Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Three Relationship Articles from Psychology Today, With Commentary

Psychology Today posted three different articles on relationships, each of which has a little wisdom to offer. I'll post some key sections from each one and offer a little commentary where it seems a different perspective might be helpful.

~ The Power of Love -- A look at depression and relationships, specifically, how the depressed can create healthier relationships. This is perhaps the best article of the three.

It is not only possible but necessary to change one's approach to love to ward off depression. Follow these action strategies to get more of what you want out of life—to love and be loved.

  • Recognize the difference between limerance and love. Limerance is the psychological state of deep infatuation. It feels good but rarely lasts. Limerance is that first stage of mad attraction whereby all the hormones are flowing and things feel so right. Limerance lasts, on average, six months. It can progress to love. Love mostly starts out as limerance, but limerance doesn't always evolve into love.
  • Know that love is a learned skill, not something that comes from hormones or emotion particularly. Erich Fromm called it "an act of will." If you don't learn the skills of love you virtually guarantee that you will be depressed, not only because you will not be connected enough but because you will have many failure experiences.
  • Learn good communication skills. They are a means by which you develop trust and intensify connection. The more you can communicate the less depressed you will be because you will feel known and understood.

There are always core differences between two people, no matter how good or close you are, and if the relationship is going right those differences surface. The issue then is to identify the differences and negotiate them so that they don't distance you or kill the relationship.

You do that by understanding where the other person is coming from, who that person is, and by being able to represent yourself. When the differences are known you must be able to negotiate and compromise on them until you find a common ground that works for both.

  • Focus on the other person. Rather than focus on what you are getting and how you are being treated, read your partner's need. What does this person really need for his/her own well-being? This is a very tough skill for people to learn in our narcissistic culture. Of course, you don't lose yourself in the process; you make sure you're also doing enough self-care.
  • Help someone else. Depression keeps people so focused on themselves they don't get outside themselves enough to be able to learn to love. The more you can focus on others and learn to respond and meet their needs, the better you are going to do in love.
  • Develop the ability to accommodate simultaneous reality. The loved one's reality is as important as your own, and you need to be as aware of it as of your own. What are they really saying, what are they really needing? Depressed people think the only reality is their own depressed reality.
  • Actively dispute your internal messages of inadequacy. Sensitivity to rejection is a cardinal feature of depression. As a consequence of low self-esteem, every relationship blip is interpreted far too personally as evidence of inadequacy. Quick to feel rejected by a partner, you then believe it is the treatment you fundamentally deserve. But the rejection really originates in you, and the feelings of inadequacy are the depression speaking.

Recognize that the internal voice is strong but it's not real. Talk back to it. "I'm not really being rejected, this isn't really evidence of inadequacy. I made a mistake." Or "this isn't about me, this is something I just didn't know how to do and now I'll learn." When you reframe the situation to something more adequate, you can act again in an effective way and you can find and keep the love that you need.

~ Love's Loopy Logic -- While the first article looks at some of the ways depression might inhibit dating and successful relationships, this article looks at the ways we using "mating intelligence" to determine who is or is not a good option for a relationship. It's a rather reductionist viewpoint, but it most likely factors into the equation whether we think we are "above" biology or not.

Martie Haselton of UCLA and David Buss of the University of Texas, Austin, have empirically demonstrated the existence of these error-management strategies in men and women. Haselton likens a biased decision pathway to a smoke alarm that can make one of two errors. It can go off in the absence of fire—a false positive: irritating, but far from lethal. The more dangerous error is the false negative, which fails to signal a real fire. "Engineers can't minimize both errors, because there's a trade-off," explains Haselton. "If you lower the threshold for noting fires, you're going to have more false alarms. Natural selection created decision-making adaptations not to maximize accuracy but to minimize the more costly error." Faced with uncertainty about people and predators throughout human history, we again and again took the safe road.

Seeing the world through our own warped force field is standard operating procedure. "Biased mechanisms are not design defects of the human mind, but rather design features," says Haselton. We don't commit them just in mating mode. They're present in our everyday perceptions, protecting our egos and all types of relationships. We imbue the powerful and beautiful with personal and intellectual qualities that they likely don't possess, overestimate our own abilities, and downgrade the importance of skills that elude us. We're also paranoiacally primed to detect threats to our status, to our children—any domain in which the stakes are high. This is why women are fiercely protective of their newborns, why we agonize if the boss idly snaps at us.

Biases are human universals: A Park Avenue socialite may be as guarded around her suitors, or as worried about her husband's fidelity, as a Chinese field hand, though each woman will filter the concern through her own cultural prism. But the intensity of a bias may vary from person to person. Geher found that smart men are more likely to exhibit the "She Wants Me" bias. To discern this, Geher asked male subjects how they thought women would respond to personal ads in which men sought a short-term partner. He found that the most intelligent men grossly overestimated women's interest in ads offering explicit no-strings-attached sex. (Geher quips that among his research findings, this is the gem that his wife likes the least.)

And . . .

Men and women selectively tune into the noisy channel of opposite-sex interest depending on their own gender-specific needs: Men scan for sexiness and availability; women scavenge for clues to personality and commitment readiness. The errors of engagement we make in the early stages of courtship, before we're certain of opposite-sex intentions, might appear to set men and women on a permanent collision course. But each one of us is evidence that men and women do in fact connect. The sexes actually have overlapping, if not identical, goals: Men and women both want stable relationships in which to raise children. Women just tend to rally for an earlier commitment. The result: When our tracks finally converge in commitment, our biases overlap as well, because we now share important goals. The most important of these is preserving the relationship.

There is much more to this article, and I did find it pretty interesting in its own way. While many of us are trying to create and maintain more evolved relationships, there are still hard-wired patterns that influence how we act or feel. If we can recognize these biases -- becoming conscious of the ways they may be impacting our decisions or feelings -- we stand a better chance of rising above these generally unconscious motivations.

Still, this article, like the one that follows, offers a lower level look at people in relationships. Some of us are evolving beyond these simplistic views and biases. Yet, we are often not aware of them, so in that sense this is a useful discussion.

~ Great Expectations -- A look at how we have moved away from functional relationships, such as marriage for the sake of having a home and raising kids, and instead now look for the ideal partner, our "soul mate."

The pragmatic benefits of partnership used to be foremost in our minds. The idea of marriage as a vehicle for self-fulfillment and happiness is relatively new, says Paul Amato, professor of sociology, demography and family studies at Penn State University. Surveys of high school and college students 50 or 60 years ago found that most wanted to get married in order to have children or own a home. Now, most report that they plan to get married for love. This increased emphasis on emotional fulfillment within marriage leaves couples ill-prepared for the realities they will probably face.

Because the early phase of a relationship is marked by excitement and idealization, "many romantic, passionate couples expect to have that excitement forever," says Barry McCarthy, a clinical psychologist and coauthor—with his wife, Emily McCarthy—of Getting It Right the First Time: How to Build a Healthy Marriage. Longing for the charged energy of the early days, people look elsewhere or split up.

Flagging passion is often interpreted as the death knell of a relationship. You begin to wonder whether you're really right for each other after all. You're comfortable together, but you don't really connect the way you used to. Wouldn't it be more honest—and braver—to just admit that it's not working and call it off? "People are made to feel that remaining in a marriage that doesn't make you blissfully happy is an act of existential cowardice," says Joshua Coleman, a San Francisco psychologist.

Coleman says that the constant cultural pressure to have it all—a great sex life, a wonderful family—has made people ashamed of their less-than-perfect relationships and question whether such unions are worth hanging on to. Feelings of dissatisfaction or disappointment are natural, but they can seem intolerable when standards are sky-high. "It's a recent historical event that people expect to get so much from individual partners," says Coleman, author of Imperfect Harmony, in which he advises couples in lackluster marriages to stick it out—especially if they have kids. "There's an enormous amount of pressure on marriages to live up to an unrealistic ideal."

And . . .

In fact, argue psychologists and marital advocates, there's no such thing as true compatibility. "Marriage is a disagreement machine," says Diane Sollee, founder of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education. "All couples disagree about all the same things. We have a highly romanticized notion that if we were with the right person, we wouldn't fight." Discord springs eternal over money, kids, sex and leisure time, but psychologist John Gottman has shown that long-term, happily married couples disagree about these things just as much as couples who divorce.

"There is a mythology of 'the wrong person,'" agrees Pittman. "All marriages are incompatible. All marriages are between people from different families, people who have a different view of things. The magic is to develop binocular vision, to see life through your partner's eyes as well as through your own."

The realization that we're not going to get everything we want from a partner is not just sobering, it's downright miserable. But it is also a necessary step in building a mature relationship, according to Real, who has written about the subject in How Can I Get Through to You: Closing the Intimacy Gap Between Men and Women. "The paradox of intimacy is that our ability to stay close rests on our ability to tolerate solitude inside a relationship," he says. "A central aspect of grown-up love is grief. All of us long for—and think we deserve—perfection." We can hardly be blamed for striving for bliss and self-fulfillment in our romantic lives—our inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness is guaranteed in the first blueprint of American society.

I think this article is a little dangerous in its tone and stance. There are a lot of couples who marry for the wrong reasons and do not discover that fact for many years. From the point of view of this article, these couples might be encouraged to stick it out when the best thing would be to move on in a new direction.

I think we need to factor in the soul's need for deeper connection. We want to be "in love" with our partner now, in five years, and in 25 years. We don't want only comfort and convenience, as much as those things are nice. We want it all -- and there is no reason we should settle for anything less.

From an integral perspective, these articles are all looking at relationships from a lower developmental level. The last one admits that we are seeking "something more" from relationships than previous generations sought (the emergence of the sensitive self), but it also dismisses this need for more meaningful relationship as a search for an illusive ideal.

As human beings continue to evolve -- and yes, we are still evolving -- our relationship needs are changing. While functional relationships with adequate affection used to be acceptable, for many of us this is no longer sufficient. We want more open, emotionally deeper, egalitarian relationships -- we want partners who are complete in and of themselves and who still care deeply for our own needs and happiness.

I'm guessing these articles would be useful for a lot of people. But some of us want more -- and wanting more out of life is not a bad thing. We are not seeking an unobtainable illusion -- we are creating a new pattern that future generations can inhabit and expand upon.


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