wealth.

      I don’t want to present these changes as a wholly Bad Thing – despite their serious drawbacks, most of them have brought great benefits to us – just to highlight the fact that they are changes, and that we should be aware of the ways that they might affect our ways of perceiving relationships.

  2. Pingback: How We Forgot What Sonship Means | Alastair's Adversaria

  3. I have just posted on the subject of sonship, giving a more specific example of some of the things that I was vaguely gesturing at in the post above.

  4. Matt J. says:

    This is excellent stuff Alastair, like a pretty good synthesis of everything good Wendell Barry and Kathleen Norris have written on the subject. It opens up a promising avenue for becoming aware of our own misunderstandings of biblical concepts of “community” or “intimacy” and many other things. “Quality time” in particular seems to be a relatively recent invention.

  5. Becky White says:

    So much to say in response to this, but I’ll start with saying how much I agree with what you are saying, and how clearly I have seen what you describe played out in all kinds of different ways.

    Your discussion of ‘intimacy’ is interesting. I think we have made the mistake of allowing intimacy to become a ‘feeling’ when in reality it should be more of a ‘being’ or a ‘doing’. Think of the elderly married couple moving easily around their daily routines without the need to talk or explain what they are doing. The intimacy between them comes from years of shared experiences, from, as you say, their daily existence together, not from special moments which have been carefully engineered and contrived. These special moments may exist, but they arise out of the existing relationship rather than being the foundation of it. Perhaps we should seek a similar intimacy in our relationship with God – not an irreverent lazy approach, but a day-to-day existing in Him such that, like sheep, we know his voice, and do not need weekly emotional crutches provided by all-singing-all-dancing church events to give us the emotional rush that is so easily mistaken for intimacy. And I say this as a long-term member of a church which can only be described as charismatic (or perhaps ‘happy clappy’ 🙂 He is still Lord when we are in the wilderness!

    I don’t want to romanticise our elderly couple – surely a long marriage is not all roses and petals! But then, that is rather the point isn’t it. True intimacy can perhaps only come from weathering all the shared experiences, both good and bad, and from working through the disagreements, difficulties and annoyances. Even if our rosy-cheeked seniors are seething under the surface, there is still an intimacy inherent in their daily lives together.

    Today’s narcissistic individualism insists that if we pursue our personal happiness then others around us will be happy too. By this reasoning anything can be thrown by the wayside if it interferes with our happiness – our churches, our friendships, our marriages. Ideas of personal sacrifice, of living a life that in any way interferes with our own ideas of what makes us ‘happy’, now seem old-fashioned and outdated, so we continually hear about people’s inability to follow a God who they perceive will ask them to give up so many things that seem essential to one’s personal happiness. To put another first requires that we put our own desires to death.

    On another theme, spending a lot of time around social services these days I am beginning to realise how much effort is being put into teaching families how to interact with each other, and teaching parents how to talk to and spend time with their children. So many little ones, from their earliest days, are allowed (encouraged even) to pursue their own agendas while their parents pursue their completely separate ones. This is not a problem that is limited to one particular social or economic class, or to any particular level of education. I have a 2-year-old child in care with me at the moment who cannot speak at all simply because he has hardly ever been spoken to. Those who can afford it can buy expensive interactive toys to stimulate their children when really all that is needed is that children are included in the business of the home in all its mundane ordinariness. Children learn so much from helping to sort laundry, from tidying different toys into their appropriate boxes, from weighing out ingredients for the recipe, helping with the shopping, etc. etc. It takes more effort, perhaps, but it moves the focus for learning and growing back into the family and away from the state.

    Sending a child out to nursery at the earliest possible opportunity now seems to be promoted as the right way to give your child the proper stimulation. Parents who want to keep their children with them are seen as strange. Surely children need to be ‘rescued’ from their parents! The more we rely on professionals to do things for us, the less we are able to do things for ourselves, until we forget that we ever had that ability and become horrified at the idea that some crazy parents might take their children’s education on themselves! I’ve served my time in the education system and, believe me, there is nothing about educating children that is so wonderfully complicated that a properly supported parent couldn’t manage it at home.

    I had an interesting and heartening meeting regarding the 2-year-old today at which it was decided that it wouldn’t be right to send him to nursery for two mornings each week. The reasoning was that although attending nursery and mixing with other children of his age might benefit his speech development, this needed to be balanced with his emotional development and the hindrance that being thrust into a new environment with strangers might be at this point. The powers that be decided that he could get everything he needed for his development at home with me, with the added benefit of encouraging proper attachment to his primary care-giver. What a breath of fresh air!

  6. Becky White says:

    Oh, and another thing . . .

    I can’t help thinking that the breakdown of communities of all kinds have removed a sort of diluting effect that might have made our most intimate relationships a lot easier to bear! Seems to me that if a married couple have a lot of family members, friends, etc. close by then there is always someone to share a burden with. I worry about young couples that get together and then live far away from their families. They are thrown entirely on each other, totally dependent on each other for everything they need from a relationship. It’s too intense. There’s a reason we have friends, extended family and other kinds of relationships – they provide us with other outlets for our craziness and reduce the burden on our husbands/wives!

    • Yes, I completely agree. This was actually something that I was discussing with a friend at some length recently. Given the character of modern life we are increasingly uprooted from community, friendships, and extended family structures. Consequently, marriage bears an ever increasing proportion of the burden of our desires for intimacy and close companionship. Deep and lifelong friendship is a reality that is unknown to most of us.

      The new understanding of marriage in terms of companionship and friendship (a rather recent historical development) is not unrelated to the drying up of deep and lifelong friendship outside of marriage. This has narrowed our understanding of intimacy, as the profound intimacy possible in non-sexual friendships with persons of the same sex is forgotten, for instance, one of the reasons why we find it hard to appreciate close same sex relationships in past and other cultures outside of the categories of sexuality (the treatment of adelphopoiesis unions is a perfect example of this).

  7. Becky White says:

    You have inspired me to blog ( – I quoted you quite extensively – hope this is ok 🙂

  8. Pingback: what is relationship in modern world ? - Qeerroo Post

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