R ESEARCHERS studying successful relationships have recently discovered some basis truths about what keeps love alive in the long run.
“The belief that opposites attract misunderstands lasting love.” says Atlantic psychiatrist Frank Pittman, author of Private Lives: Infidelity and the Betrayal of Intimacy. Instead, similar values , ethnic backgrounds, interests, I.Qs, religions and lifestyles may be most important ingredients in lasting relationships.
As a matter of fact, shared altitudes are so vital that, according to David H. Olson, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, it’s possible to predict early as the day a couple becomes engaged whether the marriage will last or not. Olson questioned 164 courting couples on their values, and then checked again three years later. Fifty-Two of them had never married, and those who did, 31 had already separated, while 22 couples described their union as unhappy. After reviewing all of the initial interviews, Olson found he could identify which couples had been seriously mismatched.
“People often believe that important differences will go away with time,” says Olson, “but marriage does not automatically bring lovers closer.
Though pop singers may croon “I love you,” lasting relationships depend more on “I like you.” Robert and Jeanette Lauer, authors of ‘Til Death Do Us Part, found that more than 70 percent of the happily married couples they surveyed “strongly agreed” with the statement “I like my mate as a person.” Only 13.2 percent of the unhappy twosomes could say the same. “A lover who is also a friend provides us with self-esteem, keeps us from feeling lonely, reduces our anxiety, and helps us get the things we want,” says psychologist Elaine Hatfield. “I love my husband,” one wife of 22 years said, “but it was the liking that helped us get through the times I wanted to wring his neck.”
Many people think “love” is simply a stronger form of “like.” Not so, says Pittman. All too often, men and women fall passionately in love, yet distrust and rage at their mates. Others choose partners who confer the most status, elicit the most envy, or horrify the most relatives. The best indication of whether a man or woman is capable of genuine friendship with a mate, social psychologists say, is whether he or she has close, nonsexual friends of the opposite sex. Also important, says Pittman, is whether that person is friends with his parents, since someone still at war with his parents is probably not ready for peace and friendship with a romantic partner.
“Closeness to another person is probably the most basic of all psychological needs,” says psychologist Dan P. McAdams, who studied 1208 men and women. He found that emotional intimacy is important to both sexes, but its rewards differ. For a woman, closeness to others makes her happier; for a man, intimacy provides confi-dence and resilience, which encourage worldly achievements.
In a study reported in the journal Social Work, couples married an average of a years described first their own interests, personality traits and feelings, then those of their spouses. The happiest couples not only were able to accurately portray their mates but tended to see their mates in a slightly more positive light than the mates saw themselves. “They knew each other well,” says study author Nina S. Fields. “That sort of familiarity grows out of spending time together —not only talking but listening.”
Couples who can discuss honestly whatever is important to them—including their relationship—are happier and more likely to have lasting love. Sometimes it may be painful to hear that the relationship is less than deeply satisfying. But risking self-disclosure and listening are both vital for intimacy—and happiness. Otherwise, issues are ignored and fester. Listening doesn’t mean judging and giving advice, says marriage and family therapist Lori Gordon. “That causes resentment, because it implies you think your mate isn’t intelligent enough to solve problems alone. Eventually, your spouse may decide not to talk about problems—and goodbye, intimacy.” Instead, Gordon says, ask your spouse, “Do you want my opinion, or should I just listen?”
Happy couples also encourage intimacy through praise and mutual reinforcement. “Letting a partner know he’s done something that pleases, whether it’s leaving a thoughtful phone message or unclogging the pepper mill, helps him feel loved and confident enough to share further expressions of love,” says Robert J. Steinberg professor of psychology and education at Yale University.
Whether lovers grow apart can often be traced to how conflicts are resolved, according to a study by psychology professors John Gottman and Lowell Krokoff. They discovered three particularly destructive ways some couples deal with conflicts. Partners may refuse to listen to complaints (“I’m not going to argue with you about this”) or claim to know what the other really thinks or feels .(“You don’t need anybody but your mother”) or resort to insults rather than asking for a specific change (“You’re a slob” rather than “It bothers me that you leave your dirty underwear lying around”).
In a fruitful argument, each partner explains why he or she is mad while the other one listens—with respect. Long-term happy couples also tend to argue calmly. Loss of control—yelling, sobbing—seldom helps solve emblems. “Couples whose relationship has improved over time usually have learned to keep the lid on arguments,” says Gottman. “They descalate anger by suggesting a compromise or solution.”
“At the beginning of a romance, a person’s habits may seem unimportant or even endearing, but over the long term, his nightly snoring or her thing about never raising the window shades can begin to grate, says Steinberg. Yet the most successful couples, he finds, have simply acknowledged that many problems are unsolvable and learned to work around them. After interviewing 87 married couples for her book Married People: Staying Together in the Age of Divorce, Francine Klagsbrun found “an ability to forgo perfection” to be vital for relationship satisfaction.. The most devoted couples continually focus on their relationship’s strengths. “.‘With that outlook,” says Klagsbrun, “they’re able to enhance what’s good so that it becomes the core of their relationship, while negatives become peripheral.”
Virtually all researchers agree that sexual attraction peaks within the first year or two of a relationship. But the happiest couples still have plenty of sexy feelings left. Says psychologist Paul Pearsall, author of Super Marital Ser, “Staying at a peak isn’t necessary for a happy union. An enduring attraction is. An ongoing sexual relationship with one person is the most intense, fulfilling experience any human can have.” Pearsall found that couples with the happiest marriages and sex lives put their relationship first. “Attending to each other came before the lawn, the kids, job, car or leaky sink.” But even the most blissful couples seldom agree on how often to make love. One partner may feel amorous four times a week, the other once—and they compromise on twice. As long as both partners enjoy the experience, couples who make love infrequently—even once a month—tend to be as happy as those who are more active.
One surprise: the most contented couples maintain that spontaneous sex gets less desirable the longer the relationship. “Women prefer having time to prepare themselves for sex as opposed to just being grabbed without warning,” says Julia Sokol, co-author of What Really Happen’s in Bed. Many also report that making love on a familiar schedule provides something to look forward to.
The lovers with the best chance for happiness contribute equally to a relationship, according to psychologists Elaine Hatfield and Jane Traupmann Pillemer. “Lovers who knew they were getting more than they deserved felt uneasy and guilty, while those who felt they were getting less were angry and resentful,” says Hatfield. “On the other hand, equitable relationships are unusually solid.”
“Feelings of love may wax and wane during a relationship, but trust is a constant,” says Klagsbrun. Infidelity is the most devastating betrayal of trust a couple can experience. In a survey of 6ooo couples, sociologists Philip Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz found that when one partner had sex outside the relationship, the couple were more likely to break up.
“Even a little bit of infidelity can set forces in motion that eventually wreck a marriage,” says Schwartz. “Only when we trust our lover to be faithful and know that he or she can trust us do we feel comfortable and at peace with our own conduct and our relationship,” says Connell Cowan, co-author of Women Men Love, Women Men Leave.
Analyzing divorce data from 62 countries since 1947, anthropologist Helen Fisher found a “four-year itch” in most societies. ‘After an initial period of grace, marriages must be worked on,” she says. “Successful couples don’t take each other for granted but work constantly at rejuvenating their good feelings for each other,” says Yale’s Robert Steinberg. “The most satisfied couples put the thought and energy into their relationship that they put into their children or career.
Copyright @ May, 1992.
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