Psychology of Relationships
Benefits, Building, and Future Predictors
That’s right folks, it’s February again. Time for Valentine’s hearts and candy to line the walls at the supermarket and pharmacy, for dinner reservations to block up time at your favorite restaurant over the 14th, for sappy movies to play on cable, and for all the single people to bemoan their statuses (or start up “galentines” traditions like Leslie Knope from Parks and Rec). Whatever your relationship status is this February, I think it’s a good time to look at some recent studies about the psychology of relationships like those focusing on relationship benefits, how to build healthy ones, and how to tell if the one you’re in has long-term potential.
The Health Benefits of Romantic Relationships
Why do we form relationships? While being happily single can be fine for your health, research has shown that partnering up, overall, can be a boost to physical and psychological well-being and can actually help us live longer. That’s right, according to a 2014 study done by the Center for Disease Control, married men were more likely to take care of their health by visiting the doctor than unmarried men. The study suggests that there are many factors that could affect why married men tend to take better care of their health than unmarried men (including that wives actually just forced their husbands to visit the doctor when they were sick…). Some of these factors include loneliness, mutual support and care, and behavioral habits of married versus unmarried people. Loneliness has been linked to illness and stress, so being partnered (usually) can ease the stress of taking care of everything alone. In addition, the mutual care and support of a partnership has been shown not only to increase happiness, but can also improve the outcome of major diseases (like cancer and the process of going through chemotherapy). In terms of behavior, excessive behaviors like drinking, smoking, and other risky business is typically done less by partnered people. In general, partnerships prevent social isolation, which contributes to depression, and stress.
More benefits of partnership include higher levels of dopamine and testosterone. Dr. Christine Milrod, a sexologist, told Men’s Journal that long term relationships deliver many benefits in the release of these mood altering hormones, which help us to feel attached and happy. Another benefit includes that partnerships can result in greater income, both because of double incomes and also because of our propensity to marry someone with similar education. Because you’re both making money, you can share expenses and have more to spend on experiences or fun. This is another benefit of partnering up; you have someone to do things with. Doing fun activities and having new experiences with another person can improve health in significant ways by lowering stress and increasing activity.
One of the most important aspects of partnership that benefits our health is having a confidant. I know, I know, you have that best friend from middle school and you can tell them anything… but hear me out. Having a long term partner who you can share things with can make a huge difference in mental well-being. The trust built by the process of self disclosure is a deep form of intimacy that provides a stability that can have major psychological benefits. Self disclosure is the process relationship communication and revealing things about yourself, your intentions, goals, values, and emotions. This process can increase liking, feelings of intimacy, and help to build a strong foundation for a relationship where members feel safe and cared for. Self disclosure is so important it’s even been discussed in the Harvard Business Review as a way to build great teamwork.
Having a strong foundation, having someone to confide in about vulnerable topics and worries, and having someone to do half the work are all ways that partnering up can increase the quality and longevity of your life.
Building the House of a Relationship
You wouldn’t want to build your house with a product that said it was wood but was actually cardboard. In the same way, you don’t want to invest in something when you don’t really know what it is, where it stands, and what it’s going to do next. Or maybe you’re risky like that, who knows. For this reason, the number one way to build a strong relationship is through honest self disclosure (here we are again) and relationship communication.
According to psychotherapist Lynda Klau, the number one thing you can do to help build a healthy relationship is to create a safe environment together where you can be honest without fear. This may seem pretty intuitive but I’m guessing when the person you care about tells you something that makes you mad, your response isn’t always loving. And that’s normal. But it’s important that you step back and listen to them, give them a chance to speak, and to talk without using threats or name calling. It’s only through the development of good relationship skills and the establishment of this safe space that deep self disclosure and intimacy can occur.
Another key aspect of building a healthy relationship comes from a study done at the University College of London. This study found that laughter can serve as a positive reinforcement between partners and can help to navigate through rough times. Laughing together can serve to dissolve negative emotions that can deeply impact relationships (and serve as tell-tale signs that things aren’t going to last) like disgust and anger. When partners are able to use constructive feedback, that is focusing on the problem, rather than destructive feedback, which comes in the form of a personal attack, when dealing with problems, they have a much higher chance of getting though those problems and coming out better on the other side.
In terms of emotional regulation, a study done at Berkeley in California found that when the wife had the relationship skills needed to regulate her negative emotions during discussions of continued disagreement, the relationship fared better. They found that when the woman (in a heterosexual relationship) was able to communicate constructively, the relationship was happier and healthier in the long term.
Are You in it for the Long Haul?
A recent study done by Brian G. Ogolsky at the University of Illinois looked at the relationship between clarity and happiness in recollection of relationships and level of intimacy (or progress toward commitment in the form of marriage). His group found that when a couple’s memories of their relationship were clear (and their memories matched up), their level of intimacy and happiness were higher.
One of the most intriguing studies done in the last ten years has found evidence that can be used to predict, at a very high rate of correctness, whether or not a relationship is headed down the drain or not. John Gottman, of the University of California-Berkely, along with Robert Levenson, have found 4 main behaviors can predict the future of a relationship.
The four behaviors include:
- Stonewalling – the act of becoming unresponsive in times of argument or pressure. It includes times when you pull out your phone, leave the room, refuse to pick up the phone, or just ignore your partner.
- Contempt – this emotion is “the kiss of death” according to Gottman. It is the expression of anger and disgust and suggests that you see your partner as beneath you, not your equal. Gottman says contempt is so powerful because “it means you’ve closed yourself off to your partners needs and emotions.”
- Criticism – this involves taking a behavior your partner exhibits and making it a statement about their character. For example: your boyfriend often forgets to put the milk away. Instead of seeing this as a behavior, criticism might create a thought in your head like “why am I with someone who is so lazy and forgetful that he can’t even do a simple task like put milk away?” This can lead to contempt and resentment, too.
- Defensiveness – This occurs when you often play the victim or blame your partner for things and refuse to see the part you played. It’s defensive when you blame your partner for being late somewhere when you also pressed snooze 11 times before you woke up.
Now don’t worry if you have engaged in some of these behaviors. It’s normal and nobody is perfect. However, by raising your awareness of actions and behaviors that have been proven to predict the demise of a relationship, you can recognize when you’re sliding into them. When this happens, do your best to take a deep breath, remember to be compassionate, and look your partner in the eye and deal with the issue head on. By showing you’re invested, being kind, and taking responsibility when you should, you could be on the way to creating a meaningful, loving, and life-enhancing partnership.