Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Well, It’s Men: Does He Flip for Her?

[I’m sorry that took awhile to get back to this theme. I’ve been over-busy working on a grant.]

In my last post, I left you with a question about whether attitudes about sacrificing for one’s partner are more related to commitment to the future of the relationship for men or women. Well, it’s men. This doesn’t mean that we found that men were more willing to sacrifice. We found no difference between men and women on overall level of willingness to sacrifice. What I’m focusing on here is that sacrifice was more related to being committed to the future for men than women. And I decided not to bring this back to oxytocin until the next post, but that’s coming.

So, what does this mean that sacrificing may be more tied to long term commitment in men than women? Sarah Whitton and I suggested that one of the reasons this could be the case is that women are simply more socialized to “give” of themselves to others, and that this would make women more likely to sacrifice (or have positive attitudes about sacrificing) no matter how clear the future is in a relationship. Men, on the other hand, may be more likely to need to decide that a particular woman is “the one” for the future in order to really give their all to that woman. Ironically, it’s men not women that most strongly fit what we predicted beforehand in this work. After all, it only makes sense that one would be most willing to sacrifice for someone with whom they see a future. It’s just in those two studies from our lab listed in my last posting, it seems that this is most true for men and only weakly true for women (on average).

My next point go somewhat further from the data than the interpretation above. I think the point is valid and practically important, but it really is more theoretical. I’d like to test everything in this line of reason more fully in future studies. Here goes.

I think commitment for the average man is a bit more like a light switch that gets flipped on (or not) at some point with a particular women when it comes to commitment. It’s flipped or switched on once he becomes clear that she’s who he wants to be with in the future. Until it’s flipped, he may be in love and he may be great to be around, but he’s not crossed over to where he’ll give regularly for that partner without resenting it. I think the average women crosses over to giving more fully sooner in how the average relationship develops. So, if we have the average women and the average man in a relationship together, early on, I’m betting she’s going to move more quickly to fully to sacrificing than him.

Think about that. There’s no great problem if this is true except where the guy never catches up. And that’s why books like “He’s Just Not That Into You” are bestsellers, because it too often never does catch up. If commitment is more like a switch being flipped for the average male, women are at greater risk for over-giving in romantic relationships until he flips—for her. Based on this theory, I’ve often suggested to women that they be careful not to give too much until they can find the switch and see if it is working. This advice is just as good for men, by the way, in relationships where they are the ones to give too much until the commitment is becoming clear.

Next time I’ll get back to biology and oxytocin and talk about an expansion of this theory that takes oxytocin into account. I bet you can see where that’s going. And go we will, next time.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What Drives Sacrificing for A Partner? And Does Oxytocin Play a Role?

There is a growing body of research on the role of sacrifice in romantic relationships and marriage. It’s really interesting stuff, too—at least for a relationship geek. I’m talking (mostly) about healthy giving from one partner to another, not martyrdom or responding to one’s inner doormat. (If you keep getting rug burns from giving in your relationships, you might not be giving in healthy ways. Hey, maybe that’s another not so hot form of sliding.)

When defined in healthy ways, there are a number of studies that show that sacrifice for one’s partner and relationship is associated with all sorts of good things in a relationship—especially in marriage. But I don’t want to focus on marriage in this post. I want to focus on how relationships develop early on.

Many studies show the positive effects of sacrifice. If you want to look some up, here you go. The article by van Lange is particularly wonderful. All the articles noted here also discuss or study the downside of sacrificing (especially Impett et al.). So, for the really geeky, here are some fine citations for you (otherwise, move on):

Impett, E. A., Gable, K. P., & Peplau, L. A. (2005). Giving up and giving in: The costs and benefits of daily sacrifice in intimate relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 327-344.

van Lange, P. A. M., Rusbult, C. E., Drigotas, S. M., Arriaga, X. B., Witcher, B. S. & Cox, C. L. (1997). Willingness to sacrifice in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social psychology, 72, 1373-1395.

Wieselquist, J., Rusbult, C. E., Foster, C. A., & Agnew, C. R. (1999). Commitment, pro-relationship behavior, and trust in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 942-966.

In our lab, we’ve published two studies on sacrifice in intimate relationships (which flowed out of the steady focus we have on many issues related to commitment in our lab):

Whitton, S.W., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2007). If I help my partner, will it hurt me? Perceptions of sacrifice in romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26, 64-92.

Stanley, S. M., Whitton, S. W., Low, S. M., Clements, M. L., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sacrifice as a predictor of marital outcomes. Family Process, 45, 289-303.

We predicted that long-term commitment to the future would be associated with willingness to sacrifice, since one should be more inclined to sacrifice for their relationship if they see a future for it. Sacrifices can be seen as a type of investment, which is something people tend to do more of when they see a future. If one’s view is all short-term, you won’t see a lot of investment in anything except “me.” We and other scholars think sacrifices perform a really crucial role in addition to the obvious benefit of generating positive behavior. It’s this. Sacrifices demonstrate commitment. They send signals that reaffirm commitment between partners. This simple theory is why you can also see many groups—gangs for example—requiring some type of overt sacrifice by a newbie to become a member. The sacrifice, like knocking over a 7-11 or something a lot worse, demonstrates seriousness about commitment in a way that just saying “I’m with you on this” can’t. Note, if you are in a new relationship that is growing toward something, and your partner desires you to engage in criminal acts to demonstrate your commitment, that’s not too good a sign. Just take note of that.

Back to our studies. We expected that long-term commitment (wanting a future together) would be strongly related to attitudes about sacrifice. We expected this to be true regardless of the sex of the respondent. What we found, though, is a substantial difference between men and women in how things work. For one of those two groups, the association between sacrifice and long-term commitment was far stronger than for the other.

Which do you think it was? Was commitment to the future more crucial for understanding sacrifice for men or for women? What do you think and why? Mull that over and in the next post I’ll tell you what I suspect. And then I’ll come back to some points (a theory) about oxytocin.