New research has provided more evidence that relationships affect health (read our previous posts on this subject here).1 The researchers examined data from four large-scale studies that collectively followed thousands of Americans over time. One of the studies followed adolescents, another followed young-to-mid-adults (aged 25-64), and the last two followed older adults (aged 50+), resulting in more than 14,000 participants across the lifespan. Each study measured various aspects of individuals’ social relationships, such as social support (e.g., reliability of family members), social integration (e.g., frequency of contact with other people), and social strain (e.g., frequency of criticism from friends). Each study also included health outcome measures such as blood pressure, waist circumference, and body mass. These outcomes are associated with how the body responds to stress and are predictive of disease and mortality.
Overall, the researchers found that the more socially integrated people were (i.e., the more they socialized with others and different kinds of others) and the better quality their relationships (i.e., with lots of social support and little social strain), the better their health throughout the lifespan.
“Will you be my Valentine?”
People all across the country say those words in the run-up to February 14 and the Valentine’s Day holiday. Whether you’re asking a brand new paramour or a long-term partner, the question can evoke feelings both of romantic uncertainty and possibility.
But for the well-being of ourselves and our relationships, “Will you be my Valentine?” is the wrong question. Instead, the more important question to ask yourself is “Should you be my Valentine?”
Relationships can be one of the most important sources of happiness in your life, with social connections serving as a key provider of happiness and meaningfulness. Not surprisingly, human beings have a very powerful drive to form and maintain relationships. After all, the future of humankind depends on people coupling up to conceive and raise the next generation. Because forming relationships is such a powerful motivator, being in any relationship can seem better than being alone. A variety of factors can lull us into relationship complacency – compatibility, friendship, shared interests, inertia, fear of being single or low expectations. The drive to be paired off may lead you to settle for the relationship you have, instead of the relationship you deserve.
You’re having a stressful week at work. You’ve had projects fail, presentations go awry, and to top it off, you just ended your week with a performance review that you don’t think went very well. As you arrive home, tired and just relieved to finally be there, you walk through the door and your partner immediately begins asking you about whether you picked up lettuce from the grocery store, dropped that package off at the post office, and adds, “Why didn’t you take out the recycling this morning?” You can’t believe it. Doesn’t he know the week that you’ve had? How could he be so uncaring? So, you don’t hold back: “Well, I see you didn’t do the dishes like you said you would. And is this what we’re having for dinner? Yikes.” Uh oh… this isn't how you want to act in your relationship! But we’ve all been there. What happened?!
What you’ve experienced is a phenomenon known as stress spillover—stress that we experience in one life domain (e.g., work) ‘spills’ out of that domain and into others (e.g., home life).1 And we know that spillover can have a detrimental effect on our relationships; individuals reporting higher levels of stress are less forgiving of their partners, more likely to criticize and blame their partners, less satisfied in their relationships, show poorer communication skills, and are more likely to have their relationships end.1,2 (Find more about the effects of stress spillover here.) In other words, relationships unfold in broader contexts, and many of the stressors in these contexts (e.g., problems at work, juggling kids, transportation issues) make it more difficult for partners to maintain happy and healthy relationships, regardless of the generally deep desire or motivation to do so.
Valentine’s Day is rapidly approaching. While many people are looking forward to showing their partners how much they are loved by exchanging gifts, others are filled with anxiety in trying to pick out the perfect item. You can hardly walk down the street without being bombarded by store windows featuring giant people-sized teddy bears and equally large heart shaped boxes of chocolate. For those in relationships, picking out the perfect present is of utmost importance, as the gift ideally symbolizes our love for the other person. This is because “gift-giving involves both the objective value of a gift and the symbolic meaning of the exchange.”1 Before making your final decision between jewelry or something practical like a pair of winter gloves, consider giving your partner an experience.
I’ve always been an emotional eater. When I’ve been promoted at work, I want to go out to dinner. When I’m stressed, I want a bag of gummy bears within reach. When I’m sad, my two best friends are Ben and Jerry.
So when my husband and I divorced last year – about as amicably as is possible -- I was surprised to find that I was often unable to eat. I would pack healthy lunches of favorite foods and find myself incapable of choking down more than a few bites at a time. I’d have to force myself to eat. Given that I’ve been studying eating behaviors for my entire adult life, I knew that not eating was not an option. So, instead I’d “drink my calories” (the exact opposite of what I recommend people do when they are trying to lose weight) to be sure I was getting enough of something resembling nutrients (hey, if there is a lot of milk in the latte, that still counts – right?). But, I didn’t enjoy any of it.
If you are currently in the Northeast United States, you are probably still dealing with the aftereffects of Jonas, our most recent (and for many of us) first snowstorm of the winter. While some of us braved the weather to walk our dogs, dig out our cars, or make an emergency trip to the store to pick up the milk we forgot to buy in the days leading up to the storm, the rest of us probably stayed warm indoors and watched TV. After texting my friends to discuss their snowpocalypse plans, I found out that many, like me, were watching movies. Specifically romantic movies. Was this all just a pre-Valentine’s Day coincidence? The answer to this question may be found by considering research on embodied cognition.
Sue and Dan are in a relationship. Their friend, Matt, is romantically interested in Sue. If Matt tries to “steal” Sue away from Dan, then he is doing what researchers call “mate poaching.” To try to poach Sue, Matt might do things like insult Dan, try to compete with Dan, tell Sue that she could do better, and/or try to keep Sue from hanging out with Dan. There is no shortage of examples on TV shows and movies of one person poaching their friend from an existing romantic relationship (e.g., Made of Honor). But outside of Hollywood, is mate poaching by friends common?
On the cover of his recent book, Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari is pictured standing against a white background, with hearts over his eyes, looking down solemnly at his cell phone. The image evokes some confusion (he appears to be searching for something and doesn’t appear very happy). It seems Ansari has set out to clarify things; his book aims to tackle many important questions that young adults have in the dating world of 2015. What makes a person attractive? Can people really find love through a website or a phone app? Are people only interested in sex these days? How does dating in America compare to dating in Europe, Asia, or South America? And what’s the secret to a happy relationship? Ansari is attempting to capture the essence of close relationships in our era and to address the existential crises that many millennials feel as they try to navigate their lives and make the right decisions. Ansari is a powerful voice for my generation – one that speaks with confidence, clarity, and creativity. He is a comedian, a writer, and an actor – he’s starred in some very popular TV shows and movies, and is a prolific stand-up comic. But Ansari stands out from his colleagues in that his book strives for scientific accuracy. He’s not just looking to make people laugh, he’s looking to educate them and to shine a light on some mystifying social phenomena. In writing this book, Ansari teamed up with renowned sociologist Eric Klinenberg and consulted with several high-profile psychologists including Barry Schwartz, Helen Fisher, Eli Finkel, Sheena Iyengar, and others.
Chances are you had your first kiss when taking part in a kissing game -- you know those age-old games, like Spin-the-Bottle, Seven Minutes in Heaven, and Run-Chase-Kiss? These games tend to take place during the transition from childhood to adolescence (and maybe some office parties later in life, but let’s not get into that).
But what about your first “real” kiss in a truly romantic or sexual context? Most people remember their first kiss quite clearly. For many girls, that kiss can prompt changes in a sense of self as a sexual person.1 Other first kisses also are notable. The first kiss in a new relationship is an especially giddy event, the novelty of a new partner lasts for a while, and research suggests that we use that kissing experience to sort those with whom we have good genetic compatability.2 At some point, most romantic relationships pass from the rollercoaster phase characterized by passionate kisses into the steadier and affectionate phase of companionate love.3 How does kissing change during this transition?
Parental alienation involves one parent spoiling the relationship between a child and the other parent in the absence of actual abuse or neglect. In both my personal and professional lives, I have seen many parents actively turn their children against the other parent in an effort to “keep them (the child) close,” and to undermine their child’s loving bond with the other parent. Although research has demonstrated that parental alienation has very negative effects on children (e.g., depression, substance abuse and conduct disorders), few researchers have examined empirically how exactly parents engage in this alienation behavior.1
The majority of research on this topic has surveyed young adults (e.g., children) who report having been alienated from one parent by another. Alienating strategies include bad-mouthing or denigrating the other parent in front of the child (or within earshot),2,3 limiting the child’s contact with the other parent,4 trying to erase the other parent from the child’s mind (e.g., withholding pictures of the child with the other parent),2 creating and perpetuating a belief the other parent is dangerous (when there is no evidence of actual danger),2 forcing the child to reject the other parent, and making the child feel guilty if he or she talks about enjoying time with the other parent.2 The impact of these behaviors on children is devastating, but it also often has the opposite intended effect; parents who denigrate the other parent are actually less close with their children than those who do not.3
Public opinion surveys find that 70-80% of North Americans say that infidelity is “always wrong,” and most others express some disapproval.1,2 Researchers find that most married and dating partners expect romantic and sexual exclusivity.3,4 If you’re like a good number of people, you may think that you have in place an agreement to be exclusive. But, like many people, odds are that your understanding of this agreement is based far more on assumptions than actual explicit discussion.
Ladies, be honest: Do certain aspects of sexual activity sometimes gross you out? If you answered yes, you’re not alone, and there’s a psychological and physiological explanation for why you might feel that way. Both sex and disgust are core aspects of human experience. Scientists believe that disgust evolved as a defensive mechanism to keep us from being contaminated by external sources.1 Accordingly, the mouth and the vagina, two body parts that lie at the border of the body (and are therefore at a higher risk for contamination), demonstrate greater disgust sensitivity; for example, we are likely to be especially grossed out by having a spider crawling on/around the mouth or vagina compared to, say, the left arm.2 Add to this the finding that some of the strongest triggers for disgust are body odor, saliva, semen, and sweat, all heavily involved when getting “down and dirty,” and you can see how the relation between sex and disgust seems contradictory or even obstructive. In fact, you might be left wondering how humans manage to have pleasurable sex at all!
“There’s just something hot about men or women in uniform.” You’ve probably heard people say something like this. But what is it about a uniform that makes a person look more attractive? Here are 3 possible explanations based in science for why uniforms increase attractiveness...
Unfortunately, every romantic relationship does not end happily ever after. For a myriad of reasons, after people get married the romantic love they feel towards their partners often decreases.1 As a result, those relationships could end in divorce.
To better understand how the experience of divorce affects how individuals’ think about relationships, researchers conducted a series of in-depth interviews with divorced men and women aged 21 to 63.2 The interviews focused on how divorcees interpreted their experiences and used them to redefine how they approached intimacy in their (new) post-divorce relationships. Analysis of the interviews indicated a primary theme of post-divorce relationships was the view of intimacy based on equal friendship, respect for individual differences, and each person having a sense of self-sufficiency.
Why People Flirt
Flirting comes in many forms: a casual gaze that lingers a half second longer than normal, a light touch, a “flirty face”, an overenthusiastic laugh during conversation, or even some overtly sexual or playful banter. Regardless of the technique employed, flirting aims to fulfill one purpose: stimulate sexual interest. To be clear, flirting’s pursuit of sexual interest may not have the explicit goal of having sex or even physical intimacy of any kind. Rather, a person may flirt simply to pass the time, to feel close, to see if they still “have it” or because it is fun.1 Flirting motivations differ by gender with men’s flirting more motivated by sex, while women’s flirting more motivated by having fun or to become closer to another person.
When many people think of relationship aggression they stereotypically think of men hitting women, like the much publicized videotape of ex-NFL player Ray Rice knocking out his then fiancée, Janay, in an elevator in 2014. Observable forms of aggression such as this have helped shape our society's view of relationship aggression as being limited to physical violence primarily performed by men against women.
Since the majority of research on conflict and aggression in relationships has focused on the overt and observable forms of aggression, we know very little about the less visible forms of relationship conflict.1 Although boys are typically more physically aggressive than girls, what researchers have been discovering is that girls perform more non-physical forms of relationship aggression, like spreading negative rumors about their partner or excluding them from social circles.
When people logon to a dating site, whether it is UK.Cupid.com or Match.com, what determines who ends up with who? Although there are a myriad of factors that lead individuals to form romantic attachments, a longstanding theory in relationship science makes a simple prediction. Specifically, the matching hypothesis predicts that people will pair up with a partner who has the same social mate value.1 Your social mate value includes all of the factors that go into making you more or less desirable to date such as your physical attractiveness, your personality, etc. Essentially, according to the matching hypothesis, if you’re in London dating and are a “7” out of 10 in terms of mate value you’ll end up with another “7,” or very close. “10’s” go with “10’s,” “2’s” with “2’s” and so on.
Perhaps due to the matching hypothesis’s intuitive appeal, the field of social psychology has largely accepted it as true, despite a general lack of empirical support. To address this gap between theory and data, researchers from the University of California – Berkeley tested the matching hypothesis across several studies.
When you feel as if someone poses a threat to your relationship (whether they do or not), jealousy likely creeps in. Researchers note that jealousy is characterized by fear of loss, distrust, or anger, as one is worried about losing a relationship due to a rival.1 Essentially, jealousy serves as a mechanism by which the person remains hypervigilant to protect his/her relationship from potential intruders. One common scenario which can elicit jealousy is when your partner is in the presence of available and datable others, resulting in the sense that a partner may be unfaithful.
In a previous article, I discussed theories of infidelity, focusing on the different perspectives offered by evolutionary psychologists and social-role theorists. The dispute between these two perspectives focuses on the difference in how distressed is measured. One approach is to use “forced choice” alternatives, which include answer choices in which a participant is to pick which is more upsetting from two pre-selected responses: your partner forming an emotional attachment with another individual (emotional infidelity) or your partner having sex with this other individual (sexual infidelity). Evolutionary psychologists have used this forced-choice paradigm to show that men are more upset by sexual infidelity, while women are more distressed by emotional infidelity.2