relationships


In 2011, Roger Walsh published a review of the research into ways we can improve our mental health and resiliency by changing how we live. He found eight that had both solid research behind them and strong effects. As therapeutic interventions go, these lifestyle changes tend to be enjoyable, inexpensive, and carry only positive side effects such as increased physical health, self-efficacy, and longevity. Despite that, mental health professionals do not emphasize lifestyle changes. This could be due to a spin on the instrument fallacy: Clients bring in a nail and all therapists can think of to use is their hammer. Walsh suggests this failing is because therapists have unhealthy lifestyles themselves.

  1. Exercise: 30 minutes or more of exercise has therapeutic and preventative emotional and cognitive effects.
  2. Nutrition & Diet: Fish, vegetables and fruit in the diet have both enhancing and protective psychological effects.
  3. Time in Nature offers cognitive and emotional benefits and stress relief.
  4. Good relationships: Being connected in rich relationships comes with cognitive benefits, happiness, and resiliency. In fact, the quality of a therapeutic relationship may account for a large part of the benefit of therapy.
  5. Recreation & Enjoyable Activities (AKA fun): Helps with stress, mood, and well-being.
  6. Relaxation & Stress Management: Mindfulness practices and muscle relaxation techniques can have strong and lasting positive effects on mood management.
  7. Religious & Spiritual Involvement is associated with good mental health, maybe especially with faiths centered on love and forgiveness.
  8. Contribution & Service: Giving time and energy to others boosts happiness, as long as it isn’t out of a sense of obligation.
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John Gottman is a rock star of the science of marriage relationships. He studies them in great detail, minute interactions, facial expressions, heart rate, stress hormones. Using that data he can predict with a high degree of accuracy which relationships are heading for happiness or unhappiness, stability or divorce. I should say that this is prediction in a technical, statistical sense, not in the sense of prophecy. He can’t tell you if your relationship will fail, only whether your relationship behaves in similar ways to those that have failed in the past. Still, that’s a lot better than nothing, and it’s been enough for him to build an exciting theory of relationships.

In his theory, the most important, without-which-all-is-lost part of your relationship is the friendship. By friendship, he means several very specific things. Here is a summary of his summary from his newest book, The Science of Trust:

  1. Track your partner’s inner experience by asking lots of questions and remembering the answers.
  2. Make a habit of finding things to appreciate your partner for and letting them know each time you do.
  3. Notice the things your partner does and says that could be responded to, and respond positively to them. Pretty much all of them—you can miss or fail to respond to at most 3 out of 20.

If you are not doing this work, he says, you are not behaving like couples who manage to sustain satisfying, meaningful, passionate relationships, who manage conflict well enough, and who stay together longer than 6 years. Maintaining friendship in this manner is the bare minimum.

Another psychometrically-produced typology of love is John Lee’s “colors of love.” Like Sternberg, Lee found three primary styles of love, or “primary colors,” which Lee called eros, ludus, and storge. He found that these styles combined to form three secondary styles or colors, for six love styles total:

Erotic love: Immediate, powerful, exclusive, preoccupying, sexual

Ludic love: Love as entertainment, for pleasure rather than for bonding, commitment-phobic

Storgic love: Stable, not intense, based on bond and shared interests

Pragmatic love: A combination of storgic and ludic love, which Lee called “shopping for a suitable mate.”

Manic love: A combination of erotic and ludic love, obsessive, jealous, self-defeating

Agapic love: A combination of erotic and storgic love, unconditional devotion, difficult to maintain

Here’s a visual of the typology I stole from dating-relationships.co.uk:

Before the mid-20th century, typologies of love were works of philosophy, ethics, introspection, and intuition. In the 1980s, Robert Sternberg produced a typology of love psychometrically, meaning he asked people about their experiences and used factor analysis to determine which experiences tended to co-occur. He came up with a three-factor model of love: intimacy, passion, and commitment. Intimacy is stuff like warmth, closeness, and bondedness. Passion is stuff like romance, physical attraction, and sex. Commitment is the decisions involved in maintaining love over time. By combining those factors, he came up with the following typology:

Relationship Type Intimacy Passion Commitment
Nonlove Low Low Low
Liking High Low Low
Infatuation Low High Low
Empty Love Low Low High
Romantic Love High High Low
Companionate Love High Low High
Fatuous Love Low High High
Consummate Love High High High

Here’s a typical triangular image of the system:

It’s funny to find myself giving a presentation about getting a date, as I’ve asked exactly one person for a date and was rejected. I agreed to help with a presentation in my Sex Therapy class about clients who are lonely and want to date. This is my rough (but roughly accurate) outline for my part of the presentation, about what the research says:

Things to Know About Loneliness

It’s common. 10-25% of people are significantly lonely. Adolescents and young adults are the loneliest groups.

There are two kinds: Social and emotional—a lack of a sense of social integration, and the absence of an attachment figure. Most research is about social loneliness, and the two can get confounded. Our clients may mistake one for the other.

It is bad for us. Both social integration and attachment figures are human needs. It significantly increases morbidity and mortality, probably mediated by stress and also possibly by metabolic syndrome. Predicts 25-30% of suicidal behavior. Loneliness is a key vulnerability in sexual offending.

Things to Know About Dating

Lots of people are single. Maybe close to half.

Rejection hurts. Physically. Seriously. It may actually help to take a Tylenol. Normalize the pain and the fear of pain.

There is a lot of research and it may be good to know, for psychoed purposes:

Awareness. To get a date, other people must be aware of you. Are your clients making others aware of them? The general rule here is to stand out from the crowd in some way that does not violate social norms. Standing out in a negative way will not help.

Attraction.

Physical attractiveness is a big deal. Sorry, it just is. If it is an issue, consider a conversation with clients about grooming. Beyond that, blame the media and move on to the points below.

Appropriateness. Again, violating social norms generally will turn people off. There is also a lot of research on stuff like age, social/economic status, and race/ethnicity acting as “appropriateness” filters for affiliation, but I’m not sure how helpful that will be for clients.

Familiarity. People will like you more just because they know you. As long as you didn’t make an initial negative impression, becoming a regular will help you.

Similarity. Opposites attract is wrong. People like people who are like them. This is a good plug for meeting people at special-interest events. (Bars are an exception. Very few real relationships start in bars.)

Responsiveness. We like people who seem interested in us. Eye contact, questions, turning towards bids for attention. Check your clients for an exaggerated sense of putting themselves out there.

Approach/Affiliation. If you want someone to approach you and choose you, you need to be accessible and receptive. These are much like the awareness, familiarity, and responsiveness principles, above.

One of the ways that John Gottman says people talk themselves out of their marriages is “rehearsing distress-maintaining attributions” in between arguments. That is, instead of making up stories about how their troubles are passing and circumstantial, they make up stories about how their troubles have to do with permanent flaws in their partner’s character. Over time, this version of the story solidifies and they reinterpret the entire history of the relationship using that filter.

This is another of Gottman’s gendered findings; it is mostly a problem because the men (in heterosexual marriages, at least) do it. It’s a problem when women do it, too, they just don’t tend to as much.

The alternative to rehearsing distress-maintaining attributions is rehearsing relationship-enhancing attributions, and this is exactly what Gottman found that the people in marriages that ended up happy and stable did. It’s probably a good idea, then, to practice rehearsing relationship-enhancing attributions if you can. Try thinking about the strengths of your relationship, good times, things you are proud of, ways that current conflict is passing and circumstantial. If that is difficult to do, think instead about couples counseling.  If you want to keep your relationship, you probably need help.

John Gottman says, in his book The Marriage Clinic, that there are basically two things that make the difference between couples who stay together and those who do not. First is what he calls the partners’ “uninfluenced stable steady states,” which are a result of the temperament of each partner plus the history of the relationship.  The second is the partners’ “influenced stable steady state,” which is the emotional direction that each partner takes, once they are interacting.

If the way you feel and act worsens when interacting with your partner–that is, if your influenced steady state is more negative than your uninfluenced steady state–you may well be heading for a divorce. The crucial question is, how much negativity from your partner does it take to turn your mood negative? If you can respond in a positive way to your partner, regardless of their mood or complaint, that’s a real strength. If you respond in a negative way, this is trouble. Negativity will tend to escalate in each conversation and throughout your relationship. Gottman says that if you cannot maintain a ratio of 5 to 1 positive-to-negative interactions at worst (that is, during conflict) you are heading towards (or are in) an unhappy relationship. If you dip below a 1 to 1 ratio, you are heading toward divorce.

“Negative affect reciprocity” is a closely-related pattern that Gottman says is the best predictor of happy or unhappy couples. (“Affect,” remember, is just a science-y word for emotion.) The extent to which you are more likely than usual to be negative when your partner is negative (as opposed to when your partner is neutral or positive), you are showing negative affect reciprocity. This could look a lot of ways, like responding to anger with your own anger, responding to criticism with stonewalling or defensiveness, responding to sadness with irritation, and so on.

Gottman says that negative interactions are inevitable, so what he calls “successful repair attempts” are all-important. That is, emotional repairs such as humor, taking responsibility, compromise, and soothing, must be offered, recognized, and accepted. When couples can recognize and accept all of each other’s repair attempts, he says, they are finished with therapy.

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