Monday, April 27, 2009

Doing That Thing You Do

Last post, I said I’d say a bit more about healthy sacrifices in relationships and how a person can step it up in a positive way. My idea for today is really simple. I think most all of us know of things we could do, that are easy to do, that when we do do, it make a positive difference in our relationships. My emphasis is on “little things,” and that is very important. There are too many things that can get in the way of doing big things on any given day. Of course, big things are great to do from time to time, but many big sacrifices require big opportunities that you cannot (or should not) try to make happen. Small sacrifices do not require big opportunities. They are thoroughly and routinely doable.

If you want to apply this idea to your own relationship today (and in the coming weeks), here’s a little exercise for you. Take a few minutes of quiet time and think about some of the things you have done in the past that fit these characteristics.

1. It’s something under your control.

2. It’s something small that you can decide to do just about any day or week you want.

3. It’s something that you know is good for your relationship and that your partner tends to like.

4. It’s something you are NOT that likely to do today or this week, even though you very well could.

It’s the last one of these four things that puts this into the realm of a small but meaningful sacrifice. You have to do something other than what you’d naturally do to get it done. You have to decide and follow through.

Go ahead and write a few ideas down that fit what I’m describing.

Challenge time. Commit to yourself to do one or two of those things you wrote down in the coming week. Not 10. One or two. Develop some way to remind yourself and get after it. Don’t tell your partner what you are doing, just do it. Your partner may or may not notice everything like this that you do, but he or she will notice some of these things and your relationship will be stronger for it.

You mission, should you choose to accept it? Do Do.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Got Love? Give Love

Healthy sacrifice is good for relationships. According to a new study out last year, it also is attractive.

Colleagues like Sarah Whitton and I have conducted some studies looking at sacrifice in romantic relationships—particularly marriage. We’ve published a couple of papers on this subject and I’ve given talks on it as well. While there have not been a lot of studies on sacrifice, there have been a number of good ones by different researchers. (click here for abstracts of related studies)

For purposes of this discussion, sacrifice simply means giving up what you want, at times, for what is best for your partner and your relationship. It also means not resenting giving up something for the good of your relationship. In fact, resentment and score keeping (“you owe me because I did this”) are associated with bad things. Of course, that does not mean being a doormat or putting yourself in danger. Done in healthy relationships in reasonable ways, sacrifice can be seen as a core element of true and committed love.

Sacrifice has been measured in many different ways by different researchers, and in all the studies I know about, it is associated with greater happiness and commitment in marriage. In an age when cultural messages surround us extolling the virtues of taking care of number one (ourselves), the findings of such studies are delightfully counter-culture.

Here’s a fun little nugget that is a new addition to the studies I’ve known about. Being a giver is attractive. It seems that women and men find altruism attractive in a partner. (Altruism is a close cousin to sacrifice.) This is especially true of women. Women dig giving men. A study published in the British Journal of Psychology showed that women place great importance on altruistic traits when searching for mate. (here’s a link to a summary of this study) Things like giving blood or volunteering to help others made men much more attractive to women.

Putting these two streams of findings together is not very hard. It’s smart for people to be attracted to others who give. Giving is a good sign in a potential partner because it is connected to things that build a strong foundation in relationships. Our take on some of the findings in our research and that of others is that sacrifice is one of the ways that partners send signals to each other about the nature of the commitment between the partners.

For those of you looking for a mate, this is one of those things that you can look for before you get too involved with someone—if it’s truly important to you. In fact, meeting someone in the context of helping others (say, while volunteering to help in a local animal shelter) is probably an especially good way to be sure that you are meeting someone who really is a giver versus someone posing as a giver. It’s not very likely that a person does that type of service just to find people to date.

If you are not much of a giver now, there is a paradox here; starting to give to others in order to look cool to potential partners is probably not going to work. That is just another form of giving to get, and that type of giving just doesn’t cut it. Worse still would be trying to draw all kinds of attention to just how great a giver you are. Can you imagine the pick up line? “Hi there. I gave blood today and I helped a frail, elderly person to cross the street. I’m going to teach someone how to read tomorrow. Want to hang out and appreciate me tonight?”

Next time, I’ll write some thoughts about how to boost genuine sacrifice in a relationship.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Cleanup on Aisle 9 (at 35,000 Feet)

Warning: “Parental Discretion Advised”
Second warning: Long post. Settle in.

I flew the other day from Denver to Washington DC for a research meeting. The flight I was on took off 2 hours later than scheduled. Given my flight experiences of late, that’s not all that unusual. What is unusual is the reason why the flight was 2 hours late. Was the previous flight late into Denver? Nope. Was there 24 inches of snow on the ground in Denver? Not this time.

Like all flights there was a flight prior to mine for this plane. On the prior flight, there was an unfortunate incident. Apparently, a certain emetic experience (in “plane” language, means baby ejected the contents of his/her little tummy in flight) occurred to such a degree that it took the airline 2 hours clean it up. I didn’t witness this. If you are a visual learner and wish to come close to seeing this, here is a video link sent to me by Nancy Gonzalez of the National Council on Family Relations: click here

Like I said, I didn’t see the baby and I was not on that flight. I just waited the 2 hours for the airline to recover from that flight. Why 2 hours? The little rascal was so thorough in his projecting that the airline techs could not merely replace the seat cushions. They had to dismantle the whole row of seats, disassembling them so that they could remove every speck of fabric. This apparently takes a good while because of things like needing to take apart the electronic panel, etc. That’s serious work to accomplish the clean up on aisle 9. By the way, I think the people doing this work deserve and extra helping of stimulus funds.

If your flight is going to be late, this reason sure beats the heck out of something like the flight crew not showing up or the toilets being broken or a passenger seeing the pilot having a drink preflight (I can imagine the flight crew needing a drink post flight, here). An odd thing: While everyone was duly frustrated and didn’t like waiting, there was a kind of resigned acceptance by most of the people who were waiting for the flight. In fact, the passengers were so good natured that the pilot thanked us all, several times, as we got on the plane for the fact that so many of us were not only patient but were smiling as we boarded. (Besides, how quickly, exactly, do you want to get on this plane? You want them to take their time and do a good job. There was also this odd dynamic of playing a group form of Russian roulette. Who knew which row? Was it mine? I am only using aisle 9 as an example but maybe it really was aisle 9!)

My initial, personal, reaction was one of total empathy for the unfortunate parent(s) in charge of said baby. It took me a few minutes longer to shift to empathy for the passengers around the baby on the plane. Sorry, but parental empathy trumped frequent flyer empathy.

There’s a point here somewhere and I’m getting to it now. In the week prior to all this, a colleague published a journal article on the effects of the first child on married couples. This colleague and the lead author on the paper is Brian Doss at Texas A & M, who, using one of our lab’s data sets, did an impeccable job of analyzing and writing up these findings. This is an area of specialty in his research and it’s a particularly fine work that he did. [Brian is now at Miami University in Florida] The paper was co-authored by my colleagues Galena Rhoades, Howard Markman, and me. The paper got A LOT of media attention. Google around a bit and you’ll find some of that.

The major finding of the study is that that there was a rather sudden drop in marital quality (happiness, communication, management of conflict, etc.) around the time of the first birth for the couples having children. That may not be too shocking to those of you who are parents. Interestingly, in the analyses that Brian conducted, we also saw that those couples who did not have children also showed similar declines in marriage quality, but much more gradually over time and not on quite as many variables. But in essence, both groups of couples were taking a journey to a similar place but the couples having a child took a shortcut.

By the way, in case you are wondering, studies do show that most married couples experience some declines in happiness over their years together. The bad news is that this is normal. The good news is that this is normal. Realistic expectations can do a lot to improve one’s life.

Not surprisingly, the headlines around the study that came out varied from things like “Want to Have a Happy Marriage, Don’t Have Kids” to “Study Shows Transition to Parenthood Puts Strain on Marriages.” I’ll give it to journalists that the first type of headline sounds cool and sells more hits on the web but the second headline is a lot more accurate and does not editorialize.

Back to that little baby. Babies do things like this and it’s most inconvenient. In fact, having children means an endless stream of challenges and surprises and projectile experiences. Many parents wonder if the plane will ever land. If you have children, and you are typical, you may have had some declines in marital happiness that were concentrated around the time of the birth of the first child. But is that all that happened to you?

Maybe there is something more going on. While I like research and data, and really like thinking about how things work, it’s important to realize that researchers are pretty much limited to analyzing things that they measure. As a field, I think social science has missed something when it comes to measuring things that are important about families. Marital happiness is, to be sure, important. It’s measured a lot and in many different ways. But I think there is something else that’s different from marital happiness that could be called family happiness. David Brooks, the New York Times editorialist, wrote about this a few years ago in an a piece featuring some comments about a Leo Tolstoy novella on family happiness. Here is one of the lines from his work, commenting on Tolstoy’s story.

“Tolstoy's story captures the difference between romantic happiness, which is filled with exhilaration and self-fulfillment, and family happiness, built on self-abnegation and sacrifice.” (Brooks, 3-1-2005)

Brooks nailed something that researchers have not really gone after. There is a different, maybe deeper, kind of happiness that some people experience in life; deeper than romantic or marital happiness. Certainly different. It’s something like a contentment that a couple can experience (but might not experience) from building a family together. I know marriage does not work out well for many couples and I also know that marriage or a life together does not even happen now for many people who have a child together. So, not everyone gets in this line or experiences what I’m trying to describe. Yet, I know a lot of couples can relate to this: there can be some loss in one type of happiness that is readily replaced by another.

One can argue that a couple can and should be able to have it all, and should give up nothing in life for any reason. That does not seem too realistic to me. I do not know any of the people on the plane flight prior to mine. However, I like to imagine that both parents were on that flight with their little bundle of expressive joy. Once they complete their treatment for PTSD, I suspect that they will not ever recall that flight as one of the romantic highlights of their life together. On the other hand, even many years from now, I bet you they will smile and feel some weird kind of joy as they remember getting through it.

Posted from seat 9C, at 35,000 feet

Saturday, April 11, 2009

We’re Just Not That Into Us

I suggest reading my last post before this one, if you have not already done so.

In my last post, I wrote about the trend toward ambiguity in romantic relationships. I left off with a question about why ambiguity might be preferred, even when it seems to have so many disadvantages. Here’s one of the ideas we bat around in our research lab.

We have come through a time of immense upheaval for marriage. As the divorce rate rose (for complex reasons), people began to lose confidence in the security of marriage. Don’t get me wrong, it’s the most secure romantic relationship existing, but it’s not as secure as it was many years ago. We also know that the childhood experience of divorce in one’s parent’s marriage can have effects that are lasting (another complex issue). First, children of divorce are somewhat more likely to experience difficulties and divorce in their own marriages as adults. Second, children of divorce tend to have less confidence in the institution of marriage. Third, children of divorce, in their own marriages as adults, tend to feel less confident and less committed. In the case of confidence and commitment, it’s a fairly small difference, but it does tend that direction. [I’ll cite a couple of articles at the end of the post for those who are more inclined to dig deeper. Also, keep in mind that differences in research are always “on average,” and reflect the way things tend to run not the way things must turn out.]

Back to ambiguity. I believe that more people than ever before feel insecurity about their prospects for life-long love. I believe there is a culture wide trend toward insecurity about attachments lasting. So why would ambiguity be valued? One answer is that some people may feel less anxious about relationships ending if ambiguity keeps it less clear that a strong attachment exists in the first place. A mental trick, that. If put into one’s own thoughts, it might sound like this: “If we don’t make it all that clear to ourselves and others that we’re a couple, it won’t hurt so much if ever we’re not.” Unfortunately, most tricks are based in illusion, not reality; if you’re in love, you’re in love, and it will hurt a lot to break up. Ambiguity can’t really stop that.

I’ll save some more thoughts about ambiguity for another time. (That’s an ambiguous commitment to you.)

If you want to chase research on those points about divorce I mentioned above, here are a couple of places to start.

* * *

Amato, P. R. & DeBoer, D. (2001). The transmission of divorce across generations:
Relationship skills or commitment to marriage?” Journal of Marriage and Family, 63, 1038-1051.

Abstract: Assessed national, longitudinal data from 2 generations to identify explanations for the intergenerational transmission of marital instability, one based on relationship skills and the other based on marital commitment. Ss were 2,033 married persons contacted in 1980, 1983, 1992, and 1997 and a sample of 335 offspring (aged 19 yrs and older). Parental divorce approximately doubled the odds that offspring would see their own marriages end in divorce. Offspring with maritally distressed parents who remained continuously married did not have an elevated risk of divorce. Divorce was most likely to be transmitted across generations if parents reported a low, rather than a high, level of discord prior to marital dissolution. These results, combined with other findings from the study, suggest that offspring with divorced parents have an elevated risk of seeing their own marriages end in divorce because they hold a comparatively weak commitment to the norm of lifelong marriage. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2008 APA, all rights reserved)

Whitton, S. W., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2008). Effects of parental divorce on marital commitment and confidence. Journal of Family Psychology, 22, 789-793.

Abstract: Research on the intergenerational transmission of divorce has demonstrated that, compared to offspring of non-divorced parents, those of divorced parents generally have more negative attitudes towards marriage as an institution and are less optimistic about the feasibility of a long-lasting, healthy marriage. It is also possible that, when entering marriage themselves, adults whose parents divorced have less personal relationship commitment to their own marriages and less confidence in their own ability to maintain a happy marriage with their spouse. However, this prediction has not been tested. In the current study, we assessed relationship commitment and relationship confidence, as well as parental divorce and retrospectively-reported interparental conflict, in a sample of 265 engaged couples prior to their first marriage. Results demonstrated that women’s but not men’s parental divorce was associated with lower relationship commitment and lower relationship confidence. These effects persisted when controlling for the influence of recalled interparental conflict and premarital relationship adjustment. The current findings suggest that women whose parents divorced are more likely to enter marriage with relatively lower commitment to, and confidence in, the future of those marriages, potentially raising their risk for divorce.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Unfathomable Love

Things change. How two people come together to become a couple has changed a lot. One of the defining changes in how couples form can be expressed in a single word: ambiguity. Ambiguity, of course, is the quality of being ambiguous. Ambiguous, as Merriam-Webster.com says, means “doubtful or uncertain especially from obscurity or indistinctness.”

I like this last word, indistinctness. It’s just not clear what something is or means when it’s ambiguous. There are several ways one can tell that romantic relationships (non-marital) are more ambiguous than they used to be. For example, when I was in high school (awhile ago), people used to go steady. What’s the comparable term for teens these days? (There has recently emerged something that is closer than anything I’ve seen in many years: being listed on each other’s Facebook page. That can be an important source of information.)

Many people who study teens have remarked about these changes. Years ago, there were more clearly defined stages people went through in moving toward marriage. One typical sequence would be dating, then going steady, then being pinned (a somewhat older tradition that faded away long before other things did), engagement, and marriage. Engagement is still a step that is largely still with us, but it’s probably waning somewhat, too. If you study many cultures on the planet, I believe you will find that, in most, some form of courtship stages served (or still serves) the function of defining where a couple was at on the pathway to having a future together.

One of the greatest changes in relationships in the past few decades is the rise of cohabitation (living together). Australian researcher Jo Lindsay nailed this point when she noted that a defining characteristic of cohabitation is ambiguity. It’s indistinct. Here’s a way you know this is true. If someone tells you he or she is cohabiting with a partner (romantic), what do you know about that couple? I would argue that you know almost nothing. They could be engaged and moving toward marriage. They could be living together for convenience, and more like a dating couple than anything else. They could be testing their relationship—or one may be testing while the other is assuming they are moving toward marriage. Both partners may be simply viewing their relationship as good for the time being, with no one thinking or talking about if there is a future.

I’ll write a lot more about things related to cohabitation in the future, since it’s a major focus of the research that I and colleagues like Galena Rhoades are doing at the University of Denver. I want to come back to ambiguity and ask a question. My points so far here are merely to argue the point that ambiguity now reigns in how couples develop.

By the way, this is why the whole concept of DTR has risen. Define The Relationship. It means having the talk. You know, the dreaded talk. THE TALK. The whole reason why DTR is now so well understood as a concept is that ambiguity needs clarity to break through at some point if a relationship is to have a future. I’ll also write more about DTRing in the future.

My question to you:

If you buy my premise that romantic relationships are more ambiguous than they use to be, why do you think that is? I mean, assuming there is some benefit or perceived benefit, what is it?

I’ll give you a few of my ideas in a future post.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Making Love

Some years back, I wrote an essay on the power of healthy sacrifice in romantic relationships. It appeared in a wonderful book that is now out of print, entitled “Why Do Fools Fall In Love,” edited by Jan Levine and my colleague Howard Markman. Compared to more scientifically focused pieces I have written or presented on sacrifice, this was a purely conceptual argument about the power of positive types of sacrifice. What I present in this post are excerpts from that essay, called Afterglow.

* * *
We live in a culture saturated with constructions of love defined as passion. Passion is dominant because passion is powerful. What person does not either desire it, bask in the glory of it realized, or grieve over the loss of it in life? Passion’s potency arises from the promise, whether obtained or not, of the deep acceptance of one’s soul. Passion hints at the possibility of a soul mate. But there is something more powerful than passion—something that passion is incomplete without.

For most people, passion at its height resembles something like the birth of a fire on dry wood: great fury and heat, crackling flames leaping high. The start of such a fire is magnificent. My focus here is not on the great fire, but on the coals that are begun from it. It is the long burning coals and embers that sustain the promise of heat and fire to come.

* * *
However, what sustains the pile of coals with their promise and warmth? What is the force of the more complete love? There are many answers one could give, but I want to I focus on sacrifice.

* * *
What does passion lack that sacrifice makes up for? Passion lacks the ability to be directed by your will. That’s probably why we are all so deeply affected by passion—it is captivating. Sacrifice comes from the active, choosing part of love based in your will. You can choose to love in this way because you can choose to do loving acts. In an important way, sacrifice balances passion in the hearth of love.